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Special Episode: Active for Good
Hosted by Charlie Gleason, with guests Luke Mysse and Troy Hickerson.
During a time of uncertainty, it can be helpful to remember that opportunities to provide help are all around us. One such group with a unique approach to philanthropy is Active for Good. Active for Good is an app which tracks the number of calories you burn, and in exchange for that movement, donates a meal packet to malnourished children. Troy Hickerson and Luke Mysse join Charlie Gleason to talk about their work on Active for Good, sharing their personal stories of how they got involved as well as providing inspiration on what "good tech" can look like.
Charlie Gleason, a designer and developer at Heroku and Salesforce is in conversation with two members of the non-profit Active for Good: Troy Hickerson, its co-founder, and Luke Mysse, its managing director and brand strategist. Some years ago, Troy and Luke learned about Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food, which is a powdered milk formula designed to provide vitamins and nutrients to malnourished children. Since such a simple product had the potential to help so many lives, they were inspired to find a way to increase its production and distribution. This led to them starting Active for Good. They knew that people weren't likely to make behavior changes unless there was a motivation. They decided that in order to help people get more fit, the distinguishing feature of their activity-tracking app would be to convert every minute of exercise into points, and those points into RUTF packets.
Active for Good has two types of challenges: an open public challenge, where you and your friends can try to meet a goal over the course of 30 days; and company challenges, where a company can invest in their people to encourage more movement. The aim of the app is to minimize screen time, get active, and help real people in the process. Activities aren't limited to strenuous exercise, either; housework, meditation, and other positive physical movements are also considered. Everyone from individuals to high schools to corporations have found the project useful.
Both Troy and Luke understand that changing your habits can be difficult. But they also know that it's just important to pick an activity and try it. Whether that's slowly gaining miles on a bike ride, or deciding which philanthropic project to get involved in, the most important thing is to just start doing it.
Links from this episode:
- Active for Good helps people stay motivated and engaged by connecting their activity to a great cause.
- Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food helps treat malnourished children by providing them with the nutrients they need
- A True Win-Win: How Being More Active Can Help Fight Malnutrition is our blog post where you can learn more about the Active for Good challenge.
Charlie: Hello and welcome to Code[ish]. I am Charlie Gleason, a designer and developer at Heroku and Salesforce.
Charlie: I'm really excited today to be talking to two of the team at Active for Good, who are Heroku customers but who are also doing some really inspiring work around helping people stay motivated and connecting their fitness and their activities to a really great cause. So without further ado, why don't you introduce yourselves.
Troy: Thank you Charlie. My name's Troy Hickerson and I'm glad to be here and get to share a little bit about our mission and what we're up to at Active for Good.
Luke: I'm Luke Mysse and also excited to be here. Been long time friends with Troy and pumped about what we're doing in Active for Good.
Charlie: Brilliant, and Troy, you're the co-founder and Luke, you're the managing director and brand strategist at Active for Good.
Charlie: Can you tell me a little bit about what Active for Good is and what it does?
Troy: I turned 40 and realized, "What do I want to do with the rest of my breaths and heartbeats because they're limited." A lot of that led me to working with some colleagues and friends that found out about really this miracle intervention for malnourished kids called Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food. At the time previous to that, kids that are on that level of malnutrition would be stuck in a hospital bed with a feeding tube if they even had access to that and the outcomes were really poor. About 80% of these kids didn't make it.
Troy: Doctors without Borders had run some trials and figured out what if we could put this same amazing milk... It's basically a powdered milk formula that's got all the vitamins and nutrients that they need and rather than having them have a feeding tube, what if we put it in peanut butter essentially and they could put in a packet and take it home and kids don't need to be in hospital beds.
Troy: That really turned into this Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food product that is now the standard of care for all kids under six years old, that when their brain development is really critical, this is how they're really brought back to life.
Troy: And 95% of the kids that have access to this treatment... It's three packets a day and each packet is 500 calories. It's about the size of a deck of cards if you can visualize that. They're able to be home with mom and in their normal environment and really double in size over the six-week period. Every week they're brought back into the nutrition clinic for a weight check and they're off to have another shot at life, which is exciting.
