Interview with Joy and Madeline, the co-founders of Mon Ami
Social isolation is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Yet for many elderly individuals suffering from dementia or other debilitating conditions, it is a constant reality. Family members too often struggle to provide — and afford — the personal care required to meet the emotional needs of their loved ones.
Enter Mon Ami, a startup founded by graduate students Joy Zhang and Madeline Dangerfield-Cha. The two-sided platform pairs college students (called ‘activity companions’) with elderly individuals to arrange house visits, where they engage in conversation, games, art, and other activities.
Joy and Madeline are unlikely tech entrepreneurs. Joy served as part of the Innovations for Aging team within the World Health Organization, and has extensive volunteer experience in dementia and hospice care settings. Madeline’s background is in education and play design, in addition to five years in digital marketing and data analytics. While these experiences combined perfectly into an innovative platform concept, the two lacked the technical expertise to bring that platform to life.
We were excited to help. This month, AirDev held our first ever AirDev Launch Challenge, providing a free custom web application to a non-technical founding team with an inspiring story. The goal was to enable an important idea in an underserved space to be tested with real users. Mon Ami stood out amidst a crowded applicant field, and we were delighted to work with Joy and Madeline to build the first version of their concept in one week.
As we officially launch the initial product today, we interviewed the ‘unlikely’ founders to learn more about their entrepreneurial journey and plan moving forward:
Tell us a bit about your backstory. What aspects of your journey have made you unlikely, or underdog, tech entrepreneurs?
We met the week before business school in Lake Tahoe, across from a campfire. We could immediately sense shared values and soon began talking about ways to work together.
Madeline was raised by a single mom on welfare; Joy’s parents immigrated to the US from China and she spent her childhood moving around the South (Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Georgia).
We draw fierce determination and adaptability from these upbringings. So even though we don’t look like typical entrepreneurs, the hustle is a natural fit.
What inspired you to pursue Mon Ami? What problem are you trying to solve with your concept, and for whom?
Social isolation is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Stanford geriatricians we’ve spoken with say it is the number one problem they wish they could solve for their patients. And in over 150+ customer interviews, we’ve heard from family members who are desperate to meet the emotional and social needs of their loved ones with dementia, or other conditions. But because of time, distance, or a lack of solutions in the market, they are simply unable to. That’s why we are building Mon Ami, to offer the relief and moments of joy that families deserve. Mon Ami is an online marketplace that makes it easy for families to find and hire ‘Activity Companions’ for their loved ones with dementia or other socially isolating conditions.
It grew out of the magic at the intersection of generations. One of our earlier business ideas was inspired by a preschool teacher who had been using her classroom materials with her father who had dementia, where he found joy and calm in holding wooden blocks, pinecones, and other playful materials. We were inspired by her story to create a brand of products that were based on play specifically for people with dementia. We conducted user testing, bringing our toy ideas to dementia care homes. Along the way, we realized that what we actually wished for was to replicate the experience of us — Joy and Madeline — visiting people in their homes to offer engagement and play through connection. The toys were merely one means to an end. This inspired the concept of Mon Ami — a way for families to find and book visits for their loved ones with young people who were compassionate, energetic, and had time to share.
How do you feel your experience has uniquely prepared you to tackle this problem?
Madeline brings a background in data science and digital marketing. She also founded Asia operations for her previous company, growing as a team of 4 to 100 in three years. She loves building teams from scratch.
Joy has been volunteering in Alzheimer’s and Dementia settings since high school. She worked on the World Health Organization’s Innovations in Aging team in Japan, then came to Stanford’s Business School to create products and services for older adults.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as non-technical founders? What options were you considering when getting started?
As non-technical, female founders of a mission-driven organization, we got a lot of feedback that our idea was nice but we needed to get a technical co-founder on board to be taken seriously.
While we’re really excited to bring a full time engineer into our team (and we’re currently hiring!), we want that person to be the right fit for our values. We’re not going to rush into that relationship just to prove we can.
In the meantime, we considered hiring remote contractors to write code for our basic MVP, but that would take 8–10 weeks at least. We want something live quickly so we can keep learning! What AirDev has been able to accomplish in just a week is totally astounding and fits our needs perfectly.
What has been the most exciting part about your journey? What has been the most frustrating?
The most exciting part of our journey has been the emotional connections with our customers. We have college students going out for visits with older adults in their communities and absolutely loving it. They hear first-hand accounts of the FDA’s approval process for penicillin; Japanese internment camps; and the draft for the Vietnam war. They sing Beatles songs with people who attended Beatles concerts in person. They live in the present moment with people for whom time is the most precious and unpredictable thing. We love seeing people light up from the inside when they experience these unexpected connections.
It’s been frustrating trying to communicate the imperative of this work to people who might not have experienced the stress or grief of caregiving firsthand. In that case, what we’re offering might seem like a ‘nice-to-have.’ But our customers tell us again and again, these moments of joy mean everything. So that’s what we’re fighting for.
How do you see Mon Ami evolving over time? What might your app and company look like 5 years from now?
We want to be a joyful, celebratory brand in the aging space, re-inventing how our society works with and for older people. That will mean that our app not only creates connections between people, but also enables them to make the most of the time they have: capturing memories, suggesting activities, and making exploration of the world possible again. Mon Ami is going to make social isolation obsolete.
For more insights from the AirDev team, check out our blog. AirDev’s mission is to make custom software accessible to everyone. We offer fixed prices & timelines, money-back guarantees, and unparalleled speed and flexibility — all with the aim of bringing great ideas to life.