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The senior living industry has a voice. You can hear it on Bridge the Gap podcast!

Ep. 119: Jeremiah Swain

Jeremiah Swain is a Masters Student at Cornell University, studying Management and Hospitality. His grandmother influenced his future career and Jeremiah wants to help change the perception and stereotypes of senior living.

Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast with Josh and Lucas. We are at the NIC Conference. It’s a great day, full of energy. The sun is shining and we have another awesome guest on the program today. We want to welcome Jeremiah Swain and you’re with Cornell University on an initiative that collaborates with NIC. Welcome to the program. 

 

Jeremiah: Thank you. Glad to be here. Glad to be here. 

 

Lucas: So we’ve been excited about this for a while. I saw when I was looking at the attendee list, I saw the Cornell students and I was like, Josh, Sarah, we’ve got to get with them because this is one of the gaps that we bridge is reaching out to you know, college-age, career-minded people to tell them that there’s an opportunity here in senior living for an amazing career that you can feel great about because you’re impacting the lives of older adults.

 

So Jeremiah we want to talk about a couple of things. We wanna talk about your background and we want to talk about how your path has been at Cornell and what’s led you to that. And then also the connection piece between Cornell and NIC. So let’s start with that right there. How did the connection between NIC and Cornell and getting the students here happen?

 

Jeremiah: Alright, so Brooke Halls is one of our professors who runs the, well, the senior living side of learning at Cornell. And when I initially applied to Cornell, the healthy future was something I was very interested in. So I applied to Cornell knowing that I wanted to learn a bit more about that industry. And after our class last fall he introduced me to the NIC Conference and I applied, got, got some scholarship help and here I am.

 

Lucas: So nice.

 

Josh: I love that. Well, I would say from our conversations in our experience, you might be one of the rare ones that goes in applying intentionally for senior housing because as we’ve had opportunities to talk with university students sometimes in their senior year of business, they’ve never even heard of senior living. So, maybe backtrack now and tell us a little bit about your story of why that was on your radar.

 

Jeremiah: Yeah, absolutely. So two things: one grandmother we grew up going to Florida. She was in a senior living community kind of halfway between Orlando and Tampa. And we used to go down every year and decide whether we’re going to Orlando or Tampa to have some fun, but we would go there and stay there in the meantime at her place. And so I was initially shown that side of senior living at a younger age and didn’t really think about it much. And then as I got a bit older my grandmother got dementia. And so I started looking at it from the other side, from the continued care side. Just again intrigued and, and trying to understand what exactly is going on from a familiar dynamic standpoint but not really still looking at it as a career option.

But then after undergrad, which I went to Morehouse college got my degree in finance, I switched gears and went to culinary school and then- 

 

Lucas: -that’s a big switch. 

 

Jeremiah: It’s a big switch. Right, right. Going from doing retail to being in the kitchen,  3:00 AM breakfast classes were something that I was not used to. My only breakfast at three in the morning was Waffle House. 

 

Josh: Don’t knock Waffle House. 

 

Jeremiah: Oh no, I look, I am in Southern all the way- Waffle House is definitely where to go. But afterwards I saw the opportunity from F&B side, just seeing and working at different restaurants that service where that community was a huge part of their business model. And so understanding like the dietary restrictions and things that went around that was a second step into understanding the needs of older adults. And then from there as it continued I just thought like, wait a minute, my grandparents have property in Atlanta, I kind of want to really see and build the place that I would want to put my parents and the innovation and creativity started. And that’s where I found myself headed to Cornell to really dive a bit deeper.

 

Josh: I love that. I love that. And so we were talking a little bit before the show. I think some of your experiences that led to this being on your radar weren’t, it wasn’t necessarily because senior living was the big sexy. It was because you saw a lot of opportunity of, like, wow, maybe this is a real opportunity to do some things better.

