The African woman was alone in Albuquerque after her husband died, far from other family members and without an easy way to communicate with them.
When an Albuquerque teenager showed her how to use a cellphone and how to get in touch through WhatsApp, “she was just ecstatic and crying and talking about how she’d been so depressed before this,” says Trish Lopez, founder and CEO of the 7-year-old Teeniors program.
It’s one of the stories that has touched Lopez most since she first came up with the idea of hiring teenagers and young adults to help seniors learn about FaceTime or texting or even just the basics of using a computer and cellphone.
For a kid who grew up in Belen with five siblings and a widowed mother, it was a tough road from the time she first voiced her idea at a women’s startup weekend to the launching of her business in 2015.
“When you’re winning, everybody is in your corner,” Lopez says. “When you’re starting something that isn’t popular … when you don’t have the support … it is all you.
“I have this slide that I show at presentations, with first-, second-, third-place winners, (surrounded by) all these photographers and media people. And then it shows what you can’t see underground, where there’s these bricks of loneliness, hardship, long nights, blood, sweat, tears, depression, failure, etc., etc. I love that visual because that is what success looks like.”
Lopez became an entrepreneur after a career in the film industry, both in Los Angeles and, after returning home, with the New Mexico Film Office.
She won national recognition last year as one of 12 people to receive an “Influencer in Aging” award for her work in connecting younger and older generations.
Teeniors has tutored more than 4,000 older adults and provided work for dozens of teens over the years. In-person tutoring sessions are back, but the pandemic pushed everything online and expanded Teeniors’ reach to 27 states.
“What was cool about virtual was, for the first time ever, we got to help people outside of New Mexico,” Lopez says.
What was the inspiration for Teeniors?
“The idea was inspired by my mom, who is now almost 83. She has struggled with technology many times. Me and my brothers would be called upon to help, but we couldn’t always be there … and I don’t think we were (such) great teachers when we were there. I used to think if I could just send a kid to my mom’s to help her recover her password, do whatever …”
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
“No! My then-partner had gone to a startup weekend, and then I heard about this one for women. I said it was the last thing I was interested in, but a friend said they didn’t have enough women signed up. So suddenly I was jumping in, but as a volunteer … to help with marketing or whatever. I was just sitting in the audience listening to people’s ideas, when they said, ‘Does anyone in the audience have something they’re thinking that they’re not saying?’ Everyone was pitching apps, but I said, ‘I would like to see more youths helping elders, and I can think of a million ways they could do that, from mowing their lawns to taking them to the store. For the purposes of this startup weekend, I will hone it to tech-savvy teens helping seniors learn technology.’ And it was just like noisy crickets in the room. I got a lovely team of strangers to help out, and we ended up winning first place.”
What were you like as a kid?
“The way I grew up in New Mexico was not easy. We were born and raised in Belen and did not have any money. Dad died when I was 8, and all five of us kids were under the age of 13. My mom was a cashier at Walmart. I give her all the credit in the world … but she could only handle so much, so we really raised ourselves in a lot of ways. I got in fights. I was in trouble all the time.”
Who inspires you?
“Can I give you some characteristics rather than a person? People who are brave, people who are articulate. People who are humble. People who advocate for a cause but don’t shame others while they’re doing it. Angela Davis, Maya Angelou. Those are some people.”
Do you have any quirks?
“I find it extremely difficult to go to a restaurant and order just one thing. I always order two or three entrees – every time. It’s really hard for me to decide.”
When you first pitched Teeniors, did you have a clue it would be this successful?
“No, but I also didn’t think about it much, period. I remember when we won the startup weekend, even my partner was just kind of like, ‘Wow.’ I just remember a lot of people didn’t get it – ‘That’s cute, but that’s not what the startup weekend is.’ That’s the problem, too. I think that the entrepreneurial world, they try to make it all Elon Musk-like. There are tons of entrepreneurs in New Mexico … and they’re solving real problems. Teens and seniors? It was just completely out of my wheelhouse. Nobody understood what was going on. So no, I didn’t expect it to do as well as it’s been doing.”
What’s the best compliment you’ve received?
“I remember a 16-year-old teenior’s parents reached out to me and asked me over for lunch. They said, ‘We just want to tell you the difference this is making in his life. This is a kid who did not have friends before. His entire social world – he’s a gamer – was online. And now it’s like he’s starting conversations with people he’s never met. He’s applying for jobs and colleges and internships. It’s like he stands straighter now.’ You know, like seniors, these kids can be marginalized and underestimated. When you tutor someone, it’s like a video game – they see the immediate gratitude. They’re respected for their knowledge, and they become the most important person in the room. The beauty of seeing those intergenerational connections is really something.”