When Disaster Strikes, Leaders Take Action

As Houston, Texas, USA, rebuilds following the devastation of the first major hurricane of its kind in the United States in more than a decade, businesses— not just governments or aid organizations — continue to play a key role in ongoing recovery efforts.

Within a matter of days from the start of Hurricane Harvey, YPO’s network of entrepreneurs were at the forefront of providing financial support. But beyond their financial contribution, members created innovative on-the-ground solutions to urgent needs using business acumen and resources, aligned with corporate values, to create long-term impact and goodwill to their community and teams. While the initiatives mentioned are by no means an exhaustive list, they demonstrate how, and why, some YPO entrepreneurs have reached out to help in any way they can.

Collective giving: The power of YPO

“In the middle of the storm, I was receiving emails from work colleagues around the world asking what they can do to help,” says YPO member Blair Garrou, managing director of startup venture capital firm Mercury Fund. “We couldn’t help as first responders. So with a number of entrepreneurs, including YPO members and five Houston-based organizations, we launched Entrepreneurs for Houston (E4H) to try and drive all philanthropy into one fund, initially to direct support to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund set up by the mayor of Houston.” Within days, YPO members became the largest contributors to the fund. “This shows the power of the YPO network. This will happen again. YPOers will be called on to give and I hope we can,” says Garrou.

More recently, E4H has launched its own fund to support entrepreneurial and technology initiatives that restore and sustain Houston’s economy. Garrou adds, “We learned a lot from this disaster, where technology was used so much. Our first goal was to codify all the learnings and hand over to the next city that needs them. The second goal was to find ways for young entrepreneurs to stay in Houston, to grow and become YPO entrepreneurs of the future.”

Digital relief efforts

Another member who closely collaborated with Garrou was Gaurav Khandelwal, YPO member and chief executive officer of ChaiOne, a digital innovation agency. “When Harvey hit, we started to see a disconnect between people that have things and people that needed things. There was a mismatch going on and we thought there has to be a better way to respond than through Facebook and text messaging,” says Khandelwal. Working round the clock for more than two weeks, his team built an app that can be used anywhere in the world, with localized language support to translate in many languages starting with Spanish.

“With the prevalence of technology around the world, local technology companies are coming together. The challenge is to prevent those communities in need from developing technology over again without leveraging the work of others,” adds Khandelwal.

From vessels to dry clothes

While many members responded with financial assistance, matching donations made by employees and launching volunteer programs, other members leveraged their products and services for in-kind donations, often putting their businesses on hold.

For  YPO member Mark Hollander, president of Crazy Shirts, it was clear that this tragedy left many without dry clothes. In addition to selling Houston (and later Florida) shirts donating part of sales to those in need, the company gave away thousands of items from its inventory using connections to help with the distribution logistics.

“We couldn’t have done it without our YPO peers and the logistics structure of a YPO-member company,“ says Hollander who was able to distribute thousands of items through the help of  YPO member Buddy Teaster, president of Soles4Souls. “These things occur in seemingly random places, but with the help of the YPO network, we were able to respond quickly with little disruption and full-team engagement.“

Another member who used the YPO support group set up for Hurricane Harvey is Don Hannah who offered his 350-passenger cruise ship, with the services of a crew of 80 people, including a doctor and a nurse, which was later sent to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, to provide temporary housing. “The vessel, between contracts when the storm came up, can arrive in needed locations in a matter of days,” says Hannah. “So many people have lost everything. Whatever we can do should be done and we remain on standby.”

Meanwhile, YPO member J.K. Symancyk, chief executive officer of Academy Sports and Outdoors, made use of company relationships with law enforcement agencies to donate more than 200 boats as well as the company headquarters as first responders’ command post to support rescue efforts.

“We flexed our folks and gave up our space. For two full weeks, the location didn’t look the same every day while the operation morphed as the storm moved around. At one point, there were 1,100 first respondents using the company’s two office buildings and large distribution center. We also had helicopters, high water rescue vehicles from the army and as many as 150 tractor trailers full of FEMA supplies stationed here,” says Symancyk, adding that far from complaining about the business disruption, the team felt excited and proud to help.

An opportunity to give back

While the support did not come without complexity and cost as all these entrepreneurs run for-profit businesses, the crisis for these YPO members represented a unique opportunity to help the community. “From our perspective, what is good for our customers and community will be good for us in the long run. It is our privilege to be able to invest back in our community when we have the opportunity,” adds Symancyk. “I believe business karma works. If you do the right thing, it will come back.”

He adds that having priorities tied to purpose and a bigger cause helped the team move quickly. “Whether building the right relationships in the community or developing a strong team culture, it is worth investing in these things for when the next crisis happens.”

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Rola Tassabehji is a writer and content marketing specialist with background in global brand management experience at Unilever and higher education at INSEAD. She is passionate about sharing stories of accomplished business leaders and has been interviewing chief executives and thought leaders from around the world for the past eight years.