Troy: So we at the time said, "Let's make that our thing and let's see what we can do," and raise some money to build a factory that's operating in Georgia, in the United States.
Troy: Yeah. And that was great. It was actually a foundation out of the UK that helped us get that going and the factory is called MANA Nutrition and it makes close to 500,000 of these Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food packets per day.
Troy: Those are largely sold through UNICEF and USAID. That's all well and good. There's enough funding globally for a third of the kids that are in this bracket of malnutrition, this most severe bracket.
Troy: We miraculously have the factory up and running and met our financial milestones with our funders largely because of the rain that year and peanut prices dropped and made us look like the rock stars that we aren't and we have a little bit of leeway, a little bit of wiggle room and we said, "Let's see if we can really solve this problem."
Troy: One of the ideas was using our background with technology, at least my background, with the team at MANA. So what if we could harness all these calories that we're trying to get rid of. We've literally spent a lot of money, effort, sweat, trying to get rid of calories and these kids need them. Maybe there's a way we could solve two problems at the same time.
Troy: That was really the beginning of Active for Good. And we began looking at the Quantified Self movement and fitness trackers and ways that we could create a platform where you can operationalize this concept of like, "Let's donate your calories. Let's do something that helps someone else."
Troy: Really in that process, we met with some wonderful people that helped us understand what we were really up to. There's a group out of University of Denver at Anschutz Medical Center and they said, "You guys are a bridge, a bridging purpose."
Troy: This idea that no one makes behavior change unless there's a sense of purpose and giving people a very tangible purpose to "Hey, take the stairs and not the elevator," or "Go for that walk tonight," or "Run that extra mile." Whatever it might be that isn't about yourself, it's about someone else, it makes a real tangible benefit.
Troy: That was something we liked, too. Rather than donating a dollar that you're not sure how much of it gets where and what does it look like when it gets there? You're unlocking a meal and a meal everyone can relate to.
Charlie: I love it. It's super interesting because I definitely relate to that idea of hitting a certain age and thinking, "What am I doing with my life? What is my positive impact on the world?" I feel like I have a lot of work to do.
Charlie: I think it's an incredible thing to take, especially at a time like this when people are feeling disconnected or not necessarily in their usual environment and giving them ways that they can exercise, be healthy, and then also have a positive knock-on effect from that beyond their own wellbeing in a time that's pretty stressful both physically and mentally.
Troy: You're absolutely right. That idea that if we could scale empathy and connection what kind of world would we live in? It would be pretty amazing to imagine that. So at time like now when we can rally together and hopefully largely do as a group, as a planet, and so let's solve a problem together. Hopefully that will teach us that we can also rally together to solve other problems, too.
Troy: This idea of creating a connection with somebody that is really life impacting... These meals really intervene to save the life of a child that you've never met, that you will never meet, but it's still a true connection. Really, it's our deeper hope that that sense of purpose fosters more purpose in people's lives and it doesn't need to be the thing we care about. Just care about something.
Charlie: Absolutely. At Heroku, we have just started using Active for Good. Correct me if I'm wrong... You have competitions that are typically sponsored by companies that work with your device and then as the people in each team, each company, each group burn calories, then those calories go towards these packets that are donated to kids in need.
Luke: So we have two types of challenges that we've been running right now. We have our open public challenges, which is you download the app, you put in the monthly event code, join a team. We extend sometimes an invitation out for people to create teams, which we'll put in the system for them. So those are our public ones. We have a private donor that sponsors all the packets that are unlocked during that.
Luke: Our core business would be these company challenges where a company wants to invest in their people, their culture; wants to invest in getting people active. So they'll set up a private challenge for their company where they can name the challenge what they like. They can give us a logo for the challenge, they can give us the team names, pick a start date, and then they invite their whole internal team and sometimes they'll invite people outside the organization.
Luke: They run a company challenge for 30 days where people get active. It's as simple as they download the app, they put in the event code, they pick the team and then they connect a device. They can use their phone as a tracker; they can manually enter through the app to put different types of workouts and things or they can connect it to Fitbit or Garmin and basically get their activity in there.
