Sherpas are a people from the Himalayas who commonly assist mountain climbers in ascending the rocky Himalayan peaks. An inspired Doug Meeker saw the need for “virtual Sherpas,” except instead of mountaineers, they would guide individuals who must “ascend a mountain of challenges to be successful in life.”
Thus, Life Sherpa was launched in early 2017 to help people with developmental disabilities who face difficulty in adhering to daily and basic routines. While most people learn life and job skills as they mature and gradually gain independence, individuals with cognitive challenges “face a gap [between typical progression and their own] … that gets wider as they get older,” says Meeker, CEO and founder of the program. “Our goal is to close that gap so they have a better shot at becoming independent adults.”
The team behind Life Sherpa is, as Meeker puts it, a group of “tech entrepreneurs with [a personal] interest.” Their professional backgrounds range from software to sales, product development to finance. But all of them share a commonality; each member has a personal connection to someone with a developmental disability. This includes Meeker, whose son has autism.
Meeker describes Life Sherpa as an “enterprise-level platform.” It takes clients’ input to create unique programs that cater to the specific needs of a person’s disability. The result is a daily schedule downloaded onto their mobile device, compartmentalized into specific tasks. The team also integrates the network that forms to assist a developmentally disabled individual—the “Sherpas” who don’t frequently communicate with each other, but all work towards one person’s wellness. So therapists, counselors, parents and even job coaches are electronically synced into the detailed schedule as well.
With the help of behavioral therapists, the team incorporated into Life Sherpa three key elements of successful therapy: reminding, reinforcing and rewarding. To execute the first two components, a designated Sherpa sends reminders to complete each task on the individual’s schedule, whether it’s brushing teeth, driving to work or socializing with co-workers. If the person needs assistance, their Sherpa contacts are readily accessible through the platform. Once the individual completes a task and indicates so, they will receive a reward, which varies according to customization (e.g., gift cards). Life Sherpa converts all this activity into data that can be analyzed by their clients to adapt the program according to the individual’s progress.
The platform currently has about 100 users, and has been used by several institutions like George Mason University and the local nonprofit A Place to Be. Meeker’s next objectives include reaching 1,000 users within the next six to nine months and expanding clientele: from corporations who want to hire disabled employees, to people who may not have cognitive difficulties but simply face challenges with habits, such as children and elders.
“We believe there’s a much broader market for this…probably globally,” Meeker says. “But right now, we’re focused on where we think the need is the greatest … and that’s [in] people like my son.” // lifesherpapp.com