 

Jeremiah: Right, right, right. Yeah. Creative marketing, branding is at the core. I call myself an artist for business. So give me all your constraints and they’re kind of like my color pencils and I just, you know, draw from those constraints and opportunities come from that. So I like the thought process of kind of disrupting the space and really creating some things and partnerships and ways about doing things that just aren’t decisions that just haven’t quite done yet. And being in hospitality and being an F&B and understanding the hotel ops I’m learning from being at Cornell has really shown me the vast amount of opportunity within the space. And it’s just really good and refreshing and I can’t say I continue to talk about timing, you know, no matter who I have a conversation with because it’s just a perfect timing to really, to really move into a space that is going to allow yourself to be creative without that creative innovation being tech per se. It’s an actual physical product and manifestation of how you’re improving and impacting people’s lives. And I’m excited about it. 

 

Lucas: So talk to us about Cornell. Talk to us about the program that you’re in and the things that you’re learning. 

 

Jeremiah: So I’m in the masters of management and hospitality program at Cornell. I am able to really pick and choose classes that are to my own liking. So it’s not really a constraint in that regard, which is a huge, huge thought process in going there. Cause every, you know, you’re only there for three semesters with a master’s program and everyday you’re learning something different and you’re just like, Oh, I need to take a class on that. Oh, well I need to take a class on that too. And so what I’m learning right now is really just the depth of the industry the depth of overlap, the opportunities that lie within, and then we’re having the opportunity to understand what’s currently going on with the older adults industry, whether it’s the creativity of doing smaller homes where you may have only six or seven people to doing larger operations where you’re, where you’re talking about in a hundreds.

 

And then the intricacies that go into that, the overlay of F&B, how to manage the F&B side. More than anything else, understanding the overlap in the communication standpoint with how do you make everything fall in line and be succinct and more and more integrative integrated within all sides of the hospitality rum. 

 

So we’re really diving into that right now. One of my favorite classes right now is property development planning. So you’re understanding about development, understanding about planning, understanding about what goes into the thought process before you get an asset, whether you’re repurchasing the asset, whether you’re remodeling an asset. And then just the fun sides. 

 

Lucas: I want to go back to school now. 

 

Josh: Yeah, I know. My school experience was nothing like that. So yeah, it sounds great. I love that. So this is your first conference, industry conference, is that right?

 

Jeremiah: Yes. First, first, first conference period in any industry. I didn’t last at the other industry long enough to go to conferences. I didn’t make it to sous chefs and to be in culinary conferences. And when I was in retail, it was a good year and a half and I was out of it. So.

 

Josh: So what just, I know we’re still scratching at the surface of this conference. There’s still a lot of conference left, but I mean, what has your schedule been like? What have you been participating in? What resources have been thrown at you?

 

Jeremiah: Good and bad. I’m not a huge planner, so I kind of freewill a little bit. I’m very good with freestyling. So every day, the past day really I got here yesterday around noon has just been going on the app, seeing what’s available and then just making myself just being, being present. And that’s the hugest thing about anything in life, personally. It’s just be present, be in the space, understand where you need to be and the lessons and opportunities come to you. 

 

So it wasn’t a prescriptive, like way about going about anything from a conference standpoint because it can be overwhelming if you’re looking at like all the wonderful topics and I can’t be in two different places at once. But one of the things, this morning talking about like the disruption in the industry was really cool because I got a chance to really understand and kind of to kind of prove some hypotheses and theories I have in my head about where the industry is and getting like confirmation about where things are going where I’ve been wrong. The brain dates situations where I’ve been really good. Yes, I got to learn a lot about the tech side and how the tech and regulations are helping and really providing obstacles that when overcome,  really provide data that you can really act on in a way that you can provide tangible results faster and faster.

 

Josh: Yeah. So I one of the reasons I was super excited to have you on the show is because a lot of our guests, I would say a lot of our guests have been in the industry quite a while, are around the industry and a lot, a lot of while very well respected thought leaders. And I love to hear a fresh perspective of what are you seeing? Because I would imagine you were interesting because you had some, a little bit of experience at a personal family level, but, what are maybe some of those stereotypes that either maybe you have or you think the younger generation has or maybe doesn’t have about our industry that maybe isn’t really true?

 

Jeremiah: One of the stereotypes is that it’s not, it’s not fun, you know. One of the stereotypes is that there’s not much creativity and not much license to really affect change in a larger way. And another perspective that I think permeates a lot of industries is that you as a younger millennial getting into environments where, where you’re working with older adults as your bosses and really be able to get that ear and get respect for their fresh perspective, you do have getting people to understand that sometimes not having experience is the positive. It is the advantage that you can have because you’re bringing a thought process and perspective that otherwise isn’t really tainted with past experiences. Especially as more and more you hear this industry needs young first talent, young, fresh talent, young, fresh talent. And then being able to be that young, fresh talent in a way where you don’t have to necessarily take the back seat when you’re ready to drive.

