“They saw the decline that so many seniors had over the last two years now. And we know that the way to help seniors to rebound is for them to engage in quality fitness.“
— Emily Johnson, Founder of StrongerU Senior Fitness
In this episode
Emily Johnson of SheEO Venture StrongerU Senior Fitness joins Activator Miri Koller to talk about the Venture, how it got started, and supporting and educating activity directors to improve senior living. Emily and Miri also share more about an opportunity for Activators working in the senior living industry to collaborate and support one another.
They also discuss:
- Who her customers are and how they help support the end users
- Providing materials that allow people to all learn at their own pace
- Reaching people in different countries
- Joining SheEO as an Activator and becoming a Venture
We invite you to join us as an Activator at SheEO.World.
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The podcast is being transcribed by Otter.ai. (there may be errors, run-on sentences and misspellings).
Emily Johnson 0:00
They saw the decline that so many seniors had over the last two years now. And we know that the way to help seniors to rebound is for them to engage in quality fitness.
Vicki Saunders 0:12
Welcome to SheEO.World podcast, where you’ll meet women and non-binary folks who are transforming the world to be more equitable and sustainable.
Miri Hadas Koller 0:21
Hello, everyone. My name is Miri Hadas Koller, I live in work in my adopted hometown, Toronto, which is built on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississauga of the Credit, the Anishinabek, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat Peoples. I am the CEO of Yee Hong Seniors Living a small company of three and a half people tasked with building a portfolio of retirement homes that will provide a culturally appropriate living environment and care for Chinese-Canadian seniors. I have been active in the senior living sector for the past 16 years. And like other people in the sector, I care deeply about the people we serve the seniors, their families, and our team members. So I am very excited to get to interview Emily Johnson, founder of StrongerU, who is not only a fellow community member, and one of the Ventures our community chose to fund this year, but also a founder of business that serves the senior living sector. Hello, Emily.
Emily Johnson 1:33
Hi, Miri. So excited to chat with you today.
Miri Hadas Koller 1:36
Would you like to share what services does StrongerU provide? And what inspired you to start it?
Emily Johnson 1:42
Yeah, thanks for asking. So essentially, StrongerU Senior Fitness was founded out of passion and frustration, or just similar to you wanting to provide the best possible fitness programming for seniors, not just in the community that I worked in, but really across the globe. And what we do is we’re an education company. And we work primarily with retirement communities, long-term care homes and other senior serving organizations. And we help them to train their staff, through our online instructor course, and monthly class content to teach the highest quality possible senior fitness classes to their residents or the seniors that they serve.
Miri Hadas Koller 2:24
So your clients, I know this must confuse people, your clients are actually not the seniors themselves, but rather the retirement homes and long-term care homes and the teams that work there.
Emily Johnson 2:36
Yes, that is a really important distinction. So even though seniors are the end user, people who are trying to benefit, we want them to have the best possible fitness experiences. We do work with the recreation teams. So that way they’re able to deliver those experiences. So we’re the education provider, the support system, and ultimately, those instructors, then are the ones delivering the classes direct to the seniors. Yeah.
Miri Hadas Koller 3:00
And your background is in providing exactly these programs. So you know, what’s missing in the mix?
Emily Johnson 3:07
Yeah, exactly. Like I said, it was definitely a labour of love and passion and frustration, because I started out just teaching senior fitness classes in the community. First off to individuals with chronic conditions, and 7 to 8 out of 10 older adults have a chronic condition. So really, it’s kind of when you work with older adults, almost all of them have a chronic condition. And then I transitioned into senior living so into the space where we know each other from and in that space, I realized that we had a lot, a lot a lot of recreation professionals activity professionals who were required to teach the senior fitness classes at their community. But a lot of times they didn’t really have a background or education in teaching it, they would show up to work and a new job and their boss would say like, okay, great. You know how fun exercise is Monday morning at 930. And no one asked them like, do you have certification? Do you feel comfortable teaching fitness? Do you know how to do it. So we had a lot of people just kind of thrown in and all these people want to offer the best quality classes for the residents or for the seniors that they work with. But they didn’t have the resources, the education to be able to do it. And so first I kind of searched far and wide to see if the solution like stronger you existed, and I couldn’t find anything unfortunately. So that’s where the the frustration came in. And then after a few years of having StrongerU on my mind, I was like okay, I’m just going to create this and I’m going to fix this problem because we need to have better quality fitness classes for our our aging population.
