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Fridays from the Frontline: Stanford GSB Leading with Purpose in a Time of Crisis

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In this edition of Fridays from the Frontline, two Stanford GSB MBA students discuss how the leading MBA program supported their efforts to launch Gift Card Bank.  Khalil Fuller GSB ’20 and Harry Mahadevan GSB ’20 founded the nonprofit to help people in need due to the pandemic. Gift Card Bank supports financial & food security by facilitating the collecting and distributing of gift cards. Read on for their story, and how they drew on lessons from their MBA program to succeed.

Leading with Purpose in a Time of Crisis

By Khalil Fuller, MBA ‘20 and Harry Mahadevan, MBA ‘20

Khalil Fuller (left) & Harry Mahadevan
Stanford MBAs ’20

Dean Levin’s call to action hung in the air as the virtual town hall came to a close: “How do you want to look back on this moment a decade from now? How will you want to have applied your values during the COVID-19 pandemic?”

The final Quarter of our MBA2 year began as a dramatic and disappointing departure from our expectations, but grew to become the perfect culminating lesson on our MBA journey. We came to the Stanford GSB to learn how to navigate ever-changing circumstances, discover our authentic leadership style, build teams based on values and a shared mission, and develop innovative solutions to important problems. The previous 18 months of rigorous classes, experiential immersions, and relationship building prepared us to step into leadership roles to help our community during the time of COVID-19. 

Two months ago, Harry Mahadevan and I co-founded a nonprofit called Gift Card Bank to facilitate the collection and distribution of gift cards for essentials to people facing increased hardship due to the pandemic. Our mission is to improve well-being and financial security by helping people through their time of greatest need. The idea to use gift cards as a means to support our neighbors came to us after speaking to food banks who had been hit with a double-edged sword of rapidly increased demand while their volunteer bases were reduced due to social distancing. Gift cards are a novel way to use technology to ensure food access for vulnerable families.

Using need-finding skills acquired in GSB classes like “Startup Garage” and “Lean Launchpad,” we spoke to over 50 food banks, gift card companies, grocers, and philanthropic foundations to understand the issue from all sides. We are building Gift Card Bank one experiment at a time. A key lesson from the countless entrepreneurs who have bared their souls and shared their greatest mistakes with us through case discussion and lunch AMAs is that you don’t have to be a devil-may-care maverick and take huge bets to be an entrepreneur. We learned that great entrepreneurs are great risk mitigators. They explicitly lay out hypotheses and methodically test them through customer feedback and data-driven experiments.

The GSB faculty and administration led by example. In a matter of weeks they created a broad suite of new programs, courses, and resources for the Spring Quarter to allow students to learn about the changing world and to support the many student teams, like Gift Card Bank, that assembled rapidly to help. Professor Keith Hennessey created a class called “Civic Workshop” that became a laboratory for initiatives ranging from connecting volunteers to shop for the elderly to a social media campaign to get MBA students across the country to donate their stimulus checks to good causes. And a new “Business and Society Lecture Series” allowed us to connect with executives managing the crisis at the highest levels, from the Chairman of Walmart to the former CEO of Whole Foods, to Mr. Zoom himself, Eric Yuan. 

In “Formation of New Ventures,” when evaluating start-up cases we would ask “why now?” and “was this team uniquely suited to start this venture?” Our “why now” is naturally COVID-19, but our need-finding has convinced us of a long-term role for Gift Card Bank. Only in an MBA program would a group of friends who had experience in social enterprise, financial technology, software and private equity come together to tackle a social problem. Stanford’s small class size made it all the more likely that we would find each other.

Laura Arrillaga-Andreesen continually emphasized the concept of “legacy leadership” in her course “Power of You” this quarterLegacy leadership is the notion that it is our responsibility to use our unique blend of skills, interests, and opportunities to empower and include others. We have benefitted from the generosity of Stanford professors, alumni and business leaders who have contributed to our education and growth. They inspire us to pay that forward.  

While we did not expect to complete our degrees over Zoom, we have been humbled by the chance to put our MBA skillset to use in the service of others, and will look back at this time with pride. Looking forward, the relationships, confidence and tools we developed during our Stanford MBA will empower us to make a difference through the pandemic and beyond.

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.