For John Dobson, associate professor of practice in the Clark University School of Management, the fight against COVID-19 became personal when he saw his entrepreneurship students struggling with the changes impacting both their academic and personal lives. All courses had moved online, events were canceled, and his Chinese students, in particular, were still reeling from how the disease had affected their families back home.
The students were eager to help the local fight against COVID-19, but they didn’t have a concrete plan. “As with most entrepreneurial ventures, it developed slowly over some informal conversations,” Dobson says. During these discussions, the students offered to get Dobson some face masks for personal use; they were getting the masks from family and friends in China. “I asked if they could dig deeper and find the factory that was making the masks, which they promptly did,” Dobson says.
After verifying that the masks were the type approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the group created a plan to secure larger quantities of personal protective equipment from China and to donate it to Massachusetts hospitals. The students and Dobson agreed to use their own money to purchase the PPE, and Dobson would use his connections to help distribute the equipment.
Xinyang “Yvonne” Li, MBA ’21, one of Dobson’s students from China, immediately stepped up to contact a friend who works at an import/export company in China and another who manages a factory that actually produces masks and other supplies. Dobson, meanwhile, reconnected with former student Liming Wei ’18, who in turn reached out to Xiaohao Huang ’19. Li’s friends and the Clark alumni agreed to help in any way possible.
Once the dots were connected, the students, alumni, and Dobson worked together to manage the international logistics required to get thousands of masks purchased and mailed to Li in Worcester.
“My concern was that medical supplies are now in high demand all over the world, and in China they are under very strict control,” Li says. “It can be dangerous to step into the mask business. In addition, the price of masks can increase rapidly depending on the demand.”
Dobson says he was impressed by his students. In using the skills they’ve learned in the classroom, the students are “building up their entrepreneurial self-efficacy. In other words, we’re seeing entrepreneurship in action — the students quickly pivoted to focus their skills and attention on ways to help during the current crisis.”
To date, Dobson and his students have sourced and donated more than 50,000 masks to area medical facilities — a huge number given the small size of their operation. They currently are working with three different factories in China and have three more shipments in various stages of production. In addition to UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester and Boston Medical Center, other donation recipients are the John Street Baptist Church, Ascentria Care Alliance, Family Health Center of Worcester, Veterans Inc., and the Worcester South Fire Department.
Masks also have been donated to the High Crest Nursing Home in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Dobson’s hometown. The facility there holds a special place in his heart.
“It was my first job,” he explains. “At 14, I washed dishes, and later did some basic handiwork and painting, which led to my first business, painting houses, at 17. High Crest sparked my entrepreneurial spirit.”
For Li, the mask project has not only taught her how to put her entrepreneurial skills into action, but also brought her closer to figuring out what type of career she’d like to have after graduating with her MBA.
“I’ve been helping a lot with translating and interpreting,” she says. “I really love that part of communications and being able to use my English while also being an intermediary and connecting people. I feel my value.”