This High Schooler Hands Out More PPE Than the Feds - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because sometimes it takes a high school kid to show everyone the way.

By Andrew Hirschfeld

Computer science is a passion for Edward Aguilar, a rising high school junior outside Atlanta, particularly combinatorial optimization — a technique that finds the most efficient way to allocate resources. In an effort to learn more, he and his friend Shourya Seth started building a program that would mirror UberEats, finding the easiest path to deliver goods. “For us this was really a way for us to test our ideas,” Aguilar says. Then COVID-19 happened. The massive public health crisis presented a market opportunity to turn their side project into a humanitarian tool.

They started the nonprofit Project Paralink, which links up small-scale creators like their neighbors who have spare tissues or are making masks at home to stakeholders in need of lifesaving personal protective equipment (PPE) — still a dire need as coronavirus cases continue to spike across America. From there, using a network of drivers, they function as a DoorDash for PPE, getting the supplies to areas of need. Within weeks they delivered to seven states, bringing on more than 900 volunteers to help their cause. 

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Aguilar delivers PPE to Atlanta EMS operator.

Aguilar’s move inspired Advik Venkat to join the company in the months following the launch. Venkat, a classmate of Aguilar’s, lost a close friend to the virus. “This whole situation touched me personally so I had to get involved,” Venkat says. 

He and Aguilar, the 16-year-old CEO, work from before sunrise to after sunset, but on occasion they decompress with Ping-Pong or an episode or two of a TV show — often HBO’s Silicon Valley, where they see themselves.

In the show, a plucky startup challenges a tech giant. In Paralink’s case, the federal government takes the place of the fictional Hooli — and the establishment is again getting a run for its money. To date, Paralink has handed out 700,000 face masks nationwide, including 350,000 in its home state of Georgia. In June, the high schoolers beat the federal government at its own PPE game: Paralink distributed 200,000 face shields in Georgia in June, according to Venkat, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency delivered 190,000 — as the state has seen a steep rise in cases. 

The framework we’ve built should help in other disasters. It’s pretty transferable.

Edward Aguilar

Based in suburban Alpharetta, Georgia, Paralink partnered with Atlanta Beats COVID, a group that helped link them up with organizations in need. One of those vendors is Alyssa Siegel, who runs a pediatric speech therapy practice. Since state restrictions have lifted slightly, Siegel has been able to see some of her clients if they sign waivers. Working with clients who have autism, Down syndrome and other speech disorders, she needed face shields for her therapists that allowed their mouths to be visible but protected. Enter Paralink. “After we made contact, they’ve been awesome, and really helped us keep our business going in this trying time,” Siegel says.

Sometimes, it takes some convincing for the teens to break through. “Many people immediately disregard us because of our age, but we’ve found that merits trump all,” Seth says. They are worried about the sustainability of the program after the pandemic, but they already have a plan. 

When and if this public health crisis dissipates, the young entrepreneurs plan to attend college to hone their business skills. Aguilar and Venkat hope to build infrastructure that could work in the context of other disasters whether it be another pandemic, a major hurricane or an earthquake. “The framework we’ve built should help in other disasters. It’s pretty transferable,” says Aguilar. 

While their peers are grappling with the harsh realities of COVID-19 and coming of age during this unprecedented moment, Aguilar and Venkat are in the trenches. It can be emotionally draining. “Stay connected” is his advice for fellow teens. “Although we are socially distancing, ” he says, “to keep it together, if you have something you are passionate about, like us with Paralink, dive into it.”

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