Using Data to Fill the Greatest Needs for PPE

Seattle Foundation Philanthropists Rich Tong and Trang Le leveraged their technology backgrounds to help state and local leaders make important purchasing decisions for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other vital pandemic resources.

Rich Tong and Trang Le were new members of Seattle Foundation’s family when COVID-19 struck. With a desire to help, the husband-and-wife team turned to former Foundation and CEO and President Tony Mestres for insight to find the greatest needs.

“Seattle Foundation is a nexus point, it’s the place where you meet other people that you wouldn’t meet otherwise,” said Tong.

Mestres acted swiftly to connect the pair to Michelle McCormick, who is Microsoft’s Director of Procurement Supplier Diversity & Supplier Programs. Together, the group quickly identified a need that fit perfectly with their professional background – data. McCormick was trying to forecast how much PPE would be needed to keep healthcare and essential workers safe. But the group lacked a solid modeling system.

Rich Tong was one of the first product managers at Microsoft Excel. Trang Le is a supply chain expert. So, when the need arose for government agencies and businesses to develop a modeling system to accurately predict how much PPE could ward off the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were ready for the challenge.

“We were willing to help anywhere we could,” said Le.

It soon became clear that forecasting systems were a critical tool in states beyond Washington. What started as work on an Excel spreadsheet turned into a bigger endeavor and nonprofit organization called Restart Partners.

“We incorporated as a nonprofit in record time, with the mission to help the economy get back to work,” Tong shared, “The only way to restart the economy is to restart the economy safely.”

Restart Partners developed a free, open-source data-driven model to help state and local leaders make significant demand and purchasing decisions for PPE and other supplies. This model proved to be extremely valuable to Washington State decision-makers early in the pandemic and has helped other government agencies and communities across the country.

Several prominent organizations and institutions have worked alongside Restart Partners, including Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Facebook, Microsoft Alumni Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and World Health Organization.

Children accepting a box of face masks outside

The list of partners grew even longer with the Millions of Masks for Kids initiative, which Le co-founded to provide face masks to children. What started in Washington State has now expanded to include children across the country. Its many supporters include the medical equipment company FLTR, the logistics giant DHL, and the city of Kent. So far, they have distributed more than four million masks in Washington, California, Utah, and Hawaii.

“When we launched in each state, we had several children safely participating in events. It was very rewarding to meet the children, to work with all these organizations, and to see the impact that our donations were making,” Le reflected.

Le attributes the success of the program to grassroots organizations and volunteers who were able to physically distribute the masks. Leveraging the power of community, the initiative turned to organizations like Child Care Aware of Washington, whose CEO also served on Seattle Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund Phase 2 Childcare Grants Expert Table.

“We were able to get connected to phenomenal organizations thanks to Seattle Foundation,” Le said.

Le and Tong both stress that their professional backgrounds helped get the work done, but their upbringing and values compelled them to help others. It’s the desire to help others – and the emphasis on racial equity – that motivates them to remain supporters of Seattle Foundation long after the pandemic is over.

“The longer-term impacts of COVID are very large. Inequities are rising not falling,” said Tong. “Given the recent violence against Asians and the racial inequities that were clearly laid bare over the past summer, we’re very excited about the racial justice initiatives that the Seattle Foundation has undertaken.”

Last month, Seattle Foundation launched the Fund for Inclusive Recovery, which is a $50 million, five-year effort to drive investments to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led organizations, movements, and communities. The Fund launched on the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 Response Fund. Tong is Chinese and Le is Vietnamese. Their parents’ immigration stories have affected how the pair thinks about wealth distribution and its impact on families. Ultimately, it motivated them to invest in the COVID-19 Response Fund.

“Both of our families lived through civil wars in China. My dad showed up in the United States with 23 bucks in his pocket and almost nothing to his name. Trang and I were both incredibly lucky. That’s not true for a lot of people,” said Tong. “We’re very sensitive to the fact that we have both been very fortunate, but it doesn’t take much to pay a little attention to others.”

Le and Tong also saw how other people paid attention to help meet community needs. They hope it is something that continues well after the pandemic.

“We’ve been very inspired by the Seattle Foundation and the many people we’ve met there. Hopefully, more people will get inspired to help one another in this next phase, whatever it looks like. Let’s all keep working together,” said Tong.

This article was originally published on the Seattle Foundation Blog.