5 months into the pandemic: Next steps, starting now

    It’s now been five months since COVID-19 disrupted virtually every business on the planet, wreaking havoc with the lives, dreams, and security of billions of people. Much has changed forever, and each of us are trying to move forward in our own ways – physically, financially, emotionally. If we want a better future, we can’t build it all on our own: we’ll have it do it together. And that starts with understanding where we stand, and deciding to act.

    The pandemic keeps accelerating trends that were already gathering force. Before COVID, over 1/3 of college and graduate students were already taking at least one course online. Today, thousands of colleges are being forced to reimagine themselves as at least partially online institutions. Globally, telemedicine was already growing at 16.8% CAGR; now millions of patients rely primarily on telehealth. After the overnight surge of work-at-home, companies quickly found that it could deliver substantial cost savings without compromising short-term productivity; now they are wrestling with some of the more complex implications.

    Every crisis creates opportunities. Some companies, like Amazon, are sufficiently large, well-capitalized, and agile to leverage them at scale. But many small businesses are closing – taking with them the hard work, creativity, and community engagement we need more desperately than ever. Higher levels of government help for entrepreneurs, workers, and customers will likely be needed for years to come. That said, customers have different needs and desires now, and creative businesspeople can discover new ways to serve them.

    As we more deeply understand the upsides and downsides of online health, education, and work, we need to start addressing gaps wherever digital interactions and experiences are falling short — and considering what they have now made possible. Crises often lead to profound innovations – economic, social, scientific. While our institutions haven’t all met the test of this crisis, many of us have found personal resilience we didn’t know we had. I think we’re ready to start making big and hopeful changes.

    One of them is this: let’s do something, once and for all, about the soaring number of people left behind by the digital divide. None of us want to live in a society where millions of people who’ve spent their lives working hard in the analog are left bereft.

    Measured by market cap, the rush to digital has been great for many tech companies. But the massive disconnect between those firms and the rest of society won’t be sustainable. Now is a moment for enlightened self-interest. If tech doesn’t take aggressive steps to address these disconnects, citizens and governments may redraw the playing field in ways it would rather avoid.

    Let’s connect

    How has your business responded and pivoted during this crisis? What’s worked? What hasn’t? How do you see the future taking shape? Please join me and a few leading entrepreneurs for an online panel discussion this Thursday, August 6th, at noon.

    Of course, that future will be led by today’s young people. Do you know any teenagers who might see themselves as entrepreneurs someday (or already are)? If so, give them a heads-up about the new Global Entrepreneurship Experience Virtual Teen Camp. Due to increased demand, an extra session was added, August 10 – 14th. It teaches life-changing skills they can use whatever they decide to do: skills for taking control of change instead of letting it control them. What could be more relevant than that?

    James Barrood is the former head of the New Jersey Tech Council.

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