Luminary Tech Visionary Finalist: Bree-Anne Pagonis, co-founder of WIRL

Luminary is proud to be sponsoring the Victorian Young Achiever Awards. In the second of a series on the Luminary Tech Visionary Award finalists for 2021, we profile Bree-Anne Pagonis, co-founder of WIRL.

Cristina Durrant

By Cristina Durrant, Guest Author 6 minute read

The Luminary Tech Visionary Award recognises young people demonstrating creative thinking and making a significant contribution and social impact through the use of digital. For more information, check out this blog post about Luminary’s sponsorship of the Victorian Young Achiever Awards.

Bree-Anne Pagonis

“Things. Must. Change.” Bree-Anne Pagonis is a woman on a mission. Warm and vivacious but with an uncompromising focus and determination, this energetic and passionate dietitian is taking on one of the most insidious and powerful giants of our times – the diet industry. And technology is her weapon of choice.

“We estimate that women spend 32 percent of our waking hours thinking and worrying about food and its impact on our bodies, “ Bree says. The effect of this, according to Bree, is disturbing and profound. “I see so many of my amazing girlfriends, friends and colleagues … trying to push forward and grow themselves, and advocate for change or do what’s important to them and yet conversations with them are about how they’re following a diet, how they’re trying to make their bodies smaller.” 

This matters a great deal because what Bree is describing is the mental load women carry when it comes to food. Thinking about food, planning their meals, doing the weekly food shop, cooking meals for themselves and their families – women carry a disproportionate burden. The UN identifies unpaid care and domestic work as a factor in economic empowerment. Mental load directly impacts women’s capacity to “earn and learn”. So the diet industry isn’t just making women feel bad about their bodies; it’s directly impacting their careers and education, limiting their power and weakening their voices in the world.

So what’s the solution? According to Bree, and her business partner Alicia Holmquest, the answer, or at least part of the answer, lies in an innovative new app called WIRL that will help women cultivate a much more relaxed and joyful relationship with food. Based on the scientifically backed principles of intuitive eating and reflecting Bree and Alicia’s unique expertise and experience, WIRL will guide women towards a more simple, natural and integrated way of eating. 

The app draws on Bree and Alicia’s extensive training in dietetics, as well as their early food memories laid down as children, where “we grew up around veggie patches, mixing bowls and grandma’s kitchen bench, creating food with family and friends.” 

Bree summarises her philosophy as being about the ‘how’ and ‘why’, not the ‘what’. What this means in practice is cultivating a liberated relationship with food based on variety, abundance and tuning in to what you actually feel like eating and how much you need, then eating mindfully and with pleasure, instead of with restriction and guilt. 

In some ways, it may seem counter-intuitive to use a technology platform to teach women to tune into their natural, biological cues. We are all born with an innately intuitive relationship to food. Most children naturally self-regulate their portions and eating windows (sometimes to their carer’s frustration) and are drawn to a wide variety of colourful and healthful fresh foods. If this is something we can all do at birth, what goes wrong? And how can technology help? 

The answer to the first question lies in the extraordinary volume of content pumped out by the diet industry. From celebrity chefs to sculpted personal trainers shilling their latest book or program – the amount of noise in this space is deafening. Diets are pumped out relentlessly, providing a mindless framework of what to eat that is soon replaced by a different set of rules and restrictions – often wildly at odds with each other. From keto to paleo, vegan to raw food, there is endless confusion, information and misinformation. The loudest voices are often the most unqualified ones too. And for all the complexity and confusion around diets, one thing is consistent: diets don’t work. According to Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, 95 percent of people will have regained weight within five years. 

The answer to how technology can help is a little surprising because social media is perhaps one of the worst offenders in terms of being a channel and amplifier to the messages the diet industry pumps out. But there are also a growing number of popular apps designed to help us retrain our natural abilities and rhythms around sleep, relaxation, even breathing. Technology can help people relearn how to get back to a more natural state – a more intuitive way of functioning. To tune in rather than to tune out.

WIRL was not initially conceptualised as an app. Bree and Alicia started running workshops at schools, sports clubs and in the community to share their philosophy about intuitive eating with girls and women from all walks of life. The workshops were successful and rewarding for the women, yet Bree and Alicia felt restrained by the time limits of the session. They wanted a way to effect lasting change for the women they were meeting, and a two-hour workshop was never going to be sufficient. 

Bree-Anne and business partner Alicia

The women developed their first digital solution, a reflective self-discovery journal, as a way to connect with more women and achieve deeper change. It was a successful first step in the world of tech that planted the seed for what would eventually become the WIRL app. But it was the Covid epidemic that brought that seed to life. With face-to-face workshops no longer possible, Bree had the time and space to fully immerse herself in the possibilities of tech and admits, “for our business, Covid pushed us in a direction that we would not have gone in.”

It was an unexpectedly fortunate turn of events because Bree and Alicia found several invaluable technology development programs and industry support to take their app from concept through to prototype stage. In 2020, the women were selected to take part in both the Monash University and RMIT University accelerator programs. The women won the RMIT alumni pitching competition and received a scholarship with a start-up organisation. They were also recently selected by a Melbourne UX training program to be a case study for their design students in 2021. The support from tech industry experts has been invaluable in refining Bree and Alicia’s approach to the app’s design and development – and a huge learning curve for the women. 

Next is an ambitious plan to build out the application into a monthly subscription model with a target to recruit 1000 women by the end of 2021. It’s a remarkable achievement to date by two subject-matter experts with no previous experience in the world of technology. 

Bree is a testament to and also the embodiment of her philosophy about food and about life. When women are able to reduce the mental load they carry about food, and other unnecessary burdens, they are more energised and better able to focus on their true passions and goals. For Bree and Alicia, “this is our life’s work; to have a profound impact on the way the world and women view food, health and their bodies”. 

If WIRL is able to help fuel more of this positivity and energy for more women, then their hard work and determination will all be worth it, because as Bree fervently believes, things must change, and this app will be an important part of bringing about that change.

Read about the other finalists:

The winner of the 2021 Luminary Tech Visionary Award will be announced on Friday 16 April.

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