Uber for those with dementia and autism
The year 2012 was a pivotal year in my life. I was appointed the first non-Saudi female CEO of a Saudi investment bank. It was a moment of pride and validation because despite my coming from a modest family where I was the first to go to college, among the counted people in Morocco to get the Fulbright scholarship, to get an MBA degree from the US, to pursue a second Master’s of Science in Finance and the chartered financial analyst (CFA) accreditation, I was still vying for an accomplishment in the real world, something that I would call “real achievement” or better yet “ real impact”. My career was then off to a good start in an ideal market timing in investment banking in Saudi Arabia. I built a great reputation for myself and I was pleased with the positive reception I got from the business leaders in Riyadh, for which I was grateful and worked hard to prove that their intuition was right.
In 2013, my son was confirmed having severe autism that needed intensive medical and therapy services. At that moment, life threw in my lap an ethical dilemma. Should I resign from my job and let go an opportunity to apply my skills to the fullest and reap significant financial benefits. Or, should I seize the moment and take my son back to the US for better services knowing that the chances of results are 50/50? This was a moment of truth where my true me must rise to the occasion and make a judgment based on my values and what matters the most. I could not fail my son. So, I thought it was OK to fail myself.
In 2014, I settled back in Boston, the city of my alma mater and started navigating the healthcare and special education ecosystem. In that process, I got to know four global healthcare hubs for autism, around 30 prominent doctors in autism in all specialties, behavior pediatrics, neurology, neuropsychology, behavioral, Gastro-Intestinal, genetics, speech pathology, occupational and physical therapy. This latter though me that my son had proprioception disorder, which is something I never knew it existed. I was in touch with all therapy centers around Boston and became familiar with most special education laws and regulations. Most important of all, I developed deep relationships and friendships in the process.
In 2017, when my son was admitted to becoming resident in a great school of autism in Boston, I found myself, for the first time after 3 years, having time to think again about work, self-accomplishment, and passion. My son’s care and advocacy used to take me up to 80% of my waking hours even with my mother’s help at home. Then I realized that this experience has changed my views about success, professional accomplishment, and impact. The thing that I wanted to do the most in 2017 is to initiate something that would support women and free a bit their hands and time to pursue what they want when they want. I thought about that because I felt I was veered, for many years, by this sudden torrent called special needs and cognitive impairment. I looked back to see what tasks were the most challenging and time-consuming in my son’s caregiving. I found that driving him to doctors, hospitals and therapy centers was a heavy task where I found no help. Crossing the wide streets alone with my son to get to Boston’s Children’s Hospital or Boston Medical Center on snowy days is one of my memorable challenges. I shared this finding with my friends who care for their parents affected with Alzheimer’s and they echoed my story.
Therefore, I decided that the area where I want to make an impact is safe mobility for the cognitively impaired. So, I began working on Noo, a technology startup facilitating safe and flexible mobility for individuals affected with Alzheimer’s, other dementia, autism, and other special needs. Noo is an app to get a ride and/or escort services on demand or on schedule for people with cognitive impairment. The app will be used by the guardians of these individuals to order the service. The ride and escort will be provided by a team of a driver and an escort. The service is tracked in real time. Calls, texts, and video-calls between guardians and service providers are possible, at all times during the service. The service is video-recorded for guardians to view later if they don’t have time to connect real-time or is there are any concerns.
Noo’s drivers and escorts are professionals and students in special education, special care, senior care, nursing, or OT, PT and speech therapy…etc. who will work for Noo on a full-time or part-time basis.
Coming from the investment banking world, it is my second nature to think about market size, trends, and business model’s sustainability. There are currently around 40 million people in the US alone who can be categorized as cognitively impaired. Furthermore, Alzheimer’s and autism are among the fastest growing conditions in the world, unfortunately. Thinking about the future of transportation, ride-sharing, self-driving cars, and work, I read once Bill Gates’ opinion that with AI replacing humans in many tasks, jobs with our seniors and our disabled will always exist, or at least, for a long while to come. This idea resonated with me.
Thinking about opportunities for women, as this is a topic dear to my heart, I noticed that most of the providers that cater to the autism community, I am part of, were females. I looked at the statistics of paid and non-paid care and the numbers are staggering about gender disequilibrium in this sector. For this reason, I believe Noo’s task force will be predominantly female and I see it as a good thing if Noo is able to give rewarding jobs and career opportunities to these women.
Through providing safe and flexible mobility to the cognitively impaired, Noo aims at facilitating real inclusion of these people and enabling a better quality of life for them and their families, primarily women in these families, in my biased and may be statistically correct opinion. Noo aims also at providing extra-income to the special and senior care professional community employing in majority, women. Simplistically, I see it as women specialized in care helping women in the autism and Alzheimer’s community. However, I know that there will be a lot of men in our workforce as well because we all need each other to live well and thrive.
So far, Noo’s app is completed and tested. Advisors of Noo’s board include the principal of one of the best autism schools in the US, the chair of a special education school district, a renowned special education attorney and two influencer doctors. We secured a few schools of autism and senior centers for the beta test. Noo acquired the vans to make them sensory friendly and experience-focused. At first, Noo will use its own vans to control and improve the operating model before expanding to the sharing model if we go at all that route. Noo received a decent level of interest from the senior and special care professional community to join it as drivers and escort when it starts operations.
We are aware that the issue of liability associated with our business model is real. Nevertheless, the problem of cognitive impairment that we are trying to help with, as no one has been able to solve it so far, is hard. And we think that with the right people, culture, training, systems, and technology, we can build a reliable company that will be the go-to-service for safe transportation of people affected with Alzheimer’s, autism and other special needs and dementia conditions.