 

Josh: Yeah. I love that. And I, we do need a lot of young, fresh talent and we need a lot of it. And love that you can be an ambassador for that. So are there any I’m kind of putting you on a spot cause we hadn’t really preplanned any of these questions, but are there opportunities where you’re starting to, as you’re getting in and you’re attending these conferences that you’re, you’re thinking, man, that’s maybe an opportunity where I could see some, some ideas that I have flourishing? Is there anything you’re seeing? 

 

Jeremiah: Okay, absolutely. A couple of things. When I, I was smelling noncompetitive strategic collaborations and understanding how there are a lot of industries and a lot of people who have a similar demographic in mind when it comes to reach. And it isn’t so much, so about a lot of times a year out. How do we reach the next generation the next to next to the next, but then there are products that are available that need to reach current generations and then really understanding that there, the overlap is a huge opportunity. How can we market together? How can we co-brand in ways and places that aren’t really that, that aren’t really doing it? And it took time away from it. From an F&B standpoint, how do you go to decentralizing F&B when it was central, but still making the experience about it complete?

 

The huge part that underlies everything for me is experience. The same way you look at an experience in a hotel or experience in a restaurant though it’s not a one week stay or one day stay. How do you build, how do you create that every day for the rest of older adults? Life is an experience for an option to be one. Another opportunity that I see is really bringing in multiple income levels into properties. For example instead of it just being, you know, one particular building on two particular buildings with small differentials in what you pay being able to do like the best, like having cottages one, one bedroom cottages versus apartments and then condos. And really, really being able to bring everyone in, whether you are a retired teacher or retired neurosurgeon you are still being able to have a product that serves you well.

 

Being able to bring in younger, older adults. How do you create opportunities within those experiences that give them the chance to have the lifestyle post-retirement they want without having to wait an extra 10 plus years to go into a community? How do you build and think about communities that really reach and touch these types of adults? My parents not to put them on the spot, hi, mom, hi, dad, they’re in their late fifties and retirement is, you know, kind of whenever at this point. But what would the questions I ask them- What would it take them to get out of their house and to go into a community to move those assets from their home around and then be able to enjoy their retirement life the way they want to enjoy it by still being able to put an olive cart amenities as they need an age that they’re not financially burdened with it? But at the same time, they’re free to do a lot of things they want to do without everything, not roofs or cutting grass or et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So those are some just, I can keep going with those opportunities that I just see as really being like some things to really explore some questions to ask, you know.

 

Josh: I love that. So flip that around a little bit because those are great ideas for product type and innovation. And I love those, even the questions you’re asking. But one of the things that our industry really needs is more people like you and to be able to attract people is like, Hey, look at us. Look at our industry. It’s growing, but there’s, you know, we would have to have our head in the sand if, if we didn’t think that there was among different generations and different people, the younger generation to know that maybe they’re looking for different things in a employee- employer partnership than what maybe a 20 years older generation was looking for. So maybe give- speak to that employer leader out there that’s like, how can I make my work for some, my work environment? More appealing to guys like you, the younger generation of leaders. So what are some things you’re looking for?

Jeremiah: I’m looking to be able to just be authentically myself first off and second, really being able to be honest with what I want and it not being so much an interview about conforming to a particular mold as we’ve already said, particularly that mold is not comfortable for me. Or for the, you know, for generation, for example. And really being open to that change coming into an organization and fighting for a particular change isn’t what anyone really kind of wants to sign up for. Because you’re here to fight for change. You’re here to, to be able to affect change for older adults. I don’t want to have to fight for change for within an organization I work in. So being able to structure that from a cultural standpoint is a huge thing. And so what I really ask the question is, what are you doing to shift the culture of your organization to fit, not to market a good job to me, but to be able to show me through actions and implementations from an internal standpoint, a higher treating, what I call it, your internal customers.

