9/11 Spawns Fervent Activist for Older Adult Innovation

The day the north tower of the World Trade Centers fell into her office at Lehman Brothers world headquarters, Katy Thomas Fike’s world changed forever.

The night before, as a corporate strategist, she’d been at the global banking giant long past midnight in the midst of another 90-hour week rolling out software as part of a new e-commerce strategy.

In the crazed aftermath of September 11th, Fike fled through the lobby as it became an emergency triage area. Outside, she passed the bodies of suicide jumpers.

During the weeks that followed, Fike spent many hours trying to make sense of the tragedy – and finding her purpose.

“My immediate desire was to talk to people who were alive during World War II, World War I,” says Fike. “I knew talking to someone older would help me digest the world.”

Then her mother sent her the book “Learning from Hannah: Lessons for a Life Worth Living” by revolutionary aging expert Dr. Bill Thomas. Fike spent hours reading and crying while underlining nearly every line, especially this one: “In a human community, the wisdom of the elders grows in direct proportion to the honor and respect accorded to them.”

Fike knew she was heading back toward the life she was meant to lead.

“I just started devouring everything I could find,” she says.

Fike’s admiration for older adults, their wisdom, and unique life experiences was nothing new. At 14, Fike befriended her neighbor Boots, who was diagnosed with end stage cancer. Secretly, Fike sent Boots inspirational quotes and short stories each day with help from the neighborhood mailman. In person, the two women shared great conversations, and Fike felt blessed to have closure around her friend’s eventual death.

After working at Lehman for three more years, in 2004 Fike returned home to Los Angeles to get her doctorate in gerontology at USC. There, she fused her diverse interests in finance, science, and aging to envision a bold future: businesses that used technology to solve the problems of aging.

A complex mix of Type A go-getter and compassionate do-gooder, Fike experienced the isolation of seniors in her own neighborhood, seeing them through their windows eating and watching TV alone. She started a walking group for them, also negotiating a post-walk discount at a local coffee shop.

It was the first time Fike solved an aging problem with an eye towards innovation – in this case, tennis shoes.

Enthralled with the possibilities of technology, Fike decided to pursue this specialty, yet faculty members frequently threw roadblocks her way: “Tell me you’re joking about this,” said one.

Desperate to provide practical solutions, Fike found her patience for academia wearing thin.

“It was very clear that the change I wanted to make in the world – and the people I wanted to meet – wasn’t going to happen there,” she recalls. “I needed to make my academic stuff real.”

So Fike began her own company – Innovate 50 – which consults with businesses targeting adults 50 and over.

At the same time, she joined forces with MBA Stephen Johnston to start Aging 2.0, an innovation network to bridge aging advocates with technology entrepreneurs and design experts, spawning interest from high-profile players like Qualcomm, the Stanford Longevity Center, and AARP.

This January in San Francisco – in a meeting bursting with both intelligence and compassion – Aging 2.0 hosted one in a series of mixers.

Attendees proposed impressively diverse solutions to the problems of aging: financial fraud protection, software for home caregivers, simplified video calling, improved product design, and smoothing the transition from hospitals to long-term care.

This year Aging 2.0 plans an investor conference and incubator to speed products to market.

One of the biggest problems Fike sees is getting past skeptical aging administrators who are both resistant to change and wary of hucksters.

“How do you beta test to your target audience?” she asks. “I think the aging space should be welcoming with open arms these young entrepreneurs who want to bring technology into this space.”

Fike recalls fondly the 300 tech geeks who chased her around a Silicon Valley conference asking “What problems should I solve?”

“We really need to be telling the entrepreneurial community what problems to work on,” says Fike. “We have no idea how technology could really affect seniors’ lives in the fullest extent until we start doing it.”

Fike says the best ideas of all may be hidden away.

“How many great ideas are there in the heads of someone in assisted living?” she wonders.

Ironically, the USC Davis School of Gerontology plans this year to unveil its new Center of Digital Aging, tapping the talents of other schools in computer science, policy, engineering, and design.

Fike will be one of its advisors.

“I was impressed by her enormous compassion, as well her ability to draw from her professional background to create a new path for herself,” says the school’s dean, Dr. Pinchas Cohen. “Katy recognizes the limitless opportunities technology affords older adults.”

Like many others in the wake of 9/11, Fike is thrilled with her new career path.

“I feel so much like it was what I was meant to do.”

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