Sona Mehring has long recognized the power of connecting through technology. Before Google, before Facebook, she developed social network CaringBridge based on that ability — to “connect the hearts behind the keyboards,” as she says. Today, a CaringBridge page is created every seven minutes.
CaringBridge is a non-profit that allows people going through health crises to create a free web page, and keep family and friends updated throughout the process. Users can create create patient care journals, guestbooks, and photo galleries.
The success of CaringBridge begins in practical choice Mehring made while at school at the University of Wisconsin -Eau Claire. She left her original plans to be a nurse, searching for the major with highest job placement and highest pay. She came across computer science. “Not a very good soul-searching story,” she said, laughing.
But as soon as she began taking classes, things began to click.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “Picking that as a major has been phenomenal for my career since then.”
Mehring went on to serve as a consultant for a variety of software companies, then technology director at PlanAnalytics, Inc., and then president of Beacon Point Technologies for 14 years. But her skill as a programmer became pivotal when Mehring’s good friends JoAnn and Darrin had a premature baby named Brighid. They asked her to spread the word.
“I knew the traditional telephone calls weren’t going to work,” Mehring said. So, she built a web page. Today, they celebrate June 7, 1997 as the birthday of both Brighid and CaringBridge.
“The day Brighid was born is the day CaringBridge was born,”‘ Mehring said. “Bridghid’s life was a short nine days, but it was such an intense experience…anyone going through a health journey needs the support of their friends and family.”
From there, the site grew organically. Others began to create pages. In fact, it grew so fast that one year later, on a visit to see her in-laws on a farm in Carrington ND, the unimaginable happened. The server crashed.
“Here I was, late 90’s, and the only way I could get online was to dial-up into the nearest AOL hub, which was in Fargo, ” she said. “I dialed in 20 hours over that weekend. I remember leaving a check for $200 for my father in law, and saying, ‘you’re gonna have a big phone bill.'”
Turns out it had grown so much that the sites had taken over the entire server. Now, nearly 20 years later, a CaringBridge site has over 7 million registered users. Earlier this year, they passed their two billionth visit, Mehring said.
“That’s two billion connections,” she said. “Two billion acts of love and support that have happened on CaringBridge.”
Harnessing the power of social technology
The site has seen success largely because it was built well, Mehring said. It would not have been possible if she had not studied computer science and developed a love for programming.
“I was able to leverage my ability to program and create a website that lead to 19 years of impact,” she said. “At the root of it was the ability to create the product. That was really, pivotal in the success of CaringBridge…Not only was it important to people, it actually worked. It doesn’t crash.”
This, Mehring went on, is often the difference between failure and success. A good idea is nothing without an action to make it a reality; for her, knowledge in computer science enabled her to act quickly on a good idea.
“Good ideas take a lot of things to come into a reality,” she explained. “One, it has to have value and two, it actually has to work.”
It also has to stay relevant, something that Mehring does by constantly jumping on the latest advancements in technology. CaringBridge was an early adapter of the mobile trend, for example. Today, she’s looking ahead to the Internet of Things, envisioning using in-home activator’s like Amazon Echo to keep up to date with someone’s CaringBridge page.
“You can ask the Echo, ‘Alexa, what is the weather,’ — what if you could also say, ‘what’s on Suzy’s CaringBridge?'” Mehring said. “You can’t stay relevant in this space for 19 years without looking to the future.”
In 2011, Mehring was named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company. Last year, she was given the Titan of Technology title by the Minneapolis-St.Paul Business Journal. She hopes to see more women around her in the future, noting that she saw more women majoring in computer science in the 80’s than she does today.
“Women are not choosing it as a major, and that has to change,” she said.
Not just for the sake of women in technology, but because technology truly has the power to create massive impact, Mehring said. As she looks at the success of CaringBridge and the connections created there, she sees technology as only becoming more and more a part of human life. It’s up to us to make that a positive thing.
“I’m a true believer that technology makes our life better, and it has a positive reaction. In the 90’s tech was cold, hard, impersonal and ripping our society apart. I still hear that today and I don’t believe that,” Mehring said. “I believe it’s here to draw us more together.”
Mehring will be speaking in Fargo at 1 Million Cups on July 20 at the Stage at Island Park. She will also join us at TEDxFargo on July 21, where she plans to speak more about the positive uses of social technology.