 

I’ll help you take care of the external customers. That’s what you want to bring me on for a but, but let’s make sure the internal customers are taken care of as well. Because otherwise, you know, you can go into tech, you can go into places where innovation is, they’re looking for innovators, you know and acknowledge the place, you’re at acknowledged the fact that the industry hadn’t been particularly marketed towards younger generations and ensure that you’re putting concrete steps in place so that way people are not only attracted, but they’re attracted to stay not just to, you know, pay off student loans and keep moving.

 

Josh: That’s a great, that’s a great answer. I love that. Lucas, you know, we’ve talked a lot about our, our industry has great opportunities ahead, but we’re really at a an interesting point I think in our industry because some of them, the wise trail blazing leaders that started our industry many years ago and have really fought for this industry and gotten the industry to the point it is today through a lot of changes, right? They had changes that they’ve gone through that they probably thought were just as big as the opportunities that we have, but they’re getting to a point to where they’re looking like, okay, I’m going to pass the mantle and prepare the next generation of leaders. So I think to your point, there’s a real opportunity that probably is out of the comfort zone of a lot of our leaders because they’ve kind of created this model that has worked and this baby that they’ve held closely now they’re like, I’ve got to release it. And maybe it’s not real comfortable because it’s, it may have to be different. We have to be adaptable and are we gonna change is one of the most difficult things for all of us. But to your point, I really appreciate your transparency and honesty and kind of speaking to that because I think we’ve all gotta be ready for that. And it’s a, it’s a different way of looking. As you touched on the interview process and the job offer, what culture are you offering me? To thrive and to be a problem solver and to be a little entrepreneurial. 

 

Lucas: I love that. So you have a lot of options before you what, what, what does the next couple of years look like? Are you about to finish up the program?

 

Jeremiah: Yes, I’ll be done in December. I’m still looking for internships for the summer, but-

 

Lucas: -okay, alright. 

 

Jeremiah: Shameless plug. But what I would like to do is speaking of entrepreneurial for me it’s a skill set. It’s a feeling. I don’t have to own my own business to be entrepreneurial if the culture is entrepreneurial. But if the culture is not entrepreneur, I’m going to go be an entrepreneur. That’s only I can get that itch scratched, if you will. And so for me, the next few years it looks like finding a place, settling in and really being able to affect change more than likely on the marketing and branding side. But marketing and branding in my mind before I even got to Cornell, I pushed it off cause I thought it was just like, you know, I didn’t think it was what it was. I didn’t think that the depth and being able to be an entrepreneur with a marketing focus was anything you needed, financial need it, that’s why I did finance undergrad. I thought that was what you needed. But the reality is right now when people are looking for experiences, they’re based in experiential marketing. You need to be able to build a, you need to be able to architect, need to be able to design it, to be able to engineer places, facilities with the experiences that people are going to their wife or buyer is going to be experiencing. And you have to think about it in that regard. And I want to be able to be in place to really work with from the ground up, you know, from the creative process in creating those institutions in places and processes and experiences. That’s where I want to be. That’s where I’m going to thrive.

 

Josh: I love that. And you know I know as our listeners are listening to this podcast, their ears are perking up. And I know there’s a lot of innovative companies, some of which are our partners that you’re going to get their attention and I’m excited for what the future holds for you. I’m excited for what you’re going to be able to assist our industry with. And I know, I wish you the best of luck. And it’s, it’s gonna be fun to hear more about your time here at Nick and what an awesome program you’ve been blessed to be part of.

 

Jeremiah: Yeah. Can I ask you what got you all into the industry?

 

Hey, he has turned the question. I love this. So go ahead Lucas. You want to answer it? 

 

Lucas: Yeah. So I call myself the senior living fan. That’s kinda my moniker. And there’s a reason for that is because I was working in construction in different verticals. I’ve done multifamily, I’ve done hospitality, and then I got a taste and experience into senior living and I realized how much I disliked working in the other verticals. And I thought, wow, this is really something that is different and new and I feel like that my work can really matter to help positively impact the environments that older adults live in. Wow. How rewarding is that? And so I just wanted more and more and more so much that I doubled down on it, tripled down on it and sold all my assets and started a construction company that is 100% focused on renovating these spaces and a team that can go in that understands that this is home.

