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Two CEOs offer a master class in crisis innovation during the coronavirus pandemic

April 28, 2020, 9:57 PM UTC

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Like it or not, we live in a time of crisis innovation.

I wanted to take a moment to share two inspiring coronavirus-related business stories about CEOs who found a way to quickly retool their operations to provide medical and personal protective equipment for communities battling the coronavirus. Both were master classes in planning, creativity, and mission-driven boldness.

I interviewed KR Sridhar, the CEO of Bloom Energy, and Jane Mosbacher Morris, the founder and CEO of To The Market for Leadership Next, Fortune CEO Alan Murray’s podcast on the changing rules of business leadership.

Both were already working on noble missions. Bloom Energy creates state-of-the-art fuel cells, for hospitals and similar institutions. To The Market is a unique for-profit social enterprise that connects buyers—many of whom are corporate—with sewn goods made by a global network of small manufacturers, typically women, who often come from vulnerable and underserved communities, or who have overcome terrible things—like conflict, trafficking, and yes, epidemics.   

Sridhar said that he realized pretty quickly that hospital ventilators are similar to fuel cells, sharing key components like fans and hoses. What I didn’t realize was that there were hundreds of expired or broken units sitting around that simply needed expert refurbishment to be viable again. So, with a mission in mind and a granular focus on rapid learning, the company was able to safely deploy employees to update the desperately needed ventilators while maintaining their basic operations. 

Bloom had refurbished 1,200 ventilators at the time of the interview, but it is capable of refurbishing around 2,000 per week in its East and West Coast facilities. And best of all, Sridar is working a plan to make existing ventilators more efficient and available.

In early March, Mosbacher Morris put out a request-for-proposals to her network of To The Market makers, and dozens responded. Barely 30 days later, shipments of three-ply FDA-certified face masks, isolation gowns, and scrubs—the personal protective equipment known as PPE—came rolling in, shipped to increasingly desperate medical systems across the U.S. 

The company has received orders for over 2 million units of PPE, and at the time of the interview, had already delivered 1.1 million. The move earned Mosbacher Morris a place on Fortune’s 2020 World’s 25 Greatest Leaders list.

It was the feel-good boost I certainly needed. If you feel so inclined, please give a listen and subscribe—the story is even more interesting coming from them. And, I’ll try to keep the inspiration coming.

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

On point

Minority and women-led small businesses appear to be shut out of the Paycheck Protection Program The problems appear to be many, but some of the most desperate small business owners were either technically ineligible or found that the funds were depleted by the time their applications were processed. “Based on how the program is structured, we estimate that upwards of 90% of businesses owned by people of color have been or will likely be, shut out of the Paycheck Protection Program," said Ashley Harrington, speaking on behalf of the non-profit Center for Responsible Lending. Many banks administering the program are only issued the low-interest, forgivable loans to existing clients, who are less likely to be women or entrepreneurs of color.
CBS News

An education grant program for incarcerated people gets a much-needed boost On Friday, the Department of Education expanded the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites initiative, an Obama-era program which offers need-based Pell grants for people incarcerated in state or federal prison. Currently, 63 colleges offer programs in 26 states; the expansion will bring the total number to 130 colleges in 42 states and the District of Columbia. The participating colleges offer a wide arrange of certificate and degree programs, and some 10,000 students received grants through June 2019. More about the announcement here. The Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit focused on criminal justice reform partners with participating schools and corrections facilities, has analyzed three years of data from 60 of the participating colleges below.
Vera

Call centers are now hiring people with disabilities who are used to working from home The transition has been chaotic, reports the New York Times, with companies hustling to get new employees the equipment and training they need to get to work. The pandemic is also revealing other issues—existing workers, who make about $35,000 a year, often can’t afford high-speed internet at home. But making people go to the office has a dangerous cost: Some 230 Charter Communications call center employees tested positive for COVID-19.
New York Times

Coronavirus in the community

On background

We know that Black and brown communities are hit the hardest by the coronavirus. Now what? This is the question posed by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an author and assistant professor in African American studies at Princeton, writing in The New Yorker. She ticks through the growing, disproportionate death toll, then dispatches the chilling argument that Black folks have pre-existing conditions. “Racism in the shadow of American slavery has diminished almost all of the life chances of African-Americans,” says Taylor. “Black people are poorer, more likely to be underemployed, condemned to substandard housing, and given inferior health care because of their race.” It’s time to build on the points to small efforts from state and local governments (that were options all along) – suspending arrests for minor offenses, halting evictions and foreclosures, keeping utilities on. “One cannot continue to decry the rising rates of black death while preparing to change not a single thing about our failing political and economic systems,” she writes. Taylor is also the author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.
The New Yorker

All praise queer (virtual) AA Followers of the wonderful writer Britni de la Cretaz will be familiar with some of her story, but her essay on the unique lifeline that queer AA meetings offer is a wonderful snapshot of how intersectionality literally saves lives. “Though I was sober for many years before I discovered queer meetings," she writes. "When I finally did, they were a game-changer for me." Sure, pronouns are exchanged, materials are re-worked to be more inclusive, but it’s really about allowing people to be holistically authentic. “It was the first place where I felt that I could merge the entirety of who I was, instead of siloing it: I used to have my queer community and my recovery community, and those two things were separate.”
Self

A fashionable way to raise awareness of acid attacks on girls and women Pre-pandemic, the number of acid attacks on women had been on the increase in the U.K., a nod to a toxic male culture that reacts violently to even simple affronts, like declining an offer to date. (It’s worth noting that men are also victims of acid attacks.) To show support, a group of acid attack survivors from Bangladesh flew to London in 2016 to show help new survivors reclaim their dignity. How? They had a fashion show. Enjoy.
Vice

Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.

The big number

0

That’s the number of Puerto Ricans who have received their stimulus checks, according to Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Reminder: Puerto Ricans are American citizens.

Today's mood board

The family business

Updates from members of the raceAhead community.

  • Two tech professionals, Netta Jenkins and Jacinta C. Mathis, co-founded Dipper to give professionals of color a safe platform to review their companies and share the real deal on their workplace experiences. Their latest virtual panel discussion features four Black women sharing candidly about being bullied at work. “Leaders Taking a Stand Against Workplace Bullying” will be held on Thursday, April 30th at 8 pm EST. Click here to register, and please share with anyone who may need this information.
  • Need some quick coaching on how to lead during this stressful time? RaceAhead mega-supporter DDI has you covered with this 15-minute micro-course will help you sort out the personal tendencies and behaviors that might be hindering your ability to be effective during this stressful time.  It’s good! I took it. I needed it.
  • Pedro Noguera, the renowned sociologist, education researcher, policy expert, and former public school teacher is the new dean of the USC Rossier School of Education. “I want to build on the work that’s been started, particularly with schools in Los Angeles,” he said in a statement. “I’ve been really impressed by USC’s deep commitment to schools in South Los Angeles. The needs are so great there. I want to build on that work to increase our impact and make sure the professionals we train, the administrators and teachers, are ready to make a similar impact in schools like those. I believe we can make a difference in Los Angeles and throughout the country and world.”