The coronavirus brought about unprecedented change. Yet it also provided an unprecedented opportunity for people to step up. As business as usual ground to a halt, entire industries pivoted, sometimes almost overnight, to new ways of doing things. In many cases, companies and individuals changed not only how they do things, but also what they do.
Across Canada and around the world, these Ivey graduates have been doing their part to work for the greater good in the face of a global pandemic. All credit their time at Ivey with giving them the tools and confidence to meet the crisis head on.
Jacky Yao, HBA ’14
For Jacky Yao, the COVID-19 crisis came early and was personal. Wuhan, the epicentre of the initial outbreak, is his hometown.
Yao immigrated to Canada at the age of 12, relocating to Shanghai after graduating from Ivey.
On January 20, the associate at 3E Capital and Ivey Alumni Network Shanghai Chapter President travelled to Wuhan to bring his parents and grandparents back to Shanghai for Chinese New Year. “I remember getting off the train and seeing people wearing masks,” he says.
Two days later, the family returned to Shanghai where they woke up to the news that Wuhan was in lockdown.
In the early days of the pandemic, there were many unknowns, says Yao. “People started panicking and anyone with a fever rushed to the hospital. It was really chaotic.” Personal protective equipment (PPE) was in short supply.
Although Wuhan received the media spotlight, hospitals in smaller cities were also in crisis. Yao heard stories of medical staff wearing garbage bags in an effort to protect themselves from the virus — and even those were running out.
Initially, Yao and his father made monetary contributions towards the purchase of PPE. But they quickly realized financial aid was not enough. They began asking people they knew overseas to send medical supplies.
“I reached out to my Ivey Network while my father reached out to his networks,” Yao explains. Together, they were able to organize the delivery of 1,000 masks and 5,000 hazmat suits to medical workers in China.
Yao travelled to Toronto just before international borders were closed. With Canadian hospitals facing their own PPE shortages, he joined a group of around 70 Ivey alumni based in China who donated 25,000 masks to Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital and Hamilton General.
“Ivey has a very strong global Network,” notes Yao. “Finding medical equipment was not an easy task under these extreme circumstances. It made me proud to see the level of response from so many fellow alumni.”
John Rocco, EMBA ’18
Farmhouse Spirits began as a conversation about carrots and sustainability. Ivey EMBA ’18 classmates John Rocco, Jennifer Quick, and Peter Riga were looking for a way to use the 2-million tons of misshapen carrots plowed under each year at Riga’s family farm in Bradford, Ont.
“There are only so many ugly carrots you can give away,” notes Rocco. The discussion turned to alcohol, and whether an unwanted carrot could be turned into a spirit.
It turns out the answer is yes. Launched in June 2018, Farmhouse Spirits now offers two craft spirits made from carrots — Sight Vodka and Sight Gin — both available through the LCBO. Earlier this year the company teamed up with Yongehurst Distillery to increase production.
When Ontario declared a state of emergency in mid-March, the Peel Regional Police approached Farmhouse Spirits with a request for hand sanitizer. “We realized there was going to be a real need and immediately started working,” says Rocco.
Thanks to Quick’s experience as a business lawyer, the company was able to navigate Health Canada’s regulations to receive its Natural Product Number. In April, Farmhouse Spirits switched 95 per cent of its production over to hand sanitizer, available as a spray or liquid, and donated 20 per cent of the initial production runs to frontline workers.
“At the beginning of the pandemic it was a bit of the Wild West. People were making sanitizer out of anything and rushing it to market. We wanted to make sure we met the strictest standards set by Health Canada, and that we had packaging that was distinguishable as a hand sanitizer so it wouldn’t be confused as a beverage.”
While Farmhouse Spirits is now refocusing attention on expanding its line of craft distillery products, Rocco says sanitizer will remain part of the product mix. “I think there will always be a need for it,” he says. “The mad rush for hand sanitizer is over, but we have a vision to create a high-end product in a beautiful glass bottle that would look good sitting next to your kitchen sink.”
Katie Chen, HBA ’19
On March 16, restaurants across Toronto were mandated to close except for takeout and delivery. At the same time, health-care and social service teams were working around the clock to treat individuals impacted by COVID-19 and to support vulnerable citizens during the shutdown.
Feed the Frontlines TO launched on March 20 to help bridge the gap. The fundraising initiative — founded by Adair Roberts — delivers delicious meals to health-care workers and social services staff with the goal of keeping independent restaurants solvent while offering a nutritious break to those busy on the front lines of the pandemic.
Run by a team of volunteers, including Katie Chen, Victor Lal, and Edwina Liu, all HBA ’19, and Jessica Myles, HBA ’20, the organization had raised $350,000 and delivered more than 14,000 meals at the time of writing.
Chen, a business analyst at McKinsey & Company, says she and her fellow alumni brought incredible energy to the Feed the Frontlines TO team. In the early days, they helped run the Instagram account, kept the website up-to-date, and built community partnerships. “One of our biggest strengths was our ability to tap into different networks across the city,” she says.
As donations and demand for meals grew, they worked with the organization to determine the most effective way to scale.
