Teens Find a Way to Help 'Seniors Connect' to Technology

Jan 12, 2017

If you’ve ever grown frustrated trying to explain some super simple technology — like texting —  to an older person, OR if you’re a senior citizen frustrated by the condescending way your grand-kid told you that texting is “super simple,” this story by WMRA’s Emily Richardson-Lorente is for you.

Picture a “tech support” team and the duo of Duffy and Ghaemmaghami may not come to mind. First off, because they’re both women. Second, because they’re only 17 years old.

LEELA GHAEMMAGHAMI: Hello, I’m Leela Ghaemmaghami. I’m a senior at St. Anne’s Belfield School.

CLARA DUFFY: And hi, I’m Clara Duffy. I’m also a senior at St. Anne’s Belfield School.

Two years ago, these two computer-science-loving friends were taking a social entrepreneurship class and they recognized an unmet need.

GHAEMMAGHAMI: We noticed that our own grandparents had a lot of difficulty with their technology — things like printers, email, Facebook. They didn't really know how to use it and we did.

So, Clara and Leela started a business together called “Seniors Connect.” It offers tutoring and technology troubleshooting for older folks. Today, they’re at the Senior Center in Charlottesville, leading a free group class to half-a-dozen people.

GHAEMMAGHAMI (in class): We are here to help.

DUFFY: Did you have a question?

SENIOR CITIZEN: Yes, I have three questions.

GHAEMMAGHAMI: A lot of times it's the same types of questions like, "How do I attach a photo to an email?" or "How do I add things in Excel?"

Or "How do I print my Word document?” or …

SENIOR CITIZEN: Why can’t I get my Windows 7 updates?

GHAEMMAGHAMI: You want to update to Windows 10?

SENIOR CITIZEN: I want them — Noooo! I do not want — don’t — bite your tongue!

GHAEMMAGHAMI: It's really fun to go around and individually help people and get to know them just a little bit.

DUFFY (in class): Oh, did you scan your resume?

ROB MYERS: Maybe so.

That’s Rob Myers. He’s a dapper older gentleman, sporting a pair of bright plaid pants. He’s on his way to a holiday party and stopped in for a little tech help first. This is actually his second time attending one of these sessions.

MYERS: I think it’s really good. I mean, the issue is that, you know, the world is run by technology these days and it keeps changing, and we didn’t have access to schooling in it, so we just fumble around.

MYERS: (in class) Wait, wait, wait, no, I can tell if that’s it. Look at the date …

Granted, you could take just about any senior citizen in this country and compare him to just about any high school senior and chances are that the more junior senior would know more about technology. But for anyone who’s ever been annoyed by a technology lesson delivered by some know-it-all expert, Clara & Leela can empathize. Before Leela joined their high school’s computer science program, Clara was the only girl there.

DUFFY: I was very new to all computer science things and all the guys were like, oh yeah, like, I know all this and I was so intimidated so I think it's made me more aware about not acting, I guess, like I know it all because I know that I don’t.

DUFFY (in class): Okay, it looks like you might need to buy something.

MYERS: Ohhhh.

DUFFY: Which is really annoying …

And Leela says there’s an advantage to being a young woman in this business.

GHAEMMAGHAMI: The elderly people feel a lot more comfortable letting us into their homes. They bring us snacks and tea and water. I think it even surprises them sometimes that we really do know our stuff.

Leela and Clara offer free classes like this, in part to promote their private tutoring sessions, which they charge for. Usually.

GHAEMMAGHAMI: I once had, I think, a 95-year old woman call me because she had accidentally opened up 66 email tabs on her Mac. And I just went over and I just closed them all and her computer was fine.

EMILY: What do you charge for a service like that?

GHAEMMAGHAMI: That, I said, “I'm sorry ma’am, I'm not going to charge you for this. This is completely free. Let me know if you have an actual issue.”

Leela and Clara estimate that they’ve provided a few hundred private lessons over the last two years. And they actually have about 30 repeating customers. But there have been challenges.

GHAEMMAGHAMI: We've never really scheduled things before because we're in high school and our parents do things like appointments for us. So this is just a little bit of a shock of having to schedule things like this group lesson and then remember to go to them.

Despite the occasional scheduling challenge, Seniors Connect seems to be connecting with people. Last year, Clara and Leela pitched their business concept at a local entrepreneurship festival and they won. The youngest people ever to do so.

EMILY: What is it about entrepreneurship that appeals to you?

DUFFY: I really like the problem solving aspect of it. So Leela and I saw a problem: seniors don't know how to use technology and don't really have a good way to learn how. And we were able to solve that real world problem and that really excites me.

Of course, both young women may be heading out of state for college in the fall. So what’s going to happen to their business?

GHAEMMAGHAMI: We’re hoping to get, like, sophomore or junior girls at our school who are kind of interested in the same things as we are who would be willing to, you know, take our clients and treat them nicely.

One last thing: the name — Seniors Connect?

DUFFY: The one flaw with our name is that it sounds like it's a dating site, which it is not.

GHAEMMAGHAMI: Which all the boys make fun of us for.

DUFFY: All of them. They're not very nice about it.

EMILY: You guys could have thought of a better name like maybe Seniors Hook Up … to the Internet. Yeah?