Miri Hadas Koller 4:41
100%. As someone who was on the other side of this, I was part of the bosses telling the recreation activation team you’re supposed to run exercise. What do you mean you don’t know how to run an exercise class. So I 100% know that this is very much needed service. And for sure the recreation activation people they are expected to do everything and anything. They are supposed to know how to dance, how to cook, how to work, they need to be anything and everything for the seniors. So can anyone who’s interested in running exercise classes take StrongerU training to learn from you? Do they need to be part of an organization? Do they need any specific background?
Emily Johnson 5:26
Yeah, great question. Anyone can become a StrongerU Senior Fitness instructor. And that was one of the goals with the program is that you could be someone with zero experience, which is actually a case for a lot of the activity directors that we work with is they love what they do. They love programming in general to older adults. And then like you said, they’re required to do the fitness part. But that part makes them really uncomfortable, because they want to offer great quality classes and, and if when they can’t do it, you know, it really gets them down, and they end up going to Google and to YouTube. So the program is designed to be completely turnkey, when they take the course it’s online, it’s self-paced. That was another thing that we did really intentionally was because not all activity directors live in a major city where there’s a senior fitness course happening on the weekend near them. So I knew I wanted it to be accessible to anyone anywhere as long as they have an internet connection. And then at the end, you know, they’re not just now having to put all that theory together into creating classes, which is what happens with the normal sort of traditional senior fitness courses, you go to a two-day course, you learn how to teach fitness. But then at the end, you kind of have to put it all together now and no one is an expert after two days. So with StrongerU, we still give them all that background knowledge. But then we say, okay, you don’t have to put it together yourself. Here is the actual content, 30 minutes of it, learn it, and then teach it pretty much exactly like this, of course, there’s, you know, modification to the specific group they’re working with. But we give them everything they need to take them from a brand new person, all the way up to basically being pretty well an expert, because what they’re teaching is really tried, tested, and true class content that’s been tested on hundreds of seniors across Canada. So they know what they’re teaching is quality, and they know that it’s something that the seniors are really going to enjoy.
Miri Hadas Koller 7:14
Right? And you’re you’re saying the training is virtual? Is there any in-person or is it only virtual?
Emily Johnson 7:23
Yeah, it’s only virtual. And part of the reason for that is that people learn at different paces, they learn in different ways. It takes them a different amount of time to pick up a concept, depending on their past knowledge and experience. And we do have some instructors who have kinesiology degrees, or even Master’s in exercise science. And so for them, they kind of breeze through the course. And they’re on to the class content, which they love, because it keeps their classes fresh and keeps it with a lot of variety. And then we have people who are brand new, who need a little bit longer to go through the content. And so when you do an in-person course, there’s only one speed to go at, really, because you have to get through all the content and usually, you know, eight hours over two days. So that’s, that’s the reason why even when people ask, “Hey, can you do it in person?” I always kind of push a push back on them a bit. And I say, you know, I can do it in person, I would really rather it didn’t go that route, though. Because I know there’s going to be some people sitting in that classroom who are who are just not gonna be able to pick it up as quickly as they need to be. And at the end, that’s going to make it really tough for them to offer that quality programming.
Miri Hadas Koller 8:23
Right. And you and I are from the senior living sector, and that’s where you’re concentrating. But are your programs actually, can they be used for other groups of people? Is it good for childcare, for example.
