Graduate business students accustomed to overflowing social calendars suddenly found themselves with time on their hands in the first weeks of March, as the global coronavirus pandemic closed B-school campuses and ushered in a new all-virtual world of learning, testing, networking, and recruiting.
MBAs being who they are, many used their skills to plan for the post-Covid-19 recovery, while others turned their attention to the calamity at hand. Two Stanford MBAs who were in the latter camp may have had the biggest impact of all: Tammie Chen and Siran Xu, Class of 2020 MBAs who graduated this month, spent the spring pandemic lockdown launching a not-for-profit that helps hospitals and governments globally match with medical suppliers in China, where the virus began and where responders were already well-equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and respirators.
Tapping into their network in China’s healthcare system, Chen and Xu founded Coronavirusmatch to coordinate the matching of medical resources from China to hotspots on different continents. Since launching March 23, they have fielded requests from hospitals and other medical institutions for over 6 million masks and more than half a million testing kits. Their supplies range from PPEs — KN95 masks, surgical masks, goggles, isolation gowns, shoe covers, and the like — to ICU ventilators. To date they have shipped more than 100,000 masks to Southeast Asia, Europe, and South America.
“A couple of GSB classmates from Latin America asked whether we knew some medical suppliers from China, and this gave us an ‘A ha!’ moment — that actually we can definitely make this the platform for so many people in other countries,” Xu says.
A MATTER OF ‘CREATIVE LOGISTICAL SOLUTIONS’
Xu and Chen have been following the news of the spread of coronavirus since it began in late 2019. For Chen, the crisis carried a personal element: Both her parents are doctors on the front line in Northeast China. Through them, she has medical contacts in Wuhan, where the virus originated, and Beijing. Far removed from “ground zero,” Chen saw the crisis worsen in December and January, and watched panic take hold across China — “a very scary time,” she says. But now the fear and panic has been replaced by knowledge and a collective determination to stamp out the virus.
“We definitely have seen national mobilization in China, and I think we have a better understanding of how this disease spreads, how you quarantine, etc.,” Chen tells Poets&Quants. “So people are definitely very cautious, but you definitely don’t see as much panic as we did back in December, January.”
By March, China had a surplus of essential medical supplies, and the country was beginning to ship supplies abroad to help where needed. Coronavirusmatch joined the effort, matching available supplies to areas of need around the globe (mostly outside the U.S. because of customs hurdles), particularly Italy, one of the first countries outside China to be hit hard. It started with swabs — the long, simple, cotton-ended stick used to test whether a person has coronavirus. “It’s something very small, but it’s critical,” Xu says. “Basically throughout the world, Italy, Korea, U.S., China, they just couldn’t find any swabs — and without swabs, they couldn’t really test people.”
With the help of classmates, Xu and Chen got in touch with labs and hospitals around the globe that needed swabs. “And then we basically went out to find swab suppliers,” Xu says. “We sourced a couple through the GSB network and eventually we finalized one supplier who is reliable, who is able, who had experience exporting to those countries.” After connecting supplier to lab, however, their work is not done. “After we connect to them, we just stay in the process to help them facilitate payment, facilitate logistics — which sounds easy, but actually it took a lot of time and a lot of headache. You probably know, the global logistics infrastructure was essentially shut down during the last couple months. So we had to really work with both sides of the team on thinking through creative logistical solutions.”
Language barriers were not the only obstacles. Coronavirusmatch often had to find different flights and different routes into countries — and frequently go back to the drawing board when a strategy failed. In one case they had supplies shipped to a neighboring country, then hired trucks to drive it over the border. “So there were many different things that we face throughout, in terms of product quality, payment, logistics, and to actually make sure the product gets delivered,” Xu says.
‘TRAINED TO MAKE THE CHANGE ON A GLOBAL LEVEL’
Chen and Xu met at Stanford, becoming friends when they co-led a 2019 study trip to South Africa. They credit the popular Touchy Feely course with helping them learn to make tough decisions with finite resources, and Stanford GSB’s motto — “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world” — for inspiration.
