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A plea by Colorado tech firms for a faster response to coronavirus goes national

The #StopTheSpread pledge has been signed by 1,200 tech executives who agree to change work policies, and support frontline workers to "flatten the curve" faster.

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Just after Colorado identified its first case of coronavirus 12 days ago, Denver companies Ibotta and Guild Education were telling employees to work from home. 

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As more cases were identified locally, a growing group of technology executives began maneuvering behind the scenes. They were concerned that efforts to prevent COVID-19’s spread to vulnerable communities wasn’t happening fast enough.

On Saturday, a new pledge to #StopTheSpread was started in Denver and began getting the attention of tech companies and venture capitalists nationwide. 

An hour after the pledge went live, 20 business leaders had signed on. 

“We can’t wait a week; we need to act now,” Rachel Carlson, CEO of Guild Education, wrote in a post on Medium that was co-written by Ken Chenault, the former CEO and chairman of American Express, who also is an investor in Guild

By late Sunday, nearly 500 leaders had signed the pledge, including executives from video-conferencing service Zoom, e-signature service DocuSign and Twilio, which last year acquired Denver email firm SendGrid. By Monday evening, the number of signatures had jumped to 1,200, adding the names of leaders from Mailchimp, Crunchbase and Canva.

A movement to get citizens and government officials to move faster in stopping the spread of COVID-19 started in Denver.

“Now is the critical moment when we can take bold action ourselves — like South Korea and Norway,” Carlson wrote. “In our democracy, we don’t need to wait for the government to mandate it — we can do it ourselves. As business and community leaders, we’re in a unique position to do so. As we do this, we recognize that these choices are hard — especially the burden on small business owners— and we will be focused on addressing those needs.”

The executives pledged to to act faster to #StoptheSpread and #LeadBoldly. They agreed to change their policies to allow employees to work at home, limit events “of ANY size” and ask employees to stop patronizing bars, restaurants and gyms. They also are making a commitment to support frontline workers, such as health care and first responders, and to “Treat one another kindly in the stressful time.”

Locally, Ibotta CEO Bryan Leach signed on, too, as did several venture capitalists at The Foundry Group in Boulder; Lee Mayer, CEO of Denver’s online interior-design service Havenly; and the leadership at Techstars, the global tech accelerator based in Boulder.

Leach, founder of mobile shopping app Ibotta, knew he had to do something after seeing research showing that the faster communities enact protective measures, the less overall damage to vulnerable humans. He had initially emailed local CEOs early last week to talk about best practices. It resulted in 35 of them, including Carlson, signing a statement Friday to urge government officials to restrict large group gatherings, limit events at entertainment venues and investigate ways to better support local health care workers. 

“Everybody wanted to be part of this conversation,” Leach said. “I circulated news of our call to people in my network, and I woke up the next day and people were saying, ‘Look, this totally changed our thinking. We pulled this forward by a week. We convened an emergency meeting and changed our timeline on this. We realized that we didn’t want to be behind the curve or out of step.’”

On Friday, Gov. Jared Polis urged gatherings of more than 250 people be canceled and for the state to relax licensing rules so out-of-state medical workers could be approved to work in Colorado more quickly. Several Denverarea museums said they would close, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock ordered all city-owned facilities, including Red Rocks Amphitheatre, to cancel events. 

Leach estimates that some 5,000 people began working at home a week earlier than they might have otherwise. 

“My goal was really just to focus on what businesses should be doing in terms of the workplace itself because that’s directly within our span of control,” Leach said. “We think there are a lot of other tech communities around the country that aren’t mobilizing and also, frankly, just traditional businesses, whether it’s a law firm or an investment firm or whatever it is.”

On Sunday night, the state Department of Public Health and Environment recommended that Coloradans follow new federal guidance to cancel or postpone events of 50 or more people. On Monday, Polis ordered bars and restaurants statewide to close to in-person dining for 30 days. Sen. Michael Bennet introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to prohibit employers from firing, punishing or otherwise discriminating against a worker who is quarantined or isolated or caring for a family member. 

