Cougs step up.
Numerous courageous people on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic—nurses, doctors, first responders, and essential workers—sacrificed and helped us all. Many WSU alumni, faculty, and staff sought ways to support them, and to reach out to those in need.
On the first of May, ERICH BROKSAS (’93,’94 MA Intl. Rel.) sits in his northern Virginia home—in an office space he apologetically usurped from his wife—and recounts the whirlwind of recent weeks. The unprecedented age of COVID-19 challenged Broksas’s enterprising spirit and demanded long, grinding hours for World Central Kitchen (WCK).
Since WCK began feeding quarantined passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan, in early February, Broksas, the chief strategy officer of the humanitarian-focused nonprofit founded by renowned Chef José Andrés in 2010, hasn’t had a day off—his mind unrelentingly focused on the present and the future.
“Once we started feeding people in Yokohama, our thoughts went to how we might prepare for and react to a large-scale pandemic,” says Broksas, whose primary charge at Washington, D.C.-based WCK is to build robust partnerships that enable the organization to serve those in need better, faster, and more efficiently.
As the novel coronavirus washed over the U.S. landscape in March, severing the normal cadence of daily life