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Three Friends Want to Make 10,000 Masks in 10 Days

A trio of well-connected Chicagoans turned mask-making into an extreme sport to address PPE shortages at area hospitals.

From left: Blake Hebert of Peterson Brothers Plastic, who’s producing the shields; Rajeev Bahri, who engineered them; and a medical worker at Mount Sionai modeling the product   Photos: Provided

Like so much else in the age of coronavirus, the whole thing started on a group text.

“It seems like a long time ago,” says Shalini Sharma, a local management consultant and fashion designer who now focuses primarily on philanthropy. “But it was the Tuesday before last.” March 24.

Amid the escalating coronavirus outbreak, Sharma felt helpless. So did two of her longtime friends, entrepreneur Radha Parekh and engineer Rajeev Bahri, the founder and managing director of two local technology companies, TEKchand and KYC2020.

Watching the news of overwhelmed medical providers in the Chicago area, what struck them most was the shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment. “Right now, a lot of these frontline healthcare workers don’t have anything — I mean, nothing,” Sharma says.

So the trio channeled those feelings of powerlessness into a goal: Over the course of 10 days, they’d make 10,000 protective face shields to deliver to small, under-equipped Chicago-area hospitals. They pooled $10,000 of their own money, and tapped their networks of friends to raise $46,878 more on GoFundMe to cover materials, distribution, and a partnership with a local plastics factory, whose staff is producing the shields. So far, they’ve delivered 4,400.

Below is an edited conversation with Sharma about their efforts.

Shalini Sharma

A lot of people are making masks. Why did you decide on shields?

From conversations with our friends who are doctors, we heard there were shortages for all the PPE. That includes both masks and shields, which you wear over your mask so nothing splashes on your face.

Because I designed women’s clothing, I went to work on a mask. We came up with the idea to use HVAC filters to block microbes. I created a prototype, but it was going to cost us $15 a mask; that just didn’t make sense.

Rajeev, with his engineering background and connections to designers, came up with a quick and simple design for a shield. It turned out all you needed was some plastic that you could buy at Home Depot, strips of Velcro, foam, glue, and scissors.

He figured out the whole supply chain for raw materials, then found a local factory, Petersen Brothers Plastics, to make them. He worked with a project manager there, Blake Hebert, who put in long hours on the mission.

It costs us a little short of $5 to make each one. We used our own money to create about 400 prototypes. We didn’t want to ask for money until we were sure that these could be used at the hospital.

What was important about the design?

The design is not by itself anything unique; it’s actually very simple. It took us a few trials to see what worked best and would be the easiest and cheapest to produce, and versatile.

In normal times, these are supposed to be disposable, but right now people are doing everything they can because of the lack of supply. We used Velcro because that way, the doctor can keep the headband on between patients, rip the shield off, and it can be sterilized and cleaned.

We also came up with the idea to package them as a do-it-yourself-kit: we cut the shields, the Velcro strip, and the foam, and we created an instruction sheet. It takes five minutes to put it together. The hospitals are more than happy to do it and it’s much easier to pack flat plastic than curved shields.

We started all this on a Tuesday. We had the prototypes being tested on Thursday. Within 24 to 48 hours, we got feedback, saying, could you make 2,000 or 3,000 more? We thought, OK, let’s get to it. On Friday and Saturday, we went live with our fundraising.

How did you choose a goal—10,000 in 10 days?

It was just some quick math — the amount of money we could raise quickly. Between the three of us, we came up with $10,000 of our own money to get this off the ground. We thought we could probably raise $50,000 total.

Financing and fundraising was my job, because I have experience on boards. I’m the co-chair of the Chicago Committee for Human Rights Watch and I’m on the board at Marwen [an arts education organization], though I’ve never done anything grassroots like this before.

I created a GoFundMe site and wrote individual emails to people I knew could give more. People reposted, and the hospitals helped spread the word. Now, we’ve raised more than $46,000, with donations ranging from $20 to $5,000.

How did you decide which hospitals would get the shields?

Radha was in charge of customer acquisition and distribution. She just started cold-calling hospitals. Within a day, we had demand for more than 10,000. That showed us how huge the need was.

Bigger hospitals like Northwestern have more money and resources to get what they need. It’s the smaller ones that are more exposed. We’ve delivered to Norwegian Hospital, Swedish Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital, and Cook County. Every day, we get videos and photographs, notes thanking us for what we’re doing.

What happens when the 10,000 shields are delivered?

We’re not in the shield-making business. We’re not creating an enterprise here. This was something we wanted to do to help our local community.

We’re making the design available to anyone who asks. We want to share it with everyone. People are now replicating our efforts in other cities, and here in Chicago, we’re starting to connect the hospitals directly to the factories producing the shields.

Our singular goal at this time is to deliver the 10,000 shields within 10 days [by Friday., April 10]. We’re also negotiating to bring costs down, so we can have some of the $50,000 left over to buy masks to distribute to the hospitals. We’re in the process of sourcing those.

The other thought going through our head was that hopefully, the gap between supply and demand would start to close out quickly. Where we’re at today is better than a week ago. But it’s still not to a point where we need to be.

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