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Facing Pandemic, Student Volunteers Put Mission into Practice

For dozens of Yale SOM students, the COVID-19 global pandemic served as a call to embody the school’s mission to educate leaders for business and society—and they answered it by volunteering their expertise at agencies and organizations across the state of Connecticut.

By Meredith Crawford

It was “a moment where the Yale SOM mission was staring us right in the face,” recalls Ryan Isakow ’21.

It was the beginning of March, and fast becoming clear that the complex problems wrought by the COVID-19 global pandemic would require nimble, iterative solutions—something MBA students are uniquely equipped to provide.

Here was a chance to put the Yale School of Management mission to educate leaders for business and society into practice by bringing their experience and classroom training to bear in service to the New Haven community and the state of Connecticut, Isakow realized.

It turned out that many in the SOM community were thinking the same thing.

Isakow learned that fellow SOM student Ryan Flynn ’20 had already begun to develop a matching system to pair student volunteers with state agencies seeking assistance from individuals with specific areas of expertise. Flynn had been inspired to launch the effort by a suggestion from Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies and Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management, who, in turn, had fielded a request from the administration of Governor Ned Lamont ’80 to convene Yale SOM students to help with the state’s multifaceted efforts to fight COVID-19.

Within weeks, a loose coalition of dozens of SOM students were dug in, working with state and local agencies and teams, including the City of New Haven; the governor’s offices of communications, mass care, and housing; the state Office of Health Strategies; 4-CT, which coordinates COVID-related philanthropy; AdvanceCT, a nonprofit promoting economic competitiveness in the state; and the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

In addition to coordinating Yale SOM student volunteer efforts, Flynn supported the state of Connecticut’s Emergency Management Recovery/Immediate Needs Subgroup. Says the group’s chair, Yale SOM alumna Lisa Tepper Bates ’09, a key member of Lamont’s administration, Flynn’s work included “helping to build out local and regional recovery coordination committees, to create a statewide infrastructure to provide social supports for vulnerable residents asked to self-isolate or quarantine at home due to COVID infection or exposure, and to facilitate coordination with philanthropy on unmet critical needs.”

Pooja Doshi ’21, a joint-degree candidate at Yale SOM and the Yale School of Public Health, spent several months modeling the need for healthcare coverage among the Connecticut unemployed who are ineligible for Medicaid or Medicare. A former healthcare consultant to pharma and biotech, Doshi knew she possessed the granular knowledge of the insurance industry needed to advance the governor’s effort to minimize COVID-induced medical debt. Her Yale SOM classroom training also proved invaluable to the project: “The problem solving that you’re taught in the curriculum every step along the way has been essential in building this model so that it’s easy to understand,” she says. 

Jason Lapadula ’21, a joint-degree candidate at Yale SOM and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, worked with the City of New Haven to open up a COVID-19 testing facility at one of the city’s high schools to serve the local homeless population. Lapadula, a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer, says his military background in operations prepared him for the work, but it was his belief in the Yale SOM mission that motivated him to get involved.

“A large part of my original interest in SOM was the ‘and society’ aspect of the mission”—the value placed on making a positive impact. “I’d feel like a hypocrite if I didn’t help out in some way,” says Lapadula.

Throughout April and early May, Roxane Debaty ’20 and Adam Hogue ’20 supported constituent services in the governor’s office, triaging inquiries and requests for assistance. Grady Lenkin ’20 and Pete Edmunds ’20 collaborated with AdvanceCT to design Connecticut’s reopening strategy, modeling infection scenarios and proposing policies to support those impacted by COVID-19 and drive economic recovery.

“I’ve been able to bring a lot of the skills that I gained at SOM to help frame the problem, analyze the epidemiological and economic data, and synthesize all of the different aspects of the work that’s going on to communicate it clearly,” said Edmunds in early May, when a phased reopening plan for the state of Connecticut was being assembled. “I’ve also leaned on the incredible lineup of professors at Yale for guidance on which policies will be most important for Connecticut’s recovery.”

Anna Schickele ’20 found herself in London when the pandemic struck, but Connecticut was never far from her mind. She began working with classmate Niraj Suri ’20 to implement a model to provide assistance to undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for funding from the federal CARES Act.

Other students worked throughout the spring on philanthropy, homelessness, food insecurity, sourcing personal protective equipment, supply chain logistics, and ensuring small businesses received their Paycheck Protection Program loans. Combined, students put in an estimated 1,000 volunteer hours. They often found themselves working alongside Yale SOM alumni, including Justin Elicker ’10, mayor of New Haven; Josh Geballe ’02, chief operating officer for the state of Connecticut; and Indra Nooyi ’80,  the former chair and CEO of PepsiCo who serves as the co-chair of AdvanceCT.

Those are just a few of the many Yale SOM students who have volunteered. “They’ve all been phenomenal,” says Tepper Bates, who has worked with several students on a variety of projects. “They’ve stepped up on literally a moment’s notice to do statistical modeling, to help with slide decks, to do research.”

Like the pandemic, there is no end in sight for the students’ work. Many have chosen to extend their volunteer efforts beyond graduation and into the summer, while others have turned their new roles into internships. In the fall, Isakow and Sarah Thompson ’21 will assume Flynn’s responsibilities, pairing their classmates with projects where their skills can make the most impact. The two anticipate a challenge as they work to scale the matching system, but they’re game. “We’re working on it, and we’re getting quicker and more fluid,” says Thompson.

The volunteerism all feels very natural at Yale SOM, Isakov and Thompson agree.

“There’s always a healthy tension at SOM between wanting to reflect and learn, but also to actively contribute,” says Thompson. “There’s that desire to ‘walk the walk,’ and the pandemic put it into stark relief.”

Other student volunteers we spoke to for this story included Meredith Dworkin ’20, Eric Estey ’20, Bryan Fike ’20, Sarah Hallowell ’20Nathanael McLoughlin ’20, Ann Tobias ’20, and Emily Turner ’20.