Luke: Minutes roll up to what we call good points and good points roll into packets. And so we track your activity based on how many packets you unlock. And there's a leaderboard both for individuals and then also teams, which kind of makes it fun.
Luke: Throughout the challenge, we have some triggered messages that go out that tell them the story of the impact they're having. So we you get a message around the first packet that you unlock and what that means for a kid. You get a message around the first life that was saved with enough packets to treat one child, and we tell a kid's story.
Luke: Then we have fun ones about most improved team and most improved individual from week to week and different milestones of how many packets you unlock.
Charlie: It's funny, I am an avid enthusiastic runner and I think I've been running for maybe 10 years now. When I started it out, it was because I used to put my numbers into Runkeeper and then afterwards I would look at them and be like, "Gosh, my numbers this week are better than my numbers that week." There's something almost like self-competitiveness.
Charlie: But coming back to the idea of empathy, the thing that I love so much is when I signed up, so we joined after the May challenge that is running right now. I set it all up and then I connected it to Apple Health and I didn't really think about it much. And then I kept running and then I started getting these notifications that are like, "Oh, you've done this thing." And I was like, "Look how good I am."
Luke: That's awesome.
Charlie: I just really love that idea of tying back to this idea that you know you don't even necessarily need to be thinking too much about it by doing your life, being active and then through that process you get more inspired to check this stuff out.
Charlie: Yeah, I went for a run today and I was like, "Look at me go!"
Luke: Awesome. That's good.
Troy: We'll take those calories from you.
Charlie: Yeah that's it. You can have them. Trust me, I have too many.
Troy: It's one of the few apps out there designed to minimize screen time so just go outside, go get active and we'll track it in the background.
Charlie: I think also it has definitely unlocked a bit of a competitive streak I didn't know that Heroku had, even between ourselves because you can only see how you're doing in comparison to the individuals and then also like where you are as a group. I think we're 6th at the moment. So no pressure, if any Herokai are listening. You got to get on it, get on it!
Troy: That's right. We changed up the activities, too. There's a lot of things that your phone health app or whatnot might not track. And given the times we live in right now, we've added housework so you can do housework and enter that in and get points for it. So good for you, because a lot of us are at home.
Troy: Then meditation as well. And you actually get a big bonus for the number of minutes of meditation you do. So that's helpful too, just to tie that in and do more indoor activities that are on the list of things you can enter as well.
Charlie: Mental health at the moment is an incredibly important thing to focus on. I think previously, we've done a podcast on meditation and I know personally it definitely feels like something that more and more people are coming to, especially given the state of the world.
Troy: Yeah. I completely agree. This idea that if you're like me and maybe a lot of folks that listen to this podcast are aware in a certain way and look at data and tend to be a little more analytical at times or who knows?
Troy: This idea that what does it look like to not read a book about it but to embody it. And when you think of mindfulness, actually getting some exercise is a huge benefit to your mental health. Serving someone, doing something that's not... All this kind of introspection we do, but it's like, "No. This is about helping someone else."
Troy: So trying to create an environment that just invites a sense of... Remove some anxiety with physical activity, invites you into a community of people who are making a difference with you and making it not this huge life shift, but harnessing your existing daily activity and making it heroic and inviting you to do more of it. So that's the nudge that we like to have in the background.
Charlie: So I'd love to hear if you had thoughts on maybe other ways that people who are listening feeling a little bit disconnected, trying to be active, wanting to be active; if there're things that you've found through the app and through your work that are good places to kind of get started.
Luke: I think one of the things that I've always loved about the simplicity of Active for Good is that two things come to mind. One is that the impact is very tangible. In the app, you can actually see how far along you are to unlock that next packet. And this is a real thing. It's a meal that's being sent to a kid. It's a kid that desperately needs it.
Luke: The fact that it's tied to this tangible thing where for some people it may be that they're marathon runners and they can unlock multiple packets a day. And for other people, for them just going for a walk... We hear stories.