“As much as people think we’ve helped other hospitals match, I think this is where GSB actually helped us,” Chen says. “Siran and I didn’t know each other before. We met while applying to lead a global seminar together. So we were both leaders for a trip to South Africa to study the power of technology in between our first year and second year. And through that, we really built up the relationship. I think we wouldn’t be able to do it without the GSB connection, the GSB mentality of change. When we see need, basically we’re trained to take it upon ourselves to make the change on a global level.
“So I think that was just something that we probably wouldn’t have done without the GSB education. And obviously in this process, we couldn’t do it — matching hospitals from Italy with suppliers in China — without GSB alums. Many GSB alums in China help us source credible suppliers, which is incredibly important because if you remember when the pandemic began globally, the market was a little bit of a gray market. It was all over the place. So GSB really helped. And on the other side, on the demand side, we got so much help from alums in Italy and Latin America and Southeast Asia to help us source a lot of the demands, help us find areas with the highest need. We definitely wouldn’t be able to pull off any of this without a good GSB network.”
Touchy Feely, a Stanford staple for decades known formally as Interpersonal Dynamics, was particularly important for both Xu and Chen — a personal watershed that taught them valuable lessons in empathy and negotiation.
“We feel like we benefited so much from Touchy Feely and we apply so much from what we learned in the class into this initiative,” Xu says. “A big part of it is, so many people in this crazy time, they just work under so much stress, and they have so much personal challenges and professional challenges during this crazy time. So whenever we’ve got any requests, we definitely showed a lot of empathetical listening to a lot of hospitals, medical institutions, to understand struggles, what they actually experienced both professionally and personally. Some of the hospital staff we talked to, their family are going through difficult times. Some of the people they know, they got tested positive. So they themselves are also under huge pressure. So we not only actually help them, actually source the supplies, but also really listen to them, what personal things they’re going through, and try our best to be a good empathetic listener and try to help them also on a personal level.
“And also from the supply side, a lot of suppliers in China are also working under huge stress, because basically they’re working around the clock because they need to talk to different hospitals and medical institutions across the globe. So basically there is no fine line between what is the working hours, what is personal time. Everyone is working under huge stress. So it’s about how we deal with the stress elegantly, how we still keep a calm, positive attitude when we are working together — it’s definitely something we learned a lot from Touchy Feely.”
Adds Chen: “Empathetic listening, negotiation really helps build up trust.” But Touchy Feely wasn’t the only GSB class that helped them. Chen says the entrepreneurial courses she and Xu took through the school’s Startup Garage were invaluable: “Those classes really taught us to be scrappy and then just roll it out. I constantly ask our customers for feedback. We literally built out the website in three hours, and we just went on with it. And really without the classes, we would probably still be reminiscing on small points, but instead we really just went out and started helping people and actually get the project rolling. And those are really valuable lessons we learned from those entrepreneurial classes.”
‘MORE THAN A FULL-TIME JOB’
Both Chen and Xu have continued working with Coronavirusmatch after graduation, even as the need for its services has wound down. Now they are looking ahead to their day jobs, which they will start in a few months: Xu at McKinsey and Company, and Chen at TPG Capital.
They say it’s gratifying to see the need for Coroanvirusmatch’s services dwindle somewhat, as countries figure out their own medical supply chain needs. Since starting with Italy and Latin America and expanding to Southeast Asia, their nonprofit enterprise has been going nonstop for more than three months — and they both have been working a more-than-full-time pace. It’s work that may have saved thousands of lives around the world.
“We’ve been working on this for, I guess, about three months,” Chen says. “It was a full-time job, but luckily we were all shelter-in-place. We didn’t spend that much time on GSB stuff and we probably should have!”
Adds Xu: “It’s more than a full-time job. Basically, we were working like 15 hours a day, even the first few weeks when we started.”
Continues Chen: “We sourced all these demands from all over the world during the day, and at night we’d have to talk with the Chinese suppliers — after midnight, given the time zone difference. So it was very much, it took a lot of time, but now I think the good part is one, there’s less demand from across the globe. People have sort of figured out their own supply chain. And two, our platform is somewhat automated. We have a good network of suppliers that we can count on.
“Our project was really there to react to the increasing need during those moments. We are hoping that one day we can shut off as quickly as possible, which means people don’t need face masks anymore.”
Learn more about Coronavirusmatch here.