Alberto Cabanes is the CEO and founder of Adopta un Abuelo [Adopt a Grandparent], a social enterprise that connects tens of thousands of young people with older people. Cabanes also has an EMBA from IESE.
Alberto Cabanes must have been very young – a child, in fact – when he realized that his grandfather, Clemente, always went everywhere with him. Clemente took him to English and handball (Cabanes ended up playing the sport competitively, and joining the federation), and he was also there to tell him stories. Sometimes, little Alberto went on ‘trips’ with him and Pilar, his grandmother, to Picón, the town in Ciudad Real where they came from.
Time passed, and eventually Pilar died. And Clemente became very dependent. And Alberto Cabanes began to come from Madrid every weekend to visit him in the home. And that was how he got to know Bernardo, his grandfather’s new friend. The three of them spent time chatting and playing dominoes or card games. One day, Bernardo, who was widowed, admitted that his greatest dream would have been to have a grandchild. And Cabanes told him that, in that case, he was adopting him as his grandfather.
In this way, the idea for the social enterprise Adopta un Abuelo was the result of a joke. But it was a very serious joke. Because, in some ways, Cabanes really did adopt Bernardo. And he immediately realized that there were millions of ‘Bernardos’ who needed someone who would remember them.
And he wanted to offer them the same opportunity as he had offered his grandfather’s friend. But all he had was an idea, and he needed a helping hand. Lots of helping hands. He could not have imagined that, within a decade, he would become one of IESE’s 40 most prominent entrepreneurs under the age of 40, or that the Adopta un Abuelo website would end up with 250,000 registered users in 18 countries.
I’m going for it: I want to be a social entrepreneur!
By the age of 27, Alberto Cabanes had come to one conclusion: he truly wanted to be a social entrepreneur. And he thought he was ready to launch a project that would create connections of mutual understanding and care between the generations.
It was 2016, and he had a daunting year and half ahead of him. He earned nothing for 11 months, spent all his savings, applied for a loan, sold his car and television, and left his house, sleeping on the floor at his friend Mario’s place, and at his then girlfriend’s. At least, he says, he didn’t have children or a mortgage. In spite of this, as Alberto Cabanes said in the conversation he had with IESE professor Mireia Las Heras, which you can watch below, “I would have been stupid not to go for it!”
The need he wanted to respond to was very real. According to some surveys, more than 10% of older people in Italy, Germany, France and the United States feel lonely. In Spain, where two million older people live alone, and around 350,000 of them are in homes, the situation is the same.
But, even though he was young, Cabanes thought he was ready, because he already knew what it was like to try and fail. He had played handball professionally and, at the age of 24, shortly after having earned his degree in Business Administration and Management, his first startup went out of business. Cabanes made almost 10,000 euros with Tachans.com, which could have been the first social network for federations, clubs and sports people.
However, nothing turned out as he had hoped. He learned how to fall. And how to get back up. And how to stand out as a senior auditor at KPMG once he got back up from his leap of faith. He juggled the difficult beginnings of Adopta un Abuelo and his work at KPMG, until he was finally able to make the leap once again; something which, according to him, was a real challenge.
And that leap would only be the first of many. As a result, in 2021, his passion for continuing to innovate, as well as the growing complexity of the business and of managing more and more operations and teams, led him to believe that he needed more training. So, he studied for his EMBA at IESE; a demanding experience that lasted 18 months, spanning 3 continents.
Cabanes noted that, for him, the program had been “a transformative experience”, in which he had the opportunity to learn from both his classmates and his professors, studying 350 real-world cases of companies that faced some of the challenges that the CEO and founder of Adopta un Abuelo would need to overcome from that moment on.
Once of those challenges, undoubtedly, was how to continue to exploit innovation in order to fight the loneliness epidemic that is plaguing older people.
Innovating with Adopta un Abuelo, so that older people aren’t alone
Adopta un Abuelo has surprised the entire sector, with organized activities (dances, after-work gatherings) and unique experiences that allow the relationship between the older person and their new companion to flow naturally.
Out of all the experiences, it is worth highlighting, for example, one in which some ‘grandmothers’ taught AXA employees some traditional, healthy recipes via video-conference, and another in which BBVA volunteers helped some older people with technology through the Abuelos Hackers initiative.
Adopta un Abuelo has reinvented the idea of donations, creating specific campaigns through which sponsors can give money to help make an older person’s dream come true. This is how, for example, one lady fulfilled her dream of flying in a plane for the first time, and it is how another older person, Juan, was able to watch a match in the new Atlético Madrid stadium.
Both the donations that people make when they become a member and the donations from the challenges use a secure online electronic gateway, and the Adopta un Abuelo mobile app. Cabanes also made the most of technology to increase transparency: sponsors can always see what their donations were used for, and the expenditure that justifies them. At the same time, volunteers can register digitally on the platform in just a few minutes.
Cabanes also designed a digital control panel, which allows him and his team to monitor all the Adopta un Abuelo operations, and to develop their own metrics. As an example, they know that almost 50,000 hours of company have been provided for older people, and they also have specific knowledge of the needs of members, sponsors and volunteers. More than 1,000 Google reviews give Adopta un Abuelo an ‘average score’ of 4.9 out of five.
Naturally, none of this would have been possible if Cabanes had not understood that even the smallest decisions can have a major impact on the organization, and that leading involves learning from the best and cultivating humility, in order to continue learning every day. In short, to be a great leader, you first have to be a great person, because true leadership is human; a real story of Real Leadership from IESE.
Adopta un Abuelo: older people have a lot to offer
For Alberto Cabanes, spending time with older people is a win-win, as the ‘older people’ clearly benefit from the volunteers giving them a helping hand, while at the same time, the volunteers also get access to an experience that will change their lives, thanks to the older people.
What exactly does that win-win consist of? It consists of the following:
1) The volunteers can benefit from practicing their empathy, or their active listening. And everyone gets the opportunity to connect with people from completely different generations, who have had completely different experiences. This is especially beneficial for children.
2) The older people can simply enjoy the company of the people who meet them and appreciate them, or they can participate in fun leisure activities with them, or live their dreams by flying on planes or going to watch soccer.
As Cabanes says, “older people tell better stories than Netflix”, and it’s a pleasure to listen to them. At the same time, volunteers can not only share this experience with the older people, but also with their parents and siblings, school friends or work colleagues.
This was the case for Pablo and Sofía, a couple who started spending time with Mariví, a lady who never left her room in the home as she was suffering from severe depression. As Cabana recounted in the podcast with Mireia Las Heras, after a few months of spending time with them, Mariví not only started leaving her room, but one day even dared to cross the street in the home to buy some cakes. She wanted to organize a little tea party for the couple who had come to see her so often.
Alberto Cabanes is conscious of the fact that this example of Mariví demonstrates the success cultivated by a tiny startup which grew very quickly, and became a well-established social enterprise within ten years. Adopta un Abuelo has already exceeded 12,000 volunteers, 6,000 ‘adopted’ grandparents, and almost 50,000 hours of company for the most vulnerable
Alberto Cabanes knows that he has come a very long way in a very short time since that day, long ago, when he decided to ‘adopt’ Bernardo, and when he subsequently sold his car and left his house to make his dream a reality. Indeed, he has come a long way, but this is just the beginning of the great adventure of his life.