Luke: After challenges, we get testimonials from folks that this is the thing that got them off the couch every day to just go for a walk with their spouse and be outdoors and they would unlock a packet over a couple of days; and the fact that this is a real thing and a real impact.
Luke: So I think that is really cool that it brings it down to the lowest common denominator and you have to get in the game. It's not something that you can just make a donation to get away from it. You actually have to physically take time, which is something that is a precious commodity for folks, but you have to take that time to go out and go for a walk or go for a run. And so you're really committed to it.
Luke: It in some ways, it levels the playing field where everybody can make an impact with their activity and they can make it in the simplest way; but I also think that it levels the impact in a sense of we have this thing now where we can go get active.
Luke: I know for me, I've wrestled with physical activity and weight gain and weight loss my whole life and it's easy to start reliving some of the glory days of, "Well, when I was in high school, I used to do this and I used to do that."
Luke: What I love about Active for Good is it's this idea of, "Okay great, that's fine, but let's just get started with something." Maybe for you it's going for a walk. Maybe it's doing some mindfulness. Maybe it's just investing.
Luke: So not only are you investing to help someone else, but you're also making the commitment and the time to invest in yourself. I think those small commitments over a long period of time can not only have a heroic impact for these kids, but can also have an impact on your own life; just little by little, however you can.
Luke: I think the other part that I love, especially during this time, is that it's easy to sit in the house and feel like we can't do anything right now with everything that's going on in the world. The fact that this connects us to not only other people, but it connects us outside of this world to people that still need help.
Luke: You actually feel like, "I am doing something now, I'm actually making an impact. It may or may not be as much as I could have done six months ago or by going outside because I have to stay in my house or whatever. But at least I'm doing something."
Luke: I always think about... I remember a conversation I had with a lady regarding Active for Good and she said she was having some hip problems or something. She said, "I'm not able to walk as much as I used to." And she said, "I feel like what I'm doing doesn't matter." I said, "If we were to have a conversation with a mom in South Sudan that was able to get these packets to her child for four or five days because you did what you did, I think she would have a different opinion about the impact that you had."
Luke: And I think that that's really cool, is that we're able to connect this to a real need and get past the trying to, "Well, I used to be able to do this and since I can't, I'm not going to do it." To get us to say, "You know what? I'm just going to take that step. I'm going to do something."
Luke: I mentioned the weight loss journey. I've lost over 100 pounds cycling. Cycling completely changed my life. I remember getting back on the bike and I could only ride four or five miles. And it was brutal. And I kept reliving about, "Oh gosh, I remember when I used to be in shape and now I'm not." And it was just this mental anguish internally.
Luke: But I kept going out there because little by little I started chipping away at bigger mileage and now I ride thousands of miles a year. I'm an avid cyclist and have lost a lot of weight, but I think it's that little steps of being able to have our impact matter is important.
Charlie: Yeah. I think especially in this industry as well, I think it can be very industry, very easy to lose sight of some of the things in our lives are important. I know for me personally, before joining Heroku and joining Salesforce, I was a part of a spectacularly failed startup that I co-founded with some friends in Australia back when I lived there.
Charlie: I think as we started to realize that their startup wasn't going to succeed, more and more I think our health became just put on the back burner. Right? I was like, "Well, I could go for a walk right now or I could spend another hour just trying to save this thing."
Charlie: I realized close to when it was crunch time that ultimately, there wasn't anything more important than my health. And so I tried to go for a run for two kilometers and I remember being like, "I didn't know how far two kilometers was," when you haven't ever done that before. Right? Like it's impossible.
Charlie: I think that's what I loved about the idea that in this app, you have this emotional connection but also it's like the activities don't have to... You can start anywhere, right? Like every piece of exercise you do is cumulatively beneficial.
Troy: I was going to mention as well, I know we talked about the public challenge, which you can see at ActiveForGood.com and join those monthly challenges.
Troy: But the company challenge is kind of our business model in case you're wondering, "How does this actually function?" We are a nonprofit and so the mission is really clear, but our business model is to have companies sign up as a wellness program and run a 30-day challenge.
