June 12, 2020
Tartans develop tools and resources to support the mind, body and spirit during the COVID-19 pandemic
By Joyce DeFrancesco
“My heart is in the work” is not an empty phrase for Carnegie Mellon University alumni during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a way of life.
They’re using ingenuity and innovation to pivot their work to address the needs of those struggling during the COVID-19 crisis, whether that’s the mental stress of dealing with financial challenges, connecting those on the frontline with the supplies they need or finding the spiritual calm to deal with the isolation of social distancing.
"There’s so much uncertainty for people across all income levels, and we believe that it’s more important than ever that all companies, including startups like Digit, play a key role in supporting their customers’ financial health."
Vishwas Prabhakara (DC 2002), Digit COO
Building a Nest Egg
Growing up, Vishwas Prabhakara (DC 2002) saw firsthand the hard work required to achieve financial security. His parents’ story was a classic American immigrant tale: They arrived in the United States with only a few dollars to their names. Over the decades, through careful planning, spending and saving, they were able to buy a home, put two children through college and retire at age 65.
That story is increasingly rare in the current financial environment.
In 2018, Vishwas joined fintech startup Digit as COO after positions at Lehman Brothers, ESPN and Yelp, among others, to help make financial health achievable for everyone through technology that analyzes spending and automates saving. To date, Digit has saved more than $2.5 billion dollars for its members.
When effects of COVID-19 added additional financial stress to millions of Americans, Digit assembled a dedicated team to build new tools and gather resources in response to the changing needs of its members during the pandemic. The result was Digit’s Coronavirus Relief Hub. Launched in March, it provides access to information around personal finance, taxes, relief programs, employment opportunities and more for Digit members and nonmembers alike. Digit’s Hub has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors to date.
“There’s so much uncertainty for people across all income levels, and we believe that it’s more important than ever that all companies, including startups like Digit, play a key role in supporting their customers’ financial health,” says Vishwas. “Today, people are more aware of their personal finances. We’re encouraged to see that Digit is helping our members save more money now while further developing positive financial habits that will set them up for future success.”
"We’re cutting cost and time for people to find really critical equipment and supplies."
Raj Sharma (TPR 2001), Public Spend Forum Founder
Connecting Demand with Supply
When he founded Washington, D.C.-based startup Public Spend Forum (PSF) in 2015, Raj Sharma (TPR 2001) had little idea how vital his company’s services would become during the global COVID-19 crisis.
Raj and PSF launched its GovShop platform in 2018, which makes it much easier to separate good suppliers of critical personal protection equipment items — such as masks, ventilators, gloves, gowns and more — from fraudulent ones. It’s become a lifeline for many government and healthcare workers who are working on the pandemic’s frontline around the world.
“We’re cutting cost and time for people to find really critical equipment and supplies,” explains Raj, who earned his MBA in entrepreneurial studies from Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and focuses on public sector management and public procurement.
PSF is a global market research site and its GovShop platform puts data gurus, professors and supply chain experts to work researching, vetting and verifying emerging and nontraditional suppliers. The information then goes into a free, online directory where organizations can search for exactly what they need.
Recently, the U.S. Air Force was able to procure face shields using PSF’s platform in under four minutes, a process that would normally have taken hours, if not days.
“We’re just playing a small part, compared to the hospital workers, people at grocery stores and others really putting themselves on the line for all of us,” says Raj. “The least we can do is do the research and get them what they need as fast as possible.”
GovShop is currently working with a Department of Defense Joint Task Force and is being called on to help with supplies in New York and Nebraska, as well as a hospital in Ohio.
"If we learned anything during this pandemic, it is that humans need human interaction to stay emotionally and mentally healthy."
Paula Jane Newman (A 1996), Aware Meditation Inc. founder
Meditating for Improved Health
Paula Jane Newman (A 1996) has great timing.
An actress with more than 60 film and TV credits and prolific voiceover actor, Paula Jane’s life changed dramatically more than 16 years ago after she suffered a musculoskeletal injury. She turned to Vedic meditation, which can relax the body two to five times more deeply than sleep, for pain management.
The practice revolutionized her life and she became a recognized Vedic meditation teacher, including more than 6,500 hours of study and time in India. She launched Aware Meditation Inc. to provide others with stress reduction techniques and tools. Shortly before COVID-19 began to spread worldwide, she transitioned the business to a 501c3 nonprofit.
“I had always been in the back of my mind that more people could be helped if we turned nonprofit and put everything on a plane of service,” she says. “If we learned anything during this pandemic, it is that humans need human interaction to stay emotionally and mentally healthy. Shelter-in-place orders have led to elevated levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Aware Mediation Inc. is here to help.”
During the pandemic, Aware Meditation has provided meditation knowledge and scientific data in free online workshops, such as “Coping with COVID-19 Stress” or “Combat Coronavirus Meditation.” Paula Jane uses her vocal training, comedy talents and compassion from living in chronic pain to deliver a fun and easy introduction to meditation practice.
Donations for her course fees support the organization’s educational and charitable initiatives.