Emily Johnson 8:37
Maybe not child care, although we do have more populations than just seniors. So we see the whole the whole spectrum of people who work with older adults from long term care, which would be our seated version, our slowest and easiest version, typically. And then we have retirement living which some is seated, some is standing. And then we even have community organizations as well where the senior drives themselves to the community centre and so they do the standing most most vigorous version. But another sector that’s come out of it is actually people who work with adults with intellectual disabilities. And so with this sector, similarly to seniors, there isn’t a whole lot of education and resources about how to put classes together for people with autism or with Down syndrome. And so I’ve actually been teaching a class for a group in a community living group for probably a year and a half now and they just love it. The, the music is geared to seniors so that’s why I say seniors is the is the target audience but this group that I’ve been teaching and other groups similar they liked the music because who doesn’t love some really good classic oldies these kids? You know, they don’t know too much music anyway. So you really could adapt it to any population. I get a good workout when I teach. So really, anyone could could have fun taking the classes.
Miri Hadas Koller 9:51
Nice. And again, since you’re doing this virtually you probably have not been seriously impacted by COVID in any way?
Emily Johnson 10:00
Yeah, you’re very interesting. We were actually quite lucky, I would say at the beginning COVID that we were already virtual. Because when everyone else was scrambling to move virtual, we were like, great, you know, nothing to do on our end, we’re already virtual. So that worked out really well. Luckily, but, you know, I think what we’ve seen in regards to COVID, is the activity directors are just stretched so thin. And so, you know, they took on window visits, they took on iPad, you know, time where they’re connected with their family. Sometimes they’re the screener or sometimes they’re, you pulled into other departments. So we saw they were really stretched. But that was another reason why it was good that the course was self-paced, because people may have intended to finish it in a week. And if it took them a whole year, that’s okay. There’s no time limit for them to complete it. I’ve had lots of people reach out and say, “Okay, Emily, I’m finally feeling like, I’m back on my feet, I’m ready to get going in the course again,” or they’ve reached out and said, “Okay, Emily, things are just crazy. Do I have a time limit?” And in both cases, we just tell them like, “Nope, you know, when you’re ready, come back to it.”
Miri Hadas Koller 11:06
Nice. And I guess many people don’t know that. But the senior living sector is made up of many small companies only, I don’t know, 30-40%, or the large chains. The, the rest are smaller, privately owned, what we call in the sector, a mom and pop shops. Do you have clients in both kinds of companies?
Emily Johnson 11:30
Yes, yes, absolutely. So with larger organizations, we’re partnering with organizations such as Amica, where they across their whole enterprise, they train all their coordinators and their assistants as StrongerU instructors, but we definitely love the mom and pops as well. And usually with a mom and pop, it’s great, because they can move a lot quicker. And so adopting the programming, you know, tomorrow is much easier for them. And so then the seniors benefit that much more quickly. But we did see with with COVID, with some larger organizations, they reached out and they wanted to learn more, and in 15 minutes of learning more, okay, great. We needed this yesterday. And they realize, okay, yep, we’re gonna skip all the usual piloting and testing. And yeah, we’re going to just take your word for it. And we’ve heard good things. And because they saw the decline that so many seniors had, over the last, you know, maybe it was a year at the time, or a year and a half, two years now. And we know that the way to help seniors to rebound is for them to engage in quality fitness.
Miri Hadas Koller 12:31
100%. Yes. And, and again, from my experience, on the other side of this, retirement homes are always it’s easier to adopt, it’s easier to get approved, when the service you’re buying is going to save you money, save you resources in some other parts of the of the organization. So I can totally envision that it shouldn’t be a very difficult sale, to buy your services.
Emily Johnson 13:00
Yeah. And to your point, not only does it help with, you know, maybe you’re not having to pay for outside instructors to come in. We had one site in particular who they had outside instructors coming in, and sometimes they would cancel, or sometimes the quality wasn’t very good. And this individual became a StrongerU instructor, and they took it on themselves and attendance at their classes has never been bigger. It’s amazing. And the seniors are gaining all those benefits, which means that they live at the buildings longer. So from an overhead perspective, you know, the bosses, the me of the world, they like that, because we need, we need to have money to have these beautiful, you know, communities for these for these older adults. But it really, it not only benefits the health of the seniors, but the health of the businesses as well. And we’re super affordable too, like, if you look at our prices, compared to what else is out there, you get way more for way less with us. And that’s because even though the buildings might look beautiful, it doesn’t mean that the recreation budget is as beautiful as withholding. And we don’t want that to be a barrier for them to offer that quality programming.
