Ample Supply of PPE Heading to Hawai‘i, Thanks to Three Alumni

By Tara Olney

Robin Chan with fellow ’95 classmate Joanne Teruya.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, alumnus Robin Chan ’95 has spearheaded a heroic effort that will result in an ample supply of desperately needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to come to Hawai‘i and other U.S. states.

Hawai‘i healthcare workers now will have far more access to PPE, after Chan serendipitously tapped his Punahou connections, including Cathy Ross ’95, Hawai‘i’s Deputy Director of Health and State Purchasing Specialist Shannon Ota ’00. “The Punahou network has allowed us to come together to help Hawai‘i,” Chan said. “Truly, the power of the Punahou ‘ohana has allowed us to execute this. I think this shipment of masks will significantly help Hawai‘i in this fight, but more needs to be done. It’s a long road ahead.”

Currently based in San Francisco, Chan is the general partner and founder of Goat Capital, with experience building and scaling such global companies as Twitter and Uber. After learning of the shortage of PPE in hospitals across the country, Chan decided to leverage his experience and mobilize the supply of medical equipment direct from factories in China. 

Out of this initial idea, Operation Masks was born. Chan launched the nonprofit with friends and entrepreneurs with backgrounds in healthcare, technology and logistics – all of whom sought to help during the pandemic. Now, only a few weeks into this charitable venture, the organization has channeled significant supplies of PPE, directly matching producers to consumers, as well as connecting overseas suppliers with available inventory to medical facilities.

Their efforts are disrupting current supply chains, removing the need for medical supply middlemen and circumventing price wars over bottlenecked goods. “Right now, nearly all of the ammunition is in one country,” he said. “This is one of the limits of globalization – we no longer make everything we need right here at home. We have to adapt, and that includes thinking creatively and expansively about how to better connect our vulnerable supply chains.” 

Since mid-March, the organization has secured the purchase of millions of masks for states across the country, including Hawai‘i. And that’s because as soon as Chan saw the potential impact of Operation Masks, his thoughts turned to his home.

He knew Hawai‘i, with its size and relatively low buying power, would have difficulty securing adequate PPE to combat the virus’ outbreak in the Islands. He reached out to his Punahou classmates via his class Facebook page and asked, “Does anyone have a connection in the Department of Health?”

Chan’s friends recommended the perfect person – his classmate, Cathy Ross. She has been intensely focused on the State’s COVID-19 response, and was particularly concerned that local front-line health care personnel and first responders wouldn’t have the necessary equipment to deal with the virus.

“Larger markets for medical supplies were just beating us to every purchase,” she said. “Cities like New York, with their budget and size, can place a million-dollar order without much worry. Here in Hawai‘i, we simply don’t have that buying power, and we would be devastated if the masks turned out to be counterfeit or the deal fell through. That’s where Operation Masks came in for us. Robin and his team were able to use their connections and leverage to not only secure a deal for us, but personally verify the quality and set favorable terms for us.”

Ross turned to the Hawai‘i State Procurement Office (SPO) to get the deal done. The office is part of the Hawai‘i Emergency Management (HIEMA) logistics team and is responsible for purchasing during emergencies. Shannon Ota, who was tasked to follow up on PPE leads, says the COVID-19 crisis has forced her department to think outside the box to find supplies.

“My colleagues and I had been scouring the earth, leaving no stone unturned, to find PPE to supply front-line healthcare workers and first responders across the State of Hawaii,” she said. “When the information from Cathy came in about a local boy with a line on masks, I was able to learn of fellow alumni Chan and work with him. My department has really stepped outside our normal boundaries so we can keep a handle on all the needs of the State.” 

Together, the trio was able to swiftly place one of the first orders of critically needed masks through Operation Masks. “We are so unbelievably relieved to have their support,” Ross said.

The trio noted the ease and speed at which they were able to work together to bring Hawai‘i’s order to fruition. “Right after we closed this unusual deal at record speed, Robin sent me the following via text: ‘#thepowerofapunahoueducation’ and though it may sound corny, it’s true,” Ross said. 

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