Rachel Carlson, CEO of Guild Education, talks to Sen. Michael Bennet during a virtual town hall for Guild employees on March 13, 2020. (Provided by Guild Education)

Guild Education had already provided its employees with unlimited sick time and extended it to those with a partner who is a first responder or health care worker. The company is also trying to help the hundreds of thousands of retail and service workers that use Guild to take online college courses as part of their employers’ benefits programs. A GoFundMe campaign to raise money to support students affected by COVID-19 had raised about a third of its $10,000 goal by Monday. It reached the goal by Tuesday morning hitting $11,489 by 9 a.m.

“What I’m more concerned about is what’s going to happen as the virus continues to spread and gain momentum with frontline workers who have to balance taking care of their kids who likely had school canceled and showing up for their jobs and supporting all of the rest of us,” said Josh Scott, president of Guild Education. “We’re bringing our germs into their workplace and they’re living in a situation where that hourly paycheck they get is critical to their well-being.”

Concern has spread as an increasing number of people test positive for coronavirus even though some say they had no symptoms, including a Crested Butte woman who found out Wednesday; she believes she caught it while in Hawaii last month. Polis took further measures over the weekend to order all Colorado ski resorts to close.

Businesses nationwide from hotels and airlines to casinos spent the past week messaging customers about how they were wiping down surfaces and cleaning their buildings.

Project Rise Fitness in Denver had already been doing that last month. Last week, It capped class sizes and offered a new workout daily on its app. On Sunday, the gym was considering moving to an all-digital program, said Harris Kenny, who is working with the gym as a consultant with Kenny Consulting Group.

“They’re implementing the best practices on the cleaning side, but they’re also building this whole parallel version of their business that doesn’t require people to come in and still (allow customers to) be doing the right things for themselves health wise,” Kenny said. “It’s been a ton of work.”

Many tech companies and entrepreneurs already rely on video-conferencing tools and online messaging systems so employees can work remotely as needed. For those folks, waiting out the coronavirus remotely isn’t so difficult, said Lizelle van Vuuren, founder of the Denver-based Women Who Startup organization. Last Monday, she decided to avoid the usual meetup and moved the organization’s March 17 event online using Crowdcast technology.

Lizelle van Vuuren, founder of Women Who Startup during a Denver Startup Week event in 2018. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

But it’s the startups and smaller businesses that rely on in-person connections that worry her

“I’m talking to small business owners who have retail businesses. I’m talking to new startups who have real” immediate issues, van Vuuren said. “Think about Soona (Studios) who has a retail component. I was tweeting (Soona founder) Liz Giorgi and while brainstorming with her about it, she asked the question, ‘What do I do?’”

Soona provides professionally shot photos and videos for clients on a drop-in basis. Customers can supply footage, but the main point of Soona is that it has access to professional equipment and photographers and videographers. She said Soona ended up deciding that most of its staff can work from home, but studio pros will be on site and have daily health check-ins.

“The interesting thing is there’s a domino effect because every small business impacts many other small businesses,” van Vuuren said. “I’m worried about the coffee shops around the corner. But what I’m hearing is what they’re calling the Groupon effect where people are encouraging people to go and buy a gift card at your local coffee shop or your local restaurant. Even if you may not go and enjoy that right now, that $5, $10 or $20 means you’re generating revenue for them.”

Scott, with Guild Education, said part of the pledge is for tech companies’ employees to free up their time to also support their local communities, including startups and small businesses, because it will take everyone.

“We think it’s really important that we act together as a community to do as much as we can to ensure that the curve bends down and in the least steep way as possible,” Scott said. “One of the beautiful things from our perspective about the Denver Startup and technology community is that we’re a really tight-knit collaborative community and so it was really easy to put together a group of leaders from the leading companies across their area to come together around this important issue.”

This story was updated at 9 a.m. on March 17, 2020 to reflect Guild Education’s fundraising goal was reached.