People donated millions to buy protective equipment for hospitals. These Harvard students know where to spend it

Bai leads a team of 12 volunteer people who try to find great deals before someone else does.

The group, which is called People first, has approximately $ 3 million at its disposal which has been donated to a fund managed by the Boston Foundation non-profit. By the middle of last week, they had placed more than $ 2.1 million in orders for around 1.7 million pieces of equipment, including masks, respirators and protective suits.

Approximately 400,000 pieces of this equipment have arrived to date at sites such as Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Medical Center, Brigham And Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Donors to the fund include Silicon Valley Bank, private equity investor Andrew Balson and his wife Melora, venture capitalist Jeff Bussgang and the John W. Henry Family Foundation. (Henry is the owner and publisher of the Boston Globe).

Tim Smith, senior director of philanthropy at the Boston Foundation, said he was struck by the complexity of the business, including “how many people and parties and different types of expertise need to be involved to bring something in the United States with charitable dollars. ”

Smith said he was not aware of any similar efforts undertaken by community foundations, so he and his colleagues drew on expertise from other sectors of the economy.

“Everything we do is learning,” he said. “But I think it will help us prepare and help the region prepare for future disasters. “

Bussgang described the project as “a unique Boston story,” citing the combination of historical players such as the law firm Ropes & Gray which represents the fund for free – and new economy contributors such as the tech company Flywire Financial, which offered its platform to quickly process the transactions necessary to complete transactions.

But it’s the student sweat equity, as Smith described it, that makes the program work. In a way, said Bai, the search for quality products can be like an adventure: elves hunting for treasure, ”she said.

But Bai said it was never far from his mind that they were urgently trying to solve a serious problem.

“A lot of our friends are doctors here. They are not protected at all and we are very worried about them, ”she said. “So anything we can do to help them is what really motivates us. “

Bai, 29, grew up in China and has lived in Boston for the past ten years. When she visited Shanghai earlier this year, Bai noticed that people everywhere were talking about the shortage of personal protective equipment.

“No country has been set up to handle this demand for a pandemic like this,” she said.

As the virus began to spread in the Boston area, Bai said, she began to think about ways to help and reached out to a family friend at home with ties to the medical supplies industry. She asked one of her teachers for ideas on where there was a need, and he put her in touch with Brigham and Women’s.

Using the money donated, she placed a first order and when the products arrived, she and her colleagues began to scale up their operations. Bai spends much of the day communicating with hospitals about their needs. Night here is morning in China, so Bai is launching out with his contacts there. Later, when she falls asleep, a colleague from the west coast takes over.

But it is not enough to find products. Chinese and US standards and regulations that affect the shipment of personal protective equipment change regularly, Bai said, and as many hospitals have already been set on fire during this crisis, some were initially concerned about the quality of the goods. that they would receive.

“They’ve been approached by a lot of brokers and dealers, and it’s getting nowhere,” Bai said. She believes her experience with both countries – and her ability to understand how regulations work here and abroad – has helped her bridge the gap.

Although the process is different from what hospitals usually use, the system has worked so far.

“In the battle against COVID-19, personal protective equipment is critically important armor, and we continue to move mountains to provide our staff with the equipment they need,” the CEO said. from Beth Israel Lahey Health, Dr. Kevin Tabb, in an e- “We are grateful to the enterprising students at Harvard Business School and others who work with us and use their skills to tackle a complex challenge in the business chain. international sourcing. “

Andy Rosen can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @andyrosen.

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