We get great ideas all the time: products, services, new ways of doing things. The innovative spirit is a foundational element of the contemporary economy, our culture even. But every so often, an idea comes along that changes the game. A bombshell. Something that not only provides measurable economic benefits, but, in this case, also fosters happiness, dignity, and community. When I spoke over the phone with Rey Castuciano about his project Table Wisdom, I quickly discovered that we were talking about just that kind of revolutionary idea.
On the other end of the phone, Rey was in a meeting; a scheduling error placed our call at the same time. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to go forward with the interview anyway. Why is this relevant? I’ve listened to the recording several times, and this moment is fascinating. Rey realized he had another chance to present Table Wisdom to fresh ears, and the passion took over, dominating the rest of the discussion.
Rey isn’t providing one service. He’s providing two simultaneously. Table Wisdom connects non-native English speakers (whom Rey describes as ‘foreign-borns) with seniors in nursing facilities. They meet for (at first) five conversational sessions. The non-native speakers get practice with English, while the seniors are able to connect and converse in a way that they often aren’t able to. The program, he describes, is still new:
“We’re still building the actual platform. And it is difficult because each market has their own particular needs. We need, right now, to find the common ground between the two populations. Keep it simple and then we would also like to measure the feedback we get to let us address particular desires and needs.”
Where exactly did this idea come from though? In 2014, Rey and his mother spent nearly six weeks caring for his father in a nursing facility after he suffered a debilitating stroke. They would go in shifts, his mother in the morning, and Rey in the afternoon. He saw how so many residents would wake up, eat their breakfast, watch television, eat their next meal, and on and on like this for the rest of their lives. You’re incredibly lucky if someone visits once a week.
But let’s back up… Rey moved to the United States from the Philippines with his parents in the late ‘80s. His father, who practiced law in the Philippines, ended up taking fairly low wage jobs, even working night security, to pay the bills. All of this due to a lack of solid English communication skills. Despite this, Rey grew up to earn his Bachelor’s Degree in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from UCLA and his MBA, Finance & Marketing, from University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business. After spending over fifteen years in industry, from science to finance to marketing, he had his experience in 2014.
If his father would have had access to a program like Table Wisdom when they came to the United States, he would have had far greater access to the English language, and potentially could have even practiced law again. Nursing facilities too might not have as negative a reputation as they get had Table Wisdom been in place so long ago.
“We’ve got to just keep focus on making sure the foundation is strong. We just need to be focused on delighting our customers. Really listening to them,” he says.
“Sure, well it sounds like you’re in the business of happiness in a way. Right?” I ask.
“Some of our students have been going out with their mentors, you know. To restaurants, with their families. Heck man, I don’t even get invited to them.”
We both laugh hard at this. Helping young adults learn English and providing companionship for seniors is one thing, but what Rey and his team have created is really an entirely new community.
“Well that’s more than you could have imagined I would think. That’s incredible,” I say.
“It’s very cool, it’s very cool.”
And it is. These are the sort of ideas that make you slap your forehead and say “of course! Why weren’t we always doing this?” Now, with five pilot locations, Table Wisdom really is starting to take off, and has produced some real successes. It took someone whose experiences combined in such a particular way for the idea to come together, and it is clear that we are going to see the program grow into something truly remarkable.