Miri Hadas Koller 14:00
100% Yes, I agree with you completely. And I think I heard you say somewhere that you now have clients outside of Canada.
Emily Johnson 14:10
Yes. Yeah. So we have instructors in Canada, the US the UK, Australia and New Zealand now. And that’s just kind of happened by itself because like I said, when I searched far and wide for a solution that was like StrongerU I couldn’t find literally any any solution across the globe. And so we’re having people in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, doing the same thing Googling, looking for what we offer and then finding StrongerU and so we get a lot of people reaching out and saying, you know, I’m in Australia, can I take this course in Australia? And it’s like, yep, you can take the course anywhere in the world.
Miri Hadas Koller 14:43
Are there any challenges in adapting a StrongerU to different markets? Or is this the same program everywhere?
Emily Johnson 14:49
Yeah, pretty much the same program anywhere. English speaking of course, right. All the kind of countries I’ve mentioned are predominantly English speaking. That being said, the instructors can learn the content and then teach it in their own language, they would just have to do the translation themselves. But the only other thing we find is the music. Sometimes, especially in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, they have some, you know, kind of hometown or home country favourites. But the the content, again is flexible enough that you could learn it to the song we suggest, and you can rework it quite easily actually, to the songs that your residents would rather hear.
Miri Hadas Koller 15:25
Right. And I know that you provided a program to Yee Hong, my charity parent company, in their long-term care homes, and they, their clients, their residents, are mainly Chinese speaking. And again, no problem.
Emily Johnson 15:43
Yeah, working with them was amazing. And at the beginning, a lot of them were quite nervous about the fact that maybe not the fact that the course was in English, but they were more nervous that they had to submit their practical video where they had to teach not only teach fitness, but talk in English at the same time, and for all of them, English wasn’t necessarily their first language. And so I kind of put their mind at ease. I said, you don’t have to be perfect. If you mumble over your words, you know, if you speak in the language that you’re most comfortable in, you know, a few times as well as English, just so we can kind of get the gist of it, you know, that’s okay. And when I got there videos, they did an incredible job like one of the best organization wide rollouts. And I’m not just saying that because of you Miri, I will talk to anyone, one of the best rollouts I’ve ever done, they did incredible. And then now they have the opportunity to you know, they won’t speak in English, necessarily, depending on their group, they’ll speak in whatever language suits their clients. But that’s a dream of mine is one day, it won’t just be English speaking one day, you can take the course in Chinese you can take it in, you know, French, you can take it in all these other languages, and the content and the music will be culturally appropriate to those organizations. And we’ll pull people from those backgrounds to ensure that it’s culturally appropriate.
Miri Hadas Koller 16:56
Nice, and I can’t even take credit because again, it’s not my company. It’s my, my parents company, and they are they have an amazing long-term care program. And yeah, like I said, can’t take credit for their great work. Amazing. And so, if we switch gears for a minute and talk about your experience as, as a new business, you know, many people have great ideas for new businesses, but not many have the courage to quit their job and actually start a new business. So how was your journey as an entrepreneur?
Emily Johnson 17:34
Yeah, so you have to probably have a bit of insanity is probably key to making that jump from quitting the job. And that was actually never my intention, I loved working my role in senior living. When I was working in senior living, I oversaw 49 communities across Canada, I got to support these incredible recreation professionals. And my goal with StrongerU was just building it on the side, that side hustle that side gig evenings and weekends, creating something that would just help more people and, and could kind of extend the reach of, of who I was helping more than just the people at my company. But then very quickly, especially with with COVID, coming into the world, it became apparent that okay, through StrongerU, there’s a huge need, and I can help a lot more activity professionals who then can help way more seniors. And I’m going to help affect the lives of so many more doing this than working for one company. So like I said, a little bit, maybe insanity to go down that road. But in terms of being an entrepreneur, Google was my best friend early on to figure out how to how to incorporate how to, you know, get the legal things all in place. You know, when you you found a company, it’s usually because you’re passionate about something for me, it’s senior fitness. But what you find out very quickly is most of your time will not be spent doing that thing. It’s spent other things that are required to run a business. But I’ve found groups like our community, formerly SheEO, where I’ve been able to connect with incredible entrepreneurs running incredible, impactful companies and learn from them. So I don’t have to go on Google so much. And I can follow from their expertise and experience.
Miri Hadas Koller 19:15
And how long did it take before you knew you actually had a viable business that this is not just a dream, and you’re gonna have to wake up and go back to your day job.
Emily Johnson 19:25
So I founded a StrongerU in September 2019, and then left the job October of 2020’s was just over a year, year and a month. And yeah, it was very scary decision. You definitely have to look at your personal finances have to look at how the organization is doing. And then you have to see if it if it makes sense. And so I don’t think there’s any particular amount of time I think you have to just look at where your business is at where things are going. where things are at personally with your finances and figure out when does it make sense to make that jump.
Miri Hadas Koller 19:59
And can you share? How big is your team? Are you one woman band? Is there more than just Emily in StrongerU?
Emily Johnson 20:07
Yes. Yep. So the band is growing. I’ve had my incredible Director of Digital Storytelling Abby, she’s been with the team, a year and a half. Now, I don’t know what I would do without her. And then just recently, we brought on a brand new team member who’s focusing on the customer engagement and the outreach piece sharing the word about stronger you. And then we have a lot of interns and students who also help. That’s something that’s really a big passion of mine. I had incredible mentorship and learning opportunities when I was in school. And so sometimes to a detriment, I like to help a lot of students gain experience, which is great, because they have incredible ideas. And I feel like it keeps everything fresh. But they’re there a lot of work to mentor as well. So that’s that’s almost like another full time job of mine is is to mentor students, but to have them contribute to StrongerU as well.
Miri Hadas Koller 20:59
That’s cool. I love that you do that. Students need to see great role models such as yourself and learn for the from the best. And yeah, we need to give opportunities to the to the younger folks that are coming into the, into the workforce. And maybe now is that is a good time to talk about our community a little bit. When I first met you, I think it was two years ago, you were an Activator. And this year you you were chosen as a Venture. Do you want to talk a little bit about your journey of joining the community and becoming a Venture? Yeah, definitely.
Emily Johnson 21:37
So I think one of the good things again, that came out of COVID, I’m always trying to find the silver lining is so many organizations went virtual. And so I believe it was back probably in April or May of 2020, where formerly SheEO was hosting a, a, I think they were calling it a summit. It was a virtual summit, I couldn’t attend all the sessions, but I attended a few sessions and out of that was invited to join a Global Activation Call. And they also had a chance for you to meet other Activators and other people who were who were looking into joining the community. And it was really those Global Activation Events that that got me hooked, it became almost therapeutic to join them about once every three weeks, once every month and kind of refill up my cup and, and meet other people who are trying to impact the world through through business. And at first I wasn’t ready to officially join the community because $92 a month seemed a little steep. Especially when there was like a free event every month. So I thought you know, we’ll just stick with the free events for now. But eventually, I was like, you know what, I just I love this community $92 is totally worth it for what I feel that I’m getting out of it. Because at the time it was, you know, what can I get out of it. And then realizing what I was able to contribute to as well as you know, I’m working on my items for the world’s to-do list. But through being part of formerly SheEO I was able to, in some way help with all of the worlds to-do lists, whether that was impacting the environment, or creating jobs or, or whatever it was, and I really liked that idea.
Emily Johnson 21:40
Mhm. Yes, I love our community, and I get filled with energy and positive vibes. Every time we get together, it’s I feel like it saved me during the COVID time, it just anytime the world looked bleak. There was our community around us full of people who are out there to change the world and fix everything that’s broken.
Emily Johnson 23:35
There really is no other community like that. I’ve gone to lots of other networking entrepreneur events, especially the virtual ones, during COVID. And there’s nothing like it out there and to be selected as a Venture by the community was just completely surreal that they said yes, you know, we want to support you next, because I looked at all the companies that came before me in the past years. Magnusmode, Gotcare, you know, Twenty One Toys, like I look at all these Ventures doing these incredible things. And I’m like, wow, like I get to be a Venture this year, I get to be part of that list. And maybe who knows, maybe someone down the line who is going to be inspired like, oh, I want to be you know, like a StrongerU like, it’s crazy to think about.