Troy: Another thing that's really fun that started a couple of years back now is high schools that have taken this concept and run with it in their whole high school. In particular, up in British Columbia, there's a group of high schools that initially started and they did it in their student leadership program and they said, "Let's make a difference."
Troy: One of the things I love about running the high schools is there are zero technology questions. They know how to use apps. And they don't question this idea that's like, "Oh yeah, my calories, they're going up to the cloud and they're going to the kids that need them." That's just how the world works for them.
Troy: So it's really great. There's no hesitation for them to say, "Yeah, let's do this and help other kids." And so, seeing there's about five high schools that did it this last school year, we're trying to expand it to 25 this next year.
Troy: It's a completely student-led initiative. So they run their own assembly, they learn how to speak in front of their students. There'll be a team that creates a video, there'll be a team that picks the country that the packets will go to, and then they learn about that country and what's going on there and what's it like to be a kid there and share that in their assembly.
Troy: So it has been really inspiring for me to go to a few high school assemblies these last couple of years and just get to sit and go, "Wow, if these kids are in charge, I'm in." It was really, really powerful to see them grab the concept and run with it.
Charlie: That's great.
Troy: I love that this is a nonprofit project that nobody owns. In a way, our shareholders are the kids we serve, so they're in charge and how can we make a bigger impact?
Charlie: That's wonderful.
Troy: So it really creates an open invitation to anyone listening to say, "What are your dreams to make an impact? Hey, maybe Active for Good can play a part in that."
Troy: We're totally wide open to people's ideas, which is really different than a lot of for-profits with strict roadmaps of what they plan to do. We have a pretty open concept of what that could look like.
Troy: The high school programs were born out of that. There's been a number of conferences that have kicked off the conference with, "Let's not just sit, let's get active." And that starts a 30-day challenge at that conference event. But whatever it might be, we're definitely eager to invite people to be a part of it in whatever way they feel like they can move the mission forward.
Charlie: And I just wondered if you had any advice... Your jobs both focus on giving back. So if you had advice to others who are maybe thinking about going down that path or want to kind of shake things up, maybe lessons that you learned through this process or ways to get inspired.
Troy: For me personally, when I was in my year or two of, "Well, why do I want to do next? I want it to be meaningful." I feel like was at a giant buffet of amazing options and I kept surveying, "Here's all the different things that are happening," and whether it's innovation or all these types of impact or aid.
Troy: I was talking with a friend up in the mountains that I used to lifeguard with and he goes, "Well, it sounds like there's a lot of opportunities. Why don't you just pick one? And it stuck with me because he's was like, "I could spend another year just surveying all the cool organizations making impact and trying to find my personal brand connection, wherever as I was looking for."
Troy: In other words, "You know what? I'm just going to go all in." And just saying, "If it's worth a life, I'll give it mine. Let's do it. Let's see if we can make a difference." I think there's something to that.
Troy: Once you're in doing it, it'll adjust and change and maybe fail and you redirect or who knows. But I think just picking something and trying it.
Luke: Yeah, I would definitely piggyback off of what Troy said. I think there's an overwhelming amount of things that we can be involved in. I know for me personally, this has been a pretty crazy journey where it came down to, this was the thing that my friends were involved in.
Luke: Troy mentioned earlier his background of being in the tech business and that's how Troy and I met. I was actually running a branding agency at the time and Troy was a client. And I just remember him telling me about some of the things he was doing with MANA and it sounded exciting and I just love the idea of being able to do some good with my friends. There were a million different things I could have probably worked on and given back.
Luke: But I really felt, first I had a heart for kids so that matched up with my values and I had a heart for hanging out with my friends. So the idea of being able to jump in with my friends and do something.
Luke: Then at the time, I didn't know my own personal journey would become such a part of it. So me jumping in head first, I ended up actually riding a bicycle cross country to raise money for MANA, which is how I left the business community and went all in on this journey. I ended up riding from San Diego to New York to raise money for these same packets.
