It starts with a lone clap. The slow, steady cadence of two palms striking together that swells into a ripple of applause. From there, the patter intermixes with cheering and whooping, the clanging of pots and pans, and the incessant blaring of car horns—a symphony reverberating from building to building, block to block, borough to borough.
This is the sound of New York City during COVID-19, a daily, two-minute tribute to workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
“I hope this is something we do for the rest of my life,” says Kieran Pickering ’07, who raises the window of his Manhattan apartment every night at 7 p.m. to participate. “It’s important to show our gratitude for everyone risking their lives to help others.”
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Delivering Healthy Beverages and Snacks to NYC Hospitals
As Kieran Pickering ’07 watched the COVID-19 news coverage depicting overwhelmed New York City-area hospitals, he had an idea: to fuel these front line health care workers with healthy snacks and beverages. Pickering discusses why he chose hospital workers and first responders, how this cause has taken off and why it was important to give back to his hometown during the pandemic.
A sales director at Mitchell’sNY Logistics , Pickering understands the importance of sacrifice to one’s career. Providing flexible supply chain solutions may not have the same social cachet as working in an intensive care unit, he says, but in times of crisis, it’s tantamount to saving lives.
Pickering has been reminded of this since mid-March, when he teamed up with a budding food marketer named Cole Riley to launch Founders Give. Almost overnight, the charity has delivered more than 2 million products donated by food, beverage and consumer brands (e.g., Chobani, KIND and Sabra) to some 50 hospitals throughout New York City. The supplies fuel thousands of doctors, nurses and support staff for whom dealing with COVID-19 is a harsh daily reality.
In addition to being the city’s largest donated food initiative, Founders Give will likely become one of the region’s fastest growing nonprofits in July, when it receives its tax-exempt status. Heady stuff for Pickering and Riley, whose careers, up until recently, had been buckling under the strain of COVID-19.
“When the pandemic hit, my business dried up,” admits Pickering, regarding his sales work at Mitchell’s, which delivers to homes, hotels and offices throughout New York City and the tri-state area. “I began sending emails to friends and colleagues in an attempt to drum up work. One of them was a ‘how-are-you-doing’ email to Cole, who told me about his idea for Founders Give. That was on a Friday. By Monday, we were working together.”
Riley, a lawyer-turned-yogurt entrepreneur, had heard that hospitals were besieged with donations in the wake of the pandemic. “Unfortunately, the hospitals didn’t know how to interface with the brands to properly collect, track and distribute product,” he says. “I created Founders Give in an attempt to consolidate the brands and approach the hospitals as a single entity.”
Working Smarter, Not Harder
To get started, Riley needed a truck, free storage space and some logistics know-how. Enter Pickering, who threw open the doors to his company’s 50,000-square-foot warehouse and shipping facility in Long Island City. He sweetened the deal with a full range of logistics services, including receiving, packing, storage and fast on-the-ground delivery. Pickering also tapped many of his clients in the food, fashion and theater industries for donations.
“By the first month, we had 300 pallets in the warehouse and barely any room to move,” Riley recalls. “Everything exploded to an amazing degree, far beyond what we expected.”
To satisfy demand, Pickering partnered with Hall Street Storage, a cold storage facility in downtown Brooklyn, and with Always Express and Raven Transport, which respectively provide dry and refrigerated trucking.
He attributes the runaway success of Founders Give to many variables, including a family-like work environment and a transparent approach to business. That none of his employees have gotten sick from COVID-19, lost their jobs or missed a shipment are personal points of pride. In fact, Mitchell’s appears to have weathered the crisis and is on the path back to success.
“We work smarter, not harder,” says Pickering, adding that his operation is highly interactive and digitally focused. “We give brands the opportunity to track their product from start to finish and to be on the ground at the time of delivery. We also let them choose what initiatives they want to be involved with. This way, they own the entire donation process.”
Lupii, a maker of plant-based, whole-food protein bars, is among the 300 brands that Founders Give distributes. Isabelle Steichen, Lupii’s co-founder and CEO, considers her relationship with the charity inspiring and extremely rewarding. “With Founders Give, we know Lupii lands in the right hands and makes an actual difference,” she says. “They have empowered us as a brand, while creating a deeply meaningful [donation] platform.”
Likewise, Nicole Desimone, who manages the collection and distribution of donations to employees at NYC Health + Hospitals/Metropolitan, applauds the charity’s personal touch. “Founders Give has provided our staff with so many great donations, everything from coffee and protein bars to bedsheets and self-care products,” she says. “A cold beverage after a long shift is more refreshing when there is a caring community behind it.”
Turning Ideas Into Action
Perched atop a loading dock at Lenox Hill Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Riley surveys a parade of shrink-wrapped pallets, each emblazoned with a Founders Give logo sticker. “It’s pretty insane,” he says, commenting on the scene. “Many hospitals have shut down their cafeterias because of the pandemic. For a doctor or nurse who has just pulled a 16-hour shift to be able to grab a KIND bar, a Chobani yogurt or a cold brew is a nice reward. It helps push them through the rest of the day.”
Nearby, tucked away in his apartment, Pickering conducts most of his Founders Give business via phone, email and text. Riley may be the face of the organization, supervising deliveries and glad-handing supporters, but Pickering works tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure everything runs smoothly.
Health and wellness were drummed into Pickering at an early age. He has two cousins who are nurses, and his mother and girlfriend both work in hospitals. At Syracuse University, Pickering majored in psychology in hopes of becoming a psychologist. “I had a lot of great experiences there and made some lifelong friends,” he says.
One of them is Michael Schoeneck ’06, a director in the University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. “What Kieran has done with Founders Give is indicative of his innovative approach to business,” he says. “Founders Give is not a short-term Band-Aid, but, rather, a long-term, sustainable solution for organizations that want to make a difference.”
Schoeneck says his friend’s indefatigable, “all-in” approach to life permeates all aspects of Founders Give. “He has taken the idea of social responsibility and turned it into viable action. That, in my opinion, is the greatest testament to a Syracuse University education.”
Peg Butler, vice president of marketing and external relations at Lenox Hill Hospital, echoes these sentiments. She says that since the end of March, Founders Give has delivered more than 100,000 products to Lenox Hill. “We have people working very long hours under very challenging conditions. We want to do everything we can to help them,” she explains.
[Kieran] has taken the idea of social responsibility and turned it into viable action. That, in my opinion, is the greatest testament to a Syracuse University education.—Michael Schoeneck
It is not uncommon to see a line of workers snaking around the hospital’s cafeteria, where a designated area called the Comfort Corner houses a rich menu of healthy, protein-rich choices. “It’s all free. People can take as much they want,” says Butler, motioning toward tables brimming with nonperishable items and fridges stocked with energy drinks and grab-and-go snacks. “It’s a huge, enjoyable break for them.”
Christine Blackmore, an infection preventionist at the hospital, says the donations make her and her co-workers feel welcome. “We appreciate that we’re appreciated,” she adds with a smile.
That Pickering was born at Lenox Hill made it an obvious starting point for Founders Give. “It was the first hospital I called, and it was the first place we delivered to. Since then, we’ve made six other shipments there,” he beams.
No doubt that good customer service will follow Founders Give in the months ahead, as it takes its place among the nation’s leading consumer packaged goods, or CPG, nonprofits.
Working with Riley and their small, handpicked team of employees, Pickering hopes to grow the company’s geographical footprint. He also looks forward to increasing its range of philanthropic services (be they proactive or reactive) during times of need.
“Social responsibility underscores everything we do at Founders Give. It’s a value I learned at Syracuse University, and it’s something I reflect on every night at 7 o’clock,” he says, clasping his hands together. “It’s made me a better person.”
To find out how you can help Founders Give, visit foundersgive.org .