How three guys and a dream took on industry giants

Kai Chen, CEMS alumnus Founder and Fund Manager at True North Impact Investments in Toronto reflects on the lessons learned on how to do business post Covid-19 from his experience of successfully competing with industry giants during the pandemic. Kai’s observations and experiences fed into CEMS guide to ‘Leadership in a Post Covid-19 World’.
Kai Chen, CEMS alumnus and Fund Manager at True North Impact Investments in Toronto.

COVID-19 has been the most significant event to impact global commerce, arguably since the Second World War. The recent CEMS research quantifies this sentiment well, with three areas in particular resonating with me and my own COVID-19 entangled journey.

The most agile will win.

The sheer speed with which COVID-19 has, on a truly global-scale, permeated all elements of our daily lives was astonishing, far outpacing the capabilities of large organisations and governments to respond. In every industry one can think of instances where the response was too slow or inadequate. One which was highly visible early on was the failure of existing global supply chains and consequent shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as N95 masks. It was this context in which our small company (“3 guys and a dream”) was able to compete and win against industry giants to deliver product faster, and at volume, into the hands of healthcare workers. Suffice it to say, we live in a truly unprecedented global business landscape when a part-time, fully remote, start-up impact fund supplied 14% of Canada’s N95 masks.

Companies must reinvent themselves.

In an age of pandemic-accelerated digital transformation,  it is prudent for companies to think about COVID-19 not only in terms of how to mitigate its effect on the current way of working, but how to embrace it as the new normal and start the process of retraining and redesigning our organisations. With tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft leading the way, announcing remote staffing on a permanent basis, the future of work may look very different indeed. Since widespread pandemic border restrictions began in March I have yet to return to Canada—our N95 deals were planned and executed all while not having conducted a single in-person meeting in Canada. Was it the ideal way of working? Absolutely not. Trivial tasks, such as transferring funds internationally, became comically difficult when companies realised they were not set up to do business with remote clients. How can operations requiring an in-person authorising signature possibly survive in a post-COVID-19 world? They likely will not. Companies which fail to embrace the new normal risk being left behind.

Resilient leaders will be successful.

One last salient finding from the CEMS survey was on the paramount importance of resilience for leaders. Of major leadership qualities, resilience has by far seen the greatest rise in significance in the post-COVID-19 world. The pandemic has undeniably changed the nature of business—but change always creates opportunities for those who can successfully navigate it. By definition, resilient leaders are not immovable objects in the face of change, but they are elastic, bounce back, and are adaptable in order to operate, no matter the current conditions. If we accept that change in the business world, either driven in the contemporary context by digitisation, or in this current exceptional context of COVID-19, is fast and accelerating, then by right the successful business leaders of tomorrow are the ones who can readily embrace the new normal, today.

If you would like to learn more about Kai's efforts to trace PPE during the pandemic, read the FT article A business graduate’s race to trace PPE in the pandemic

For more insights from the CEMS Global Alliance on Leadership in a Post Covid-19 World, visit: