As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post-COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendi Burkhardt. Wendi, CEO and co-founder of Silvernest, is a thought-leader who has pioneered new ideas shaping the landscape for the country’s rapidly growing aging population. Widely regarded as an authority in modern-day homesharing, Wendi has masterminded aging-in-place solutions that are enabling Americans to surmount many of the financial and social challenges facing them as they age in the 21st Century.
She oversees both the strategic vision and day-to-day execution for Silvernest, playing a leading role in scaling the company’s technology platform, driving its nationwide expansion and forging partnerships to create housing solutions for the future.
Wendi boasts more than 25 years of experience working with venture startups, emerging technology companies, rapid-growth technology firms and Fortune 500 corporations. Her history includes developing and implementing strategic programs for Home Instead, a $1 billion in-home, senior care corporation. She also dedicates her time to serve as a mentor and coach to other social and female-led ventures.
An accomplished presenter, Wendi is widely invited to speak on the industry’s largest stages. She’s also frequently quoted in the media and has been featured on the TODAY show, CNBC, NPR, The New York Times and many other outlets.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m more than happy to share. To start, the idea for Silvernest materialized through personal experience, having aging loved ones in my family, as well as through our early co-founder’s experience in the aging industry. We recognized that the 50+ population really wants to redefine the way that they age, and that includes changing the physical space they age within.
Many people have been in a position where they’ve watched their family and other loved ones age and have to move out of their home, and I think what’s happening with boomers and empty nesters is that they’re realizing that they want an alternative. They want a place to stay where they’ve lived for a long time, to remain in their communities and they aspire to age in place. The Silvernest platform was born to help address that need.
Silvernest is my fourth startup and the second company that I’ve co-founded. I’ve been fortunate to have worked in the technology industry for most of my career focusing on disruptive technologies. And now I get the opportunity to bring a disruptive new concept to market with the biggest demographic disruptors in our history — the boomers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Well, we probably don’t have enough time to capture the many, many mistakes that I have made in both my career and journey of building Silvernest — the list is a long one! However, I am grateful for the mistakes because it’s the big and small failures that have offered me the greatest opportunity to learn and course correct.
Most of our funny moments related to trying to save money or finding places to take a last minute meeting or call. Before COVID and the influence of Zoom, I had more than my share of virtual meetings and pitches in hallways, kitchens and the back seat of the car — no place is off limits when you’re on a mission to raise money and meet an investor. And, on more than one occasion, we tried hard to “save” money renting the lowest-cost car or hotel room, and that usually ended up with an interesting story. For instance, the one time I drove a dented rental car that was missing hubcaps up to a meeting with an investor at the Four Seasons in San Francisco.
I believe that having a strong sense of humor and the ability to laugh at yourself when you are building a company is essential. My word of advice is to never take yourself or the business too seriously. Also, don’t rent the lowest-cost car — spend the extra $50!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I used to travel a lot, which is obviously something I’m not doing too much of these days, and got turned onto a couple of business podcasts that I find quite valuable — the A16z podcast hosted by Andreessen Horowitz and the Masters of Scale podcast hosted by Reid Hoffman.
Both podcasts curate incredible tips and knowledge from proven and experienced entrepreneurs that I’ve been able to apply to my business. I appreciate that they cover a broad range of considerations when building a business, such as tips to prudently scale and areas where operational efficiencies can be improved. They also aren’t centered on any one sector. For instance, a recent A16z episode recently focused on real estate during a pandemic. It provided a glimpse into the future of housing and what tech advances might come out of COVID-19, which are insights that help me prepare my company for what’s to come.
Beyond that, they’re just inspiring because they have highly successful CEOs on as guests who are willing to share their struggles, which makes you realize that most have gone through all of the same experiences as you at one point. That really hits home.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Silvernest is an online homesharing platform that pairs boomers, retirees, empty nesters and other aging adults with compatible housemates for long-term living arrangements. Through homesharing, homeowners can generate valuable extra income, remain in the homes and communities as long as possible, and benefit from the companionship that comes with living with others. Meanwhile, their housemates benefit by paying rent that’s often below market value.
Our home-sharing model stems from our belief that aging in place, in a stable and safe home of your choice, can fulfill all of the key social determinants of health. It also provides independence and financial gain to homeowners with spare rooms, opens up more affordable housing options in crunched markets and can actually be a fun option! Remember the Golden Girls?
Studies show 90% of those 65 and older want to age in the homes and communities they love, however, many are on fixed incomes and are vulnerable because they’re underprepared for retirement. Silvernest enables them to leverage their homes — which are often their largest assets — to earn extra income that can be put toward their mortgages, nest eggs and general living expenses. This type of passive income is highly sought after in a time when people are finding themselves unemployed and in financial straits. There’s also the added benefit of splitting bills and chores with a roommate.
Beyond financial gain, homesharing can help America’s aging population avoid social isolation, which is shown to be a key factor in healthy living. The number of people over the age of 75 living alone is set to nearly double — from 6.9 million in 2015 to 13.4 million in 2035. Research has found that prolonged social isolation can have the same detrimental health effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, which is an eye-opening and disconcerting statistic.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The one that guides me most is that, above all else, you have to fundamentally and absolutely believe in what you’re doing. Through the trials and tribulations of helming a growing company, you have to operate without doubt and hesitation.
I imagine other CEOs can relate to this as well, but there are many days that are excruciatingly hard, and what keeps you going is the authentic belief in the value of what you’re doing and your passion for it. If you’re doing it just to do it, there are a million reasons why it’s not going to work in the long run.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
For one, I was diagnosed with COVID-19, so it struck me very personally and impacted my health. I’m now fully recovered, thankfully, but it just made it all that much more real. Like others, I continue to take all of the necessary precautions on a personal level, such as wearing a mask as part of my day to day (and I’ve accumulated a wide variety, I might add).
Another issue for me is that I have a mother who lives across the country who I haven’t seen since the holidays and she’s at high risk due to a lung disease. Not being able to see her and support her during the pandemic — and not knowing when I’ll be able to see her safely — has left me uneasy and a bit sad. I do regular check-ins and maintain frequent communications with her to maintain peace of mind.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
There’s been a considerable financial impact on many of our homeowners who are trying to rent out space in their homes, especially at a time when that extra income would be incredibly useful. We’re offering them a helping hand by providing our service free of charge for a period of time with the hope that they can find an ideal housemate situation. Interestingly, in our one-on-one conversations with housemates, we’ve found that most are still open to and comfortable with the idea of homesharing during the pandemic. Some have even said they’ve built stronger friendships as a result of spending more time together.
Another pain-point we were hearing is related to the lack of easy-to-access info about the pandemic and what people should be doing in their homes to stay safe and sane. Many were craving advice and an equal amount wanted light-hearted entertainment. This led us to create a “Silver Linings” resource library where anyone can go and find online support, good news, free opportunities for fun and exercise, and more
Finally, like most others we know, we’ve transitioned to a remote working environment. While we miss the in-person comradery and ability to have hallway conversations, we’ve made up for that with an abundance of Zoom calls, fun team challenges and constant conversations on Slack.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Luckily, I haven’t necessarily had to play this role in my circle. I’ve found that most people surrounding me have seemed to find their own individual means to overcome these issues and direct their anxious energy, whether it’s turning to yoga, crafting, cooking new recipes or Zoom happy hours! I know for my household, eating out was our regular routine (DoorDash is on my speed dial), so cooking at home has become a new way for us to get creative and spend quality time together. That said, we also signed up for meal kits for those days when you want a break from the kitchen. Admittedly, however, I long for the days of grabbing a great meal and a glass of wine in a festive restaurant with friends.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-COVID economy?
Americans, and especially American homeowners, are struggling financially and having a harder time making timely mortgage payments. When you consider that well over 4 million mortgage loans are currently in forbearance and will need to eventually be made current, we’re going to continue to see these financial hardships last well past COVID-19.
One opportunity that we anticipate is that more homeowners will be looking for creative ways to generate extra income to pay down their mortgages, as well as help cover living expenses and their retirement savings gap. Homesharing can help them do just that and, since it’s passive income, it still allots them time to pick up a part-time job or contract work to further assist the financially.
Statistics show that 80% of boomers owns a home that they can leverage as an asset by renting out spare rooms to long-term housemates to earn an average of $10,000 a year. In fact, Trulia reports there are 3.6 million unoccupied rooms that can be rented out in top 100 U.S. housing markets.
For those who may find themselves grappling with financial insecurity and risking foreclosure or eviction post COVID, our aim is to be a trusted resource that can facilitate homesharing arrangements that enable homeowners to generate much-needed extra income and housemates to discover rental options within their budgets.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Like it or not, as a result of COVID-19, we have all had to experience some form of isolation and been cut off from the people and activities that we love most. As it relates to the housing industry, I believe we will see a wave of changes in the places and ways people live, with more moving into single-family homes, parents moving in with their adult children or vice versa. These new living arrangements will stay with us for a while after we’re on the other side of the pandemic.
I also foresee rapid advancements in technology — both tech that gives us new and different ways to connect, as well as health tech that is able to assess and assist our aging population with their wellness needs. These new tools and options will finally catch up to aging, which is one bright spot for Americans.
And, for me, there’s been a reminder to not take simple things for granted and to exude more awareness and appreciation for my immediate and present situation — and for my health!
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-COVID economy?
We haven’t survived unscathed, but in the wake of COVID-19, we immediately put our heads down and focused on advancing items that were already on product roadmap that will help support homesharing in a COVID-19 environment. We’re assuming that we’re in this for the long haul and want to provide our members with tools that will support them through the process. Those will be forthcoming in the next few months.
We’re also dedicating a good amount of effort and resources to establish new guidelines, help our home-sharers assess their COVID-19 readiness and, as mentioned above, provide them with financial relief during this time.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
To simply be compassionate. Also, try not to be reactive. We have to respond quickly and thoughtfully to what’s in front of us and overreacting is counterproductive. The amount of inaccurate info out there is overwhelming, and acting on it could lead us all to make detrimental mistakes for our business.
Instead, my advice is to do your homework and be patient to determine what is accurate for your business. We’re being delivered messages of panic and fear, and to sustain a business during the pandemic, it’s important to figure out what does really impact you and the best way to stay calm and navigate through it all without influence.
It’s also good to remind ourselves that we’ve survived much worse as a species on planet earth, and we will survive again. We just need people to stay calm, thoughtful and compassionate.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes, and one that I aim to embody is “Do good, have fun and the money will come,” which was famously said by Sir Richard Branson. I aim to be compassionate and conscious not just in my personal life, but also as a business leader. And ultimately, if you are going to pursue the world of entrepreneurship, do it from a place a of passion — focus on a cause, mission, service or a problem that you are deeply passionate about. Be kind, treat people well and build a business that speaks to your soul, and the rest will ultimately fall in to place with the right effort and a great team.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I would welcome the chance for them to follow and interact with me and Silvernest on any of my social channels. You can find us on Twitter at @WendiBurkhardt and @SilvernestLife, on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/wburkhardt and https://www.linkedin.com/company/silvernest, and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/wendi.burkhardt and https://www.facebook.com/Silvernestlife.