Luke: I remember there was a pivotal point in that where there were so many questions around like, "What am I doing with my life? This is such an insane thing that I'm to leave my business and go do this adventure," and all that. And then I thought, "You know what? Why not? I believe in this. I believe in the cause. My family believes in me."
Luke: I mean, I always joke with everyone that if my wife, she was supposed to say no when I threw the idea out; and if she had said no, it probably would have been a different outcome. But she said yes to the idea of going with me cross country.
Luke: I think that's where people get stuck sometimes is they get stuck in two areas. One, they get stuck by analyzing to death the all the different options out there and they talk themselves out of why they shouldn't be involved instead of just following that thing that's tugging at their heartstrings because they feel like, "Is this important, is this important?"
Luke: I think there's so much work that we can do that's important. And I think you pick the thing that happens to align with your values and has that pull at you.
Luke: Then I think the second thing is you pick it regardless of what you think the impact is going to be, because I think the impact on you personally is so big and I think it's easy for us to get caught up in the big goal and the big vision.
Luke: And we say, "Well, I'm not going to do it unless this happens," and our ego takes over. I feel like you miss an opportunity to grow personally when the ego starts to take over because I really think you should do it.
Luke: I remember the day that I was leaving San Diego to go do this crazy adventure, I was journaling in the morning of like, "What am I doing with my life?" And I remember writing that millions of kids are suffering from this thing and I don't know how many I can help by doing this crazy adventure with my family and riding my bike to New York. But I know I can help at least one.
Luke: And so it was this idea of like if this was my kid, if this was my own child that was suffering from this and you just told me, "Okay, if you ride your bike to New York, we can provide one treatment for your child," I would leave tomorrow, I would still leave. If you told me, "Tomorrow you leave and your kid lives," I would leave tomorrow.
Luke: I think simplifying it down to the lowest denominator of really this is about just taking that first step and seeing where it leads regardless of what you think the impact is going to be. And yeah, there are a million different charities and things you could be involved in, but just pick one.
Luke: We're running out of time. People need to step in and start using their talents and the resources they have to jump in and help however they can.
Charlie: So earlier, I spoke about how I recently joined the May challenge. I know there's one coming up in June, it'd be great to hear a little bit more about that and how people can get involved.
Troy: So every calendar month we have a public challenge that anybody can join. So we'd love for anyone to not only join maybe a public team, which you'll see when you go to ActiveForGood.com; right on the homepage, you can click to join the challenge and that gives you the instructions and the event code that you need to put in the app to join that challenge. There will be a list of teams available you can join.
Troy: If know that you want to rally your own team, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll add a team for you. Then you can recruit your own team and be uniquely on the leaderboard with your own group of people. But we'd love to invite as many people as are out there to join the public challenge we have starting June 1st.
Charlie: Awesome. Well, definitely get involved. I know I will. So I will see you there.
Troy: All right.
Charlie: So you mentioned that companies can come on board. What's the best way for them? Someone's who is listening out there who wants to engage or give it a shot to learn more about how this would work. What's the best way for them to get in touch?
Troy: Most likely, going to our website because they can probably remember ActiveForGood.com and as a side note, Charlie, like if there's any podcast notes, you can definitely put our direct contact info in there as well.
Charlie: Oh yeah, I will do that. Check the show notes for that.
Charlie: I hope that people who are listening feel a little bit of that energy and that enthusiasm. I certainly know I do. Thank you so much for sharing this story and for and for the work that you're doing.
Troy: Absolutely. It's our pleasure.
Luke: Thanks for letting us talk about it.
A podcast brought to you by the developer advocate team at Heroku, exploring code, technology, tools, tips, and the life of the developer.
User Interface / User Experience Lead, Heroku
Charlie is a designer, developer, musician, and creative coding enthusiast. He can usually be found somewhere in London, probably on a bike.
Marketing Director & Brand Strategist, Active For Good
In 2014 Luke closed his 18-yr-old creative agency to chase the dream of riding a bicycle solo across America, raising money to help malnourished kids.
Co-Founder, Active For Good
With a background in technology, time off in Africa with kids, and turning 40, Troy now works on projects to put an end child malnutrition.
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