Miri Hadas Koller 24:15
100%. And so those people who are going to be looking at you and wanting to be like you can do you have any, I guess advice for people who are considering applying to become a mentor?
Emily Johnson 24:28
Yeah, great question. And actually, I applied two years in a row. So it didn’t make it through on the first round, but got through on the second round. So the first piece of advice I would have is if you don’t succeed at first try try again, and look for help. Like I said, the academic community is so supportive, even if you’re not an Activator. And so to reach out and have someone tell you, you know, where can I improve and I know 100% the first year I submitted my application, it was probably very, very it was not clear. Let’s let’s put it that way. I’m because to you as an entrepreneur, anything you say about your company makes perfect sense to you because it’s your company. But when someone else reads about it, it may not make sense to them. And the other thing is that this community is different. We’re not looking for like, the best company with the most, you know, money or the best sales are you know how great you are, you know, and that’s awesome. if you’re really great, but we’re looking for what is the impact you’re making? And you know, where do you need help? Are you going to be someone we can actually help. And so that’s more important. So in my second application, I was more raw just kind of told it how it was. And so this is, this is what we’re trying to do. This is where we could use help. And I really think that made all the difference is, you know, don’t try to be perfect. Just be you. And we’ll want to help you because you’re you.
Miri Hadas Koller 25:46
Yeah. When Vickie Saunders, our founder, tells us gives us her words of wisdom about how do we choose the Ventures that we fund it’s always not about financial matrix, it’s more would you want to recommend this business to others? Would you want to buy from this person? So vote for those businesses that you feel connected to your gut tells you, they are the right thing? So it’s definitely a different way of doing things? And I love that about our community.
Emily Johnson 26:19
Yes, definitely unheard of in other things like this where you’re applying to be chosen.
Miri Hadas Koller 26:24
Yeah. So I’m pretty sure that the first time that you and I actually spoke one on one, it was after we met on one of the SheEO calls. And we did our traditional asking, give, and everyone was asked if they want to share an ask. And your ask was I want to talk to you. So with this amazing tradition of asking and giving, can I invite you to share an ask with the listeners? How can we help you?
Emily Johnson 26:57
Yes, thank you. Like Miri said at the beginning, our the customer that we’re looking to reach is the activity directors. So if anyone knows a local retirement community long-term care home, maybe it’s somewhere where your your mom, your dad, your uncle, your grandma, your grandpa, whoever it is lives, I would just be so grateful if you told them about StrongerU Senior Fitness, you can even reach out to me through the StrongerU Senior Fitness website. If you want to connect us via email, that’s even better. Because sometimes people don’t know that there are education resources out there. And so sometimes we need people who are listening to this podcast today to let those know out there, that StrongerU exists, and that we can help them to enhance their fitness programming.
Miri Hadas Koller 27:39
Terrific, I certainly will continue to do my part in helping you find new clients. And do you think that we can take this opportunity here and tell the world that we’re putting together this group of Activators, who are in the senior living sector, to see how we can work together and help each other?
Emily Johnson 27:58
Absolutely. Tell them Miri.
Miri Hadas Koller 28:02
So that’s the plan. So if you’re an activator, and in the senior living sector, like Emily, and I reach out to us and let’s talk, I love the fact that in our community, we co create and we work on stuff together. And any opportunity to get together and work on important things is a great opportunity.
Emily Johnson 28:23
Yes, I’m so excited for us to get started because we have quite a variety of people who work in different sectors or different sectors to to serve older adults. It’s going to be very exciting. Terrific.
Miri Hadas Koller 28:34
Well, I’m all out of questions. So I’m going to say thank you so much, Emily, it was such a pleasure to talk to you. It always is and I am looking forward to seeing you succeed and become the next Gotcare, Twenty One Toys and all the amazing Ventures.
Emily Johnson 28:55
Thanks so much Miri.
Vicki Saunders 28:59
Thank you for listening to the SheEO.World podcast. Like, comment, subscribe, and share this podcast with your friends. We invite you to join a global community of radically generous women and non binary folks at SheEO.World.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai