MBA alumna pivots factory to produce isolation gowns, filling critical COVID-19 PPE needs

Brenna Schneider, MBA'12, holding an isolation gown prototype during a press conference with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. (Photo credit: Joshua Qualls/Governor’s Press Office)

For health care workers treating patients with COVID-19, having personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, face shields and isolation gowns, is essential to staying safe and healthy. The global shortage of PPE has been a major challenge during the pandemic—and one Heller alumna is stepping up to help. Brenna Schneider, MBA’12, founded 99Degrees to manufacture athletic apparel in Lawrence, Massachusetts, shortly after earning her MBA at Heller. But in response to the crisis, her company is now producing at least 500,000 isolation gowns per month—employing 150 workers as U.S. unemployment rates skyrocket and providing critical PPE to hospitals dealing with an influx of COVID-19 patients.

When and how did you decide to pivot your company, 99Degrees, from making athletic apparel to isolation gowns?

I think it was in mid-March we realized that we were just going to impacted in a significant way by coronavirus. Initially, it seemed like it was just our supply chain that was going to disrupted from the impact overseas. Then, when it became clear that coronavirus was coming to the U.S., my reaction was, “How do I keep our team safe and how do we deal with this?”

At the time, I wrote an op-ed urging our elected leaders to shut down everything to get the situation under control. Days after I wrote that op-ed, the press started focusing on the critical need for PPE. Obviously, we have sewing machines, so we know how to make sewn soft good products, but this is not our supply chain. This is mass production, not the speed and agility model we specialize in. I talked to my team and board and advisors and said, “How do we respond here?” We all agreed that if we could find a way of reopening and keeping our team healthy and safe, we would do that.

We asked, what is the product that addresses the most urgent need? We looked into products that are compliant with FDA standards and that serve health care workers—we’re not focused on face masks for the general public. That’s when we settled on isolation gowns for the medical community. We’ve created a prototype and gotten test results back that they’re FDA compliant.

How did you navigate the ethical dilemma of reopening your business after furloughing your workers for several weeks? There’s a balance between getting people back to work and making sure they stay healthy.  

There was really a gut check moment for me. We’re wired as entrepreneurs to pursue opportunities when there’s uncertainty. We don’t quit, we figure it out. But I had to pause and not let my body take over and drive forward. I had to consider: Is this right thing to do for our team? When I saw there were two confirmed cases in Lawrence—it felt like it came home for me. We started thinking about what policies we could put in place. How do we keep people safely distanced at work? How do we get our hands on sanitizer? I made a list and sent it to my team. The things on that list are non-negotiables. If we can’t achieve those, we don’t reopen. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in pivoting to manufacturing isolation gowns?

We’re just coming out of startup mode, so we’re used to pivots, but this is a big one. We’re used to large quantities but not mass production. We’re used to uncertainty in our market space, but not global uncertainty. We’re increasing to millions of units. We’re now set up for at least half a million units per month. We’re adding 20,000 square feet, and we’re moving equipment and renting basement storage space. We’re moving our warehouse to make room to social distance. There are so many physical changes and new policies happening, we also have to make sure we’re training our employees and that everything is communicated clearly.

Who will receive the isolation gowns?

We’re working with the state at first, then we’ll sell them directly to hospitals and health care networks. That’s another challenge. We normally have 15 customers, not hundreds, so we’re trying to figure out how to navigate all those orders.

You recently joined Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker for a press conference about the launch of the Manufacturing Emergency Response Team initiative. How does it feel to be able to help your state during this time of crisis?  

There’s a balance. We’re stepping up, and the response to my comments at the state house has been incredibly supportive and positive and a source of pride in the community. But it’s a very, very weighty responsibility. We’re trying respond to a critical need but also there are risks we’re trying to mitigate. There’s no perfect way to completely protect people, so how do we prevent our company from being a place where illness is spread? That puts a lot of pressure on our team. 

How has your Heller MBA helped you navigate an ever-changing landscape over the last few months?

The biggest thing that I learned from Heller is that business can be used skillfully to respond to public health needs, economic needs, and community needs. We need jobs right now in this community, and we need people to have PPE. We’re focused on the health and safety of our team and community, to ensure we’re not putting a strain on the resources of our health care system. We’re trained at Heller to not just pursue business opportunities, but to take on the harder challenge, which is always to look at the social impact of business on our team, on our community, on our economy.