 

We walk through the doors with empathy and understanding of working around older adults. And so that’s how I got into this business. 

 

Josh: And he has done a fabulous job and a great addition to, to the industry. 

 

Lucas: Well, and then I got to meet guys like Josh. Josh is an operator in the space and he can tell his, his part of the story. But you know, it’s, it’s meeting people. Josh is he’s amazing.

 

Josh: Oh stop it. But keep going. 

 

Lucas: But the thing is that there’s actually a lot of amazing people and that’s been the most eye opening aspect of it to me is like almost everybody I meet that is doing this work, I’m so impressed with, with  just their heart and their minds behind doing this work. And so I just wanted to make my career around doing that. 

 

Josh: Very opposite of you, Jeremiah, you kind of man, you impressed me with really digging in and knowing where you’re going and being very intentional. I was very unintentional. I kind of made a career out of college. So it took me seven, seven and a half years to get through school. Not because I was really slacking off, but because I was working, paying my way through college. I was selling real estate. I knew that, you know, real estate, nothing knocking real estate, but I was actually looking for something where I felt a little bit more fulfilled. 

 

Jeremiah: Got it. 

 

Josh: But I didn’t know what that was. Senior living was not on my radar. And you know, kind of long story short had the opportunity through some mutual connections of my family to be introduced to an entrepreneur out of Houston that was starting up a new senior living prototype, invited me to kind of join the ride and just see if it worked out and didn’t know what I was getting into to be honest with you.

 

But what really kind of sold me is, you know, when we actually started I had the opportunity to move from like a real estate development and marketing role to when our first community opened and they asked me to be the administrator. I was in way over my head did not know what I was doing. The team that formed around me, I fell in love with being able to service the team. And I felt good about that. And then when I saw what the team was doing in the lives of not only the residents, but the actual quality of life and relationship that we were able to help create for the family interaction and that atmosphere we created or the family to the resident. It was something that even though it was extremely labor of love work, I mean, it was, it was, it was very not easy work and kudos to all the people out there and the caregivers that do this work there, there has to be a passion for it. But when you see the positive impact you’re making, all of those endless, seems like, hours and the time you spent it makes it all worth it. And so for me it was, it was really accidental in some ways that I had the opportunity to just kind of dip my toe in the water. And so after a lot of years now that are starting to go by had the opportunity to kind of grow with the industry and meet great. And you know, I mean, who would’ve thought that, it’s not too often that what most people would view as a contractor relationship as I’ve vendor relationship would turn into like a partnership because of shared passion all surrounding the great people we serve. So yeah, I’d say in many ways mine and Lucas passion is around the same thing and while we fell in love with the business, but from very different angles obviously then than you arrived in the business.

 

Lucas: So there’s that common thread and we see that in so many of the guests that we have on the show. It’s really amazing the diversity of titles in roles and positions and companies, there’s that common thread that goes back to, I really feel like my life matters because I’m impacting positively the lives of older adults. 

 

Jeremiah: Tell ‘em. 

 

Josh: Thanks for turning the mic around. 

 

Lucas: I know now I got, I got nervous. Now I know what our guests. 

 

Josh: Yeah, we weren’t anticipating that, but that’s good. Kudos to you. 

 

Jeremiah: I appreciate it. You have to ask questions. 

 

Lucas: You should start your own podcast. 

 

Jeremiah: Yeah, I can do that. Yeah. I’ll hit you up for some mentorship on that. 

 

Lucas: You got it. You got it. Well, we’re definitely going to stay connected with you and I know for a fact our listeners are going to want to connect with you on social media. You’re on LinkedIn. Any other main social networks that you?

 

Jeremiah: Instagram is J.C.Swain, LinkedIn Jeremiah C Swain. Or you can always go to JCSwain.com and reach out there. 

 

Lucas: Oh, he’s got his own website. 

 

Josh: Hashtag Swainswagger.

 

Jeremiah: Keep it swaingy. 

 

Lucas: No, that’s fun. We’ll make sure we connect in the show notes and anybody out there needs an amazing intern. You definitely need to hit up Jeremiah for this. So we hope that we’re a part of being a catalyst for that. Thanks everybody for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

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Ep. 119: Jeremiah Swain