'Don't be discouraged by the challenges'
Q: Describe your company.
A: Lighten is transforming the traditional, somber funeral into an uplifting celebration of life.
We've worked with hundreds of families who tell us the traditional, mournful funeral doesn't feel right for them. We help them design and personalize an experience that reflects their loved one's unique life and identity -- an experience that feels uplifting, inspiring, empowering and fulfilling.
Our unique celebrations of life are held outside of the funeral home -- in outdoor locations, theaters, museums, live music venues and more. With so many families dispersed across the country or around the world, we also offer virtual services. Our virtual gatherings allow family and friends to interact in an online environment, or a hybrid of in-person and online.
We are also modernizing the traditional funeral planning process, with a blend of personalized care and innovative technology. Our online planning portal and video conference consultations allow families to plan from anywhere at any time.
Q: Do you plan to hire any additional staff or make any significant capital investments in your company in the next year?
A: We are growing and expanding the diversity of our community of ceremony facilitators. These facilitators guide our clients in creating unique celebration of life services for their loved ones and also officiate the service. Lighten helps families plan ceremonies that are often a unique fusion of their loved one's personal identity, cultural identity and spiritual identity.
We believe that having facilitators with a diverse range of backgrounds, identities, experiences and approaches to end-of-life planning will allow us to bring to life a wide range of unique and meaningful experiences. For this same reason, we are also expanding our partnerships with venues where these unique gatherings can be held.
Q: What will your company's main challenges be in the next year?
A: Our main challenge is raising awareness that nontraditional funeral options exist. When a family hears about Lighten, there is so often an immediate connection with the uplifting and celebratory approach we take, because so many people cringe when they think about the stereotypical somber, stuffy funeral experience. We are working to redefine what it means to hold a funeral and dispel the entrenched assumption that the traditional local funeral home is the only option after their loved one passes away.
Q: What's the hottest trend in your industry?
A: Personalized services. Families want their loved one's unique life and identity represented in their end of life service, and Lighten specializes in doing just that, in both our in-person and online gatherings. For example, we recently held a service for someone who was very proud of his career as a commercial airline pilot, and his celebration of life included a video of the last flight he ever flew. Another service for a self-proclaimed nonconformist included a personal reflection from his dog and closed with the song "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" sung by Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg.
Q: If you had one tip to give to a rookie executive, what would it be?
A: I would tell them that there will be great days and there will be tough days, and so much of your ability to weather the ups and downs will be determined by the perspective you choose to take on what you are experiencing. Don't be discouraged by the challenges -- see them as an opportunity to overcome, grow, and come out stronger on the other side. Keep yourself centered in your purpose and vision, and know who your trusted advisers are for the times when seeking an outside perspective would be helpful.
Q: Do you have a business mantra?
A: "Be brave, not perfect" is a phrase that has really stuck with me as I've navigated the journey of founding and building a company. Reshma Saujani, the founder of the organization Girls Who Code, coined this phrase to encourage women to take more risks in their careers. She has a great TED talk about the idea that we socialize young girls to aspire to perfection and encourage young boys to be brave and take risks. She connects this bravery gap and risk avoidance to the underrepresentation of women in STEM, C-suites, boardrooms, and Congress. Keeping the "be brave, not perfect" mantra top of mind reminds me not to shy away from risk, to be comfortable with imperfection, to see mistakes as an opportunity for growth, and to be willing to learn by doing.
Q: From a business outlook, whom do you look up to?
A: I admire Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, for her entrepreneurial perseverance. She started by working on her idea on nights and weekends, while selling fax machines full time to support herself. She faced a ton of rejection when she was first trying to bring her product to life, but believed in the value of her product and kept pushing forward. I also deeply admire her support of other female entrepreneurs and charities that empower underserved women and girls.
Q: What is one interesting fact about you or your company that most people may not know?
A: Virtual gatherings are not just for the COVID era. We've continued to see clients choose virtual celebrations of life because their family members are spread out across the country or around the world. Others choose virtual because they find it is a more manageable planning and gathering experience when they are balancing work, mourning and caregiving responsibilities for children or elderly relatives. Still others have shared with us that extreme weather conditions -- such as flooding and mudslides in nearby areas -- have caused travel difficulties that prevented them from gathering in person.
Virtual gatherings have found a meaningful and ongoing place in providing connection and community to families in today's modern world.
Q: Was there a moment in your career that didn't go as you had planned? What lesson did you learn from it?
A: Entrepreneurship in and of itself was definitely an unplanned path for me. Before I founded Lighten, I had been building my career in large corporations -- Deloitte Consulting and Blue Cross Blue Shield. I did not have experience with what it took to start a business, but when I went to business school at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, I made it my mission to soak up everything I could learn about entrepreneurship and devoted almost all my free time to starting the company. My experience has taught me that career paths don't have to be linear, and to stay open to new opportunities.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: Two things I love to do in my free time are meditating and going running along the lakefront in Chicago. Both help me clear my head and bring some balance to my days. Starting a company can feel all-consuming, but I've learned that caring for both my mental and physical health is necessary to stay energized, motivated and productive. I love the Calm meditation app and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in exploring meditation.
Q: What book is on your nightstand?
A: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, which is a collection of essays taken from her "Dear Sugar" advice column. She describes the approach she takes to giving advice as radical empathy, which she explains "means assuming that most of us are essentially good at our core ... it means willingness to contemplate the decisions and actions of others with consideration rather than condemnation, with compassion rather than scorn."
Radical empathy is something I've worked to build into the customer-facing culture at Lighten. We work to support families from all walks of life -- people whose family dynamics are full of both love and contention, who are processing their grief with everything from grace to rage, and whose loved ones' lives carried both accomplishments and mistakes.
By approaching our work with deep empathy, we can create a safe space for the celebration of lives of all kinds, meet families where they are in their grief journey, remain open and understanding toward their circumstances, and approach their end-of-life requests with support and inclusivity.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: My mind is regularly churning on how to use technology to continue to improve and modernize our clients' planning experience. Lighten's custom-built Planning Center guides our clients through the process of planning a service -- including helping them structure their celebration of life ceremony, creating their virtual invitation and choosing personal touches, such as florals. We have had great feedback from clients on our planning portal and the structure it brings to their planning process.
We're also constantly learning from our clients' interactions with the portal and generating new ideas to continue to develop it. We are confident that digital planning is going to become table stakes in this industry, and are committed to defining the next-generation planning experience.
Q: If you were not doing this job, what do you think you would be doing?
A: I love thinking about how "the way things are" can be made better. I started Lighten because when my uncle passed away five years ago, there wasn't a service out there that offered the uplifting experience my family was looking for to celebrate my uncle's life. If I weren't building Lighten, I think I would've found another place to focus on innovation, on creating a better experience that improves lives in the area in which I was working.
Q: What was your first paying job?
A: When I was 16 I had a summer job as a server at Baker's Square restaurant. I reflected on the value of that experience years later when a friend of mine quoted a former teacher, saying "every person should be required to work a job in hospitality or retail before they can enter polite society." I definitely think there's something to be said for having a firsthand understanding of and respect for the service industries that so many of us rely on.
Q: If you could put your company name on a sports venue, which one would you choose?
A: The first team that came to my mind was the Chicago Bears. My family has been a season-ticket holder since the 1980s, and I have some great memories tailgating and cheering from the stands with my family. But since it would be sacrilege to rename Soldier Field, we might have to name the tailgating parking lots instead. Or if the Bears end up moving to Arlington Heights, maybe Lighten can be in the running to name the new stadium.
Q: Two people to follow on Twitter and why.
A: One is "Death, Sex & Money," an account for a podcast I listen to regularly. It focuses on highlighting human experiences commonly felt but seldom discussed, and I think that's so important. Areas of life that are taboo or uncomfortable to talk about are often the areas where people need the most support. And when we don't talk about those things, we create isolation around those topics instead of connection and community. That's one of the reasons that Lighten believes in encouraging more open and candid discussions around end-of-life planning.
Another is the poet and activist Amanda Gorman. I find her to be an incredibly positive and inspirational force. Her poetry is filled with so much beauty, unity and hope. And I think, after the events the world has lived through these past few years, those are things we need more than ever to light the way forward.