Everyday Greatness: Helping Young People and Seniors Connect

Big & Mini, a new social connection platform created by college students, bridges the generational divide.

Posted in , May 27, 2021

Anthony Zhou, Allen Zhou and Aditi Merchant, founders of Big & Mini; Credit: Big & Mini

WHO HE IS Allen Zhou, 20, teamed with his younger brother, Anthony, and University of Texas classmate Aditi Merchant to launch Big & Mini, an online, cross-generational social connection platform, last April during the Covid-19 pandemic. Allen and Aditi, both engineering students, met as freshmen on the first day of math class.

“It seemed like a total chance encounter,” Allen recalls. But they quickly discovered a shared passion for creating products that benefit others.

WHAT HE DOES In mid-March last year, UT students went home to continue their studies online. Allen, at his parents’ house in Dallas, missed the camaraderie of campus. Every day, he read about people dying, families separated and the toll of loneliness, particularly on seniors. Clearly there was a need for meaningful connection that traditional social media wasn’t addressing.

Allen thought of the video chats he had with his grandmother in China. “I’ve gained so much in talking with her,” he says. Was there a way to replicate that experience for people across generational, cultural, geographical divides?

He brainstormed with Anthony and Aditi. By early April, Big & Mini was born, a service that matches younger (Minis) and older (Bigs) participants who agree to weekly one-on-one video chats via the platform’s secure connection. By year’s end, more than 2,500 people from every state and 27 countries were visiting with each other online.

WHY HE DOES IT Allen credits his parents for instilling in him and his brother the importance of kindness and service to others. That inspired him to create numerous apps and products, such as a nutritional calculator, none of which caught on. It also led him to play piano and saxophone for residents at a senior care facility. Like the conversations with his grandmother, those experiences stayed with him.

“I want Big & Mini to bring people together,” Allen says. “To bridge across communities. That’s my biggest hope.” He hopes to encourage connection with people with disabilities. “The possibilities are endless.”

HOW HE DOES IT When you sign up to be a Big or Mini, you’re asked about your interests, but unlike the algorithm for a dating site, the goal isn’t to link fellow gardeners, hikers or churchgoers. Instead, participants are matched by connections in areas that are less obvious. A Big & Mini volunteer adds a human dimension to the match. The results, Allen says, have been overwhelmingly successful.

“People find that despite their differences they have more in common than they realize,” he says. Among the platform’s fans is Anita, a retiree from Pittsburgh. A onetime skeptic, she was surprised and delighted to discover the 20-yearold, premed UT student with whom she was matched is “bright, sensitive, sensible and very interesting. One of the lights of my life.”

HOW YOU CAN DO IT Becoming a Big or Mini is easy. Go to bigandmini.org, create an account and answer prompts to write about yourself and your interests and why you want to join. There are no age requirements for becoming a Big or a Mini. Participants agree to certain boundaries to ensure safety and are required to verify identities. Matches are usually made within a few days.

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