“We were tempted to help everyone under the sun,” notes Chen. In order to make a meaningful impact, they focused on supporting a limited number of independently owned restaurants by guaranteeing a minimum number of orders per week.
As the pandemic evolves, Feed the Frontlines TO is expanding its mandate beyond health-care and social service workers to provide meals to Torontonians facing food insecurity. “This is something that could continue in the long term,” says Chen.
William Thompson, EMBA ’17
Founded in 2016, RVezy is the Airbnb of RVs. Active across Canada and the United States, the peer-to-peer marketplace brings together RV owners looking for an extra source of income with RV enthusiasts looking for their perfect road trip.
When the global pandemic hit, co-founders William Thompson and Michael McNaught feared it might deal the young company a devastating blow. But rather than simply hoping for the best, the partners decided to find a way to help.
“I have a military background and my partner was in policing,” says Thompson. “When COVID-19 first started, we thought it might be a mass casualty situation.” With fears that large numbers of health-care workers and law enforcement personnel might need to self-isolate, they decided that RVezy would commit to being able to provide 25 trailers to every hospital in Canada.
“We explained what we wanted to do to our 5,000 RV owners,” says Thompson. “In the first week, 600 stepped up.”
Most halved their rental fees, while RVezy waived their fees entirely. Even the insurance company agreed to drastically reduce its rates. “It was really cool to see people right across Canada willing to help out,” Thompson says.
The company used their online RV-matchmaking platform and social media to connect RV owners with frontline workers and emergency responders wanting to remain close to home without putting family members at risk.
Power companies also used the platform to help critical infrastructure personnel self-quarantine between deployments. And as the summer growing season got underway, the company fielded calls from farms across Canada looking to safely house migrant workers.
As of mid-June, Thompson says RVezy has provided safe accommodation to around 100 individuals. He’s happy that the number isn’t higher. “It’s a good thing that our hospitals didn’t need to execute their crisis plans,” he says.
Larry Lau, EMBA ’18
When COVID-19 triggered a shortage in medical supplies, Toronto-based designer and owner of kid’s mitten business mimiTENS Anna-Maria Mountfort and social entrepreneur and Western University professor Kevin Vuong decided to create a non-medical fabric mask to help people stay safe.
They developed an evidence-based prototype and retooled the mimiTENS factory with the goal of selling 5,000 units. That was before a March 25 conversation with Larry Lau.
The serial entrepreneur had opened a fulfillment centre in October. With that vital infrastructure in place, Lau thought Mountfort and Vuong should think big.
On March 27, TakeCare Supply launched its e-commerce website and made its first sale. On April 1, Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke mentioned the company in a tweet. By mid-April, TakeCare Supply had manufactured and sold over 80,000 masks. And by early August that number had grown to 600,000 masks — with new orders streaming in daily.
“It was a crazy roller coaster,” says Lau, who recalls bidding for raw materials in a parking lot.
In order to ensure consistent quality while scaling production, the company partnered with several manufacturing facilities in Toronto. “We currently employ almost 200 workers who were previously laid off due to COVID-19,” he says.
With people around the world wearing non-medical masks for the foreseeable future, the environmental impact of disposable masks is a growing concern, Lau notes.
In response, TakeCare Supply is shifting gears to become a sustainable business focused on developing a Canadian supply chain — including using fabric woven in Toronto. “We’re investing in the future of Canadian manufacturing,” says Lau, “and helping consumers mitigate their waste by using reusable masks.”
Pamela Jeffery, HBA ’84, MBA ’88
When people around the world grappled with the immediate impact of the global pandemic, Pamela Jeffery turned her attention to what will happen next.
In March, the Women’s Executive Network and Canadian Board Diversity Council founder began worrying about COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on women.
“I started thinking about job losses and school closures. We know that 64 per cent of unpaid work is done by women at home and that 80 per cent of single-family households are headed by women. Women also have, generally speaking, a lot of elder care responsibility. And I thought, this is going to be a triple threat to women.”
In April, Jeffery shared her vision for protecting the economic security of girls and women with female leaders across Canada. On May 21 — with the support of 62 founding visionaries — she launched The Prosperity Project™ (TPP).
The not-for-profit applies an intersectional identities-and-inclusivity lens to serve women who also identify as Indigenous, women of colour, refugees, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQ2+, and is dedicated to safe-guarding the progress Canada has made towards gender equality by mitigating the economic impact of COVID-19.
TPP is getting ready to launch a 10-year prosperity study to better understand the factors affecting women’s economic participation and to find practical solutions to influence change at a national level. “I’ve never seen a long-term study that tracks thousands of Canadian women,” Jeffery notes.
Other TPP initiatives include matching professional women and men in the private sector with non-profit organizations that focus on women’s employment, skills training, crisis counselling and mental and physical health; tracking women’s spending power; and conducting research on women at the executive, senior management, and in the pipeline to senior management roles.
“In 10 weeks, we went from an idea, to incorporating, to a virtual launch, to over $350,000 in contributions from the founding visionaries and their companies,” says Jeffery. “That speaks to the passion and purpose of knowing that something needs to be done.”