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On Friday, March 20, Full-Time MBA student Naila Dharani was at home in California when she received an email at 7:45 am from Professor Sendhil Mullainathan asking her to give him a call. Dharani had left Chicago after a planned trip abroad for spring break had been canceled due to safety guidelines. Now, after a quick discussion, they decided to launch a project to help small businesses during the crisis.

The previous day, Mullainathan, the Roman Family University Professor of Computation and Behavioral Science, had published an article in the New York Times discussing what steps needed to be taken to assist small businesses that have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But he still wanted to do more. After discussions with two of his colleagues, Marianne Bertrand, the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and a Willard Graham Faculty Scholar, and Harvard’s Michael Luca, he decided the answer was to get Booth students involved in figuring out a solution.

So began a six-day marathon project wherein Dharani and five other students worked around the clock to conceive and test solutions to the current crisis, eventually coming up with a gift card idea that they are now sharing with several large companies.

“This is the kind of project that would normally take a month or two to execute,” said Mullainathan. “The speed here was insanely impressive.”

Dharani began by recruiting a team of her fellow classmates in the Full-Time program—Faisal Akkawi, Balthazar Bergkamp, Jennifer Linker, Graham Lombardi, and Katherine Sercombe—and organizing the mission into two phases.

Their first phase was about researching the problems small businesses are facing, zeroing in on a solution that could scale, and running a pilot to test their assumptions. The second involved refining the solution and reaching out to potential partners who could magnify the impact.

“The professors asked us to think as broadly as possible about a solution for this problem,” said Bergkamp. A key consideration, he added, was that the solution be scalable on a national level.

Over the next few days, the students interviewed over 25 businesses in Hyde Park and other Chicago neighborhoods, said Dharani.

 “The big issue that emerged was getting money to businesses that are closing because they have no customers or are worried about the health of their workers,” said Bertrand, who, along with Mullainathan and Luca, was in daily contact with the students. “Obviously, Congress is coming in with some loans, but it’s going to take quite a bit of time for businesses to access these loans. There’s a deep need for liquidity right now.”

The students designed a program that could be implemented by a single platform—preferably a large tech or financial company—that would allow consumers to purchase gift cards at their favorite stores and businesses for future use.

The next step was testing the validity of the idea, which the students did via interviews with small businesses and Google surveys with 900-plus consumers, 35 percent of whom said they would be willing to participate in such a program.

“We learned from the pilot program that solving this liquidity problem was crucial, but also that there were other non-financial ways we could help. For example, we compiled and aggregated existing resources for small businesses and created a one-stop-shop to alleviate the search burden when we identified that pain point. It’s exciting that we’ve had some interest from companies who want to hear what we’ve done either to augment what they’re currently working on or to help our efforts have a larger impact,” said Dharani.

Bergkamp added that “hopefully the partners will take the challenge and execute our proposed solutions. If we continue to be involved, that would be fine. But ultimately our goal is to inspire and provide the knowledge to empower a company or companies to do this on national scale.”

“It was a new experience for all of us. We were working to help solve a huge crisis that was unfolding in real time,” Dharani said. “I’m encouraged that we were able to do something useful and that it has received a positive response.”

Mullainathan commented that the project has been “humbling” for him. “These students have done more than we had any right to expect from them. There’s a lot of discussion at Booth about producing MBAs who are more socially minded. To me, a project like this shows this is not just lip service. We’re seeing a deep social commitment by these business students.”

To learn more about the project, you can contact the students at or visit the resource hub they created at