The Social Work Entrepreneur: A Series Highlighting Alums Who Have Created Their Own Businesses and Organizations

Mel Morgenbesser


Emerson's homelike environment makes it a welcoming place for seniors.
Emerson’s homelike environment makes it a welcoming place for seniors.

Kate Shaw, MSW ’05, has a great deal of experience working with the elderly. She served as Executive Director of the West Madison Senior Center, was a social worker at Agrace Hospice, and worked with the Dane County Task Force on Aging. While she enjoyed her work and valued the experiences these agencies afforded her, Kate always had a dream. She wanted to develop, own, and operate her own senior living home.

Around 2012, Kate’s parents’ growing need for a more supportive living environment was the final push Kate needed to develop Emerson Senior Living with her son Travis as her business partner. Emerson, with eight private suites, was designed to offer a true home-like environment offering both supported and assisted living opportunities. A lovely setting, healthy meals including an organic vegetable garden, and opportunities for continued community involvement have proven to be an attractive option for seniors.  So attractive and popular that Kate is currently in the process of expanding Emerson by adding 12 additional private suites for a total of 20.

Though well-connected to aging and social service resources in Dane County and surrounding areas, like any new entrepreneur, Kate faced significant challenges developing and now expanding Emerson. Getting governmental approval for their senior living home to be in a residential neighborhood, designing and having it built, and learning all that goes into offering high quality 24-hour care while staying true to her mission of promoting personal choice, self-determination, and offering an environment that promotes active aging, wellness, safety, privacy, equality, creativity, and individuality.

Asking Kate how she managed to develop and expand a successful enterprise she explained:

“I never could have done it without my son Travis as my business partner and Dave Pafford who worked 12 hours a day seven days a week the first few years to help grow Emerson and also support from family and friends, encouragement from the community, along with sage advice from a great group of retired professionals at SCORE, plus help from Summit Credit Union and Wisconsin Business Development which have helped to secure our SBA (Small Business Association) loans for each phase…and most important though through it all has been the staff/caregivers that are the most important element and the core of whether or not we are successful and the main reason we can offer the quality care we provide. I am very fortunate to work with an amazing team of professional and compassionate staff/caregivers that are dedicated to the well-being and happiness of our residents”

What Kate forgot to mention was the incredible amount of work and perseverance that she continues to expend. That’s the key to realizing her dream to “do it her way” and provide a unique, high-quality living opportunity for her residents.

Find out more about Emerson Senior Living at