Turning Crisis into an Opportunity

Poorvi Vijay, Technology & Social Impact Editor

HBS students rise up to lead the fight against COVID-19.

The novel coronavirus pandemic may be the largest test of any leadership the world has ever witnessed. Every leader on the planet is facing the same potential threat. Every leader is reacting differently, in his or her own way. The students at Harvard Business School faced the same dilemma. For the first time in the history of the school, HBS switched to virtual learning and our ways of working changed the course. There was chaos, uncertainty and a future that seemed bleak in the near term. But crisis also tests our character, especially when there is no clear roadmap or tried-and-tested leadership principle but there is just an itch to contribute. Once a crisis is in motion, turning it into an opportunity requires new ways of seeing, thinking and responding—something we saw many of our classmates do.

When the HBS MBA community was disappointed about the move to virtual classes, two former seatmates in New Section C—Raquel Schreiber and Brendan Lind (MBAs ’21)—immediately started planning adventures to bring smiles back to their classmates’ faces, from baking pancakes in Aldrich 109 to trying to organize a section quarantine commune. “But the world was hurting way more than we felt we were at HBS, and we knew our brain power and energy could be better spent focusing on helping rather than on pancakes,” the duo say. “We also knew our classmates are uniquely positioned to help.” The duo then started Community V COVID-19, a volunteer initiative empowering everyone in need or looking to give with the ability to get help, give help, and effectively donate money. They amplify high-quality resources by aggregating them on their website, use targeted digital advertising to get the right resources to the right people, and build solutions for communities when one does not already exist.

Raquel’s hometown community was one of the first impacted by COVID-19 in the NYC area and she felt strongly about impending school closures. She knew many students did not have internet at home, so she spent the days before spring break trying to get thousands of hotspots from major providers prior to the Boston and NYC public school closures. A more sustainable solution emerged: major providers like Comcast and Spectrum started offering free internet installations, but they realized that the people who needed the help often did not know where to look; the internet was too noisy. Brendan, who runs a digital agency called Human Agency, brought part of his team on board, volunteering to run targeted digital ads to the hard-to-reach people in communities that needed resources the most. “Growing fast, the platform has over 500 vetted resources, organized in a searchable, findable way across six need-categories across all 50 US states. We have deployed nearly $10,000 in donated and granted ad spend over the last four weeks to reach over 12,000 people who came to the site specifically to get help, volunteer, or donate,” the duo said. “We have about 25 student and professional volunteers dedicating real time to the effort, many of whom are HBS students.”

This swift change to the community and campus experience left many other students wondering how they might be able to help. Two second-year MBA students, Amina Edwards and Sarika Mendu (MBAs ’20), felt that there had to be a way to put the talent and resources at HBS to use in a meaningful way. As a result, they created MBAs Fight COVID-19, a matching platform built in partnership with Catalant, a Boston technology company led by Rob Biederman and Pat Petitti (MBAs ’14), that connects MBA students with projects that need MBA skills. “It has been inspiring to see how ready HBS students are to help others, especially because many students are facing personal challenges themselves,” the duo says. “We currently have more than 150 MBA students working on more than 30 projects, both here in Massachusetts and around the country.”

Inspired by a series of COVID-19 conversations with Professor Mitch Weiss (AB ’99, MBA ’04) and their Public Entrepreneurship classmates, Becca Milian and Carmi Medoff (MBAs ’20) wanted to do something. Immediately after hearing about the stimulus program, they realized that many of their classmates would qualify and recognized an opportunity to connect their classmates with those most in need in the local Cambridge/Boston community. Along with Chelsea Celistan (MBA ’20) and Kirsten Soong (MBA ’21), they launched the The MBA 1200, a fundraising campaign for students and others to support local residents, small business, and charitable organizations during these uncertain times. Initially inspired by the CARES Act, this initiative encourages students across the country to donate portions of their stimulus checks (or some monetary equivalent) to the cause they feel most connected to. “This campaign is about positivity, inclusivity and the spirit of giving,” the team says. “What we’re trying to push people to do is to think about whether they can give $1 or $1,200 to something or someone they care about, whether that’s Boston Impact Initiative, their local food bank, or their grandparent.” To date, they have raised over $66,000 and recorded donations from students and faculty at HBS, Georgetown, Kellogg, Ross, and Wharton. 

Seeing the economic crises faced by local businesses, Rahim Noormohamed (MBA ’21) wanted to help. He started GIFTforward to help independent businesses survive the economic impact from the COVID-19 shutdown. Many small businesses and restaurants, in particular, are hit extremely hard right now. Due to the shutdown, many have zero revenue but still have bills to pay and people to employ. Rahim’s organization has the mission to help these businesses make it through this crisis by selling gift cards. “Today we are supporting over 70 businesses and have sold hundreds of gift cards, valued at roughly $30,000 in aggregate, for small business owners,” Rahim informs. “Most of our businesses are in Toronto, but we also have some in the US and Australia.”

Personal experience and a desire to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 led to the formation of Livelyhood.io. “I posted to Facebook asking if friends from my hometown in hard-hit Bergen County, New Jersey, would be willing to do a grocery run so my father, who is in his 70s, would not have to,” Merrill Anovick (MBA ’21), one of the co-founders, recalls. “Another classmate’s mom shared how upset she was that our local town’s community center was ending its daily food service for the elderly. She wondered how these vulnerable people would get food. She thought there must be a better way. Over the course of a week, they assembled a team of other students, designers, and engineers to build a potential solution to the problem.” LivelyHood is a safe and simple platform that automatically connects healthy, young volunteers with elderly and immunocompromised individuals who need help running errands. “Our mission is to help diminish the impact of the pandemic by enabling the most vulnerable among us to stay safe in their homes,” the team says. “Today LivelyHood.io is live in Boston and open for volunteers to sign-up. Thus far we have had around 85 volunteers sign-up to complete errands for at-risk individuals. As we approach 100 volunteers, we plan to launch the second half of the platform to begin processing errand requests.”

Seeing frontline staff struggle during this pandemic, Eric Slesinger (MBA ’21) wanted to help solve a critical problem. Working together with a team of engineers, doctors and designers, he launched hfdc.us—which aims to fill the gap in hospital shortages during COVID-19 by producing disposable face shields for standalone use and disposable visors for Powered Air Purifying Respirators  (PAPR’s). “We’re using domestic material supply and manufacturers to make face shields and PAPR replacement lenses,” Eric informs. “We work with manufacturers for our day jobs, where we have learned how to speak their language, engineer for quick manufacturability, and find critical materials. We are fulfilling our second large order of face shields and are making weekly deliveries of PAPR replacement lenses to a handful of hospitals. We completed these deliveries thanks to generous support from early donors, including donations and advice from HBS classmates and professors.”

In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 crisis has changed the way we live, work or think about the world. Coming to business school, none of us knew that we would be living in such unprecedented times. But they say, “MBA is what you make out of it,” and I am glad to see that many HBS students are leading with perseverance and trying to make the best of this situation—not just for themselves but for many around them. 

All these initiatives are always looking for volunteers—please reach out if you want to help.

Poorvi Vijay (MBA ’21) is an international student from India. She is a part of the Tech Club and was the CFO for WesTrek 2020. Prior to HBS, she worked at Amazon for four years across India and the UK. Her work at Amazon spanned across retail and international expansion in India to building voice experiences for Alexa in multiple geographies. An alum of IIT Guwahati, she has a background in UX design and product management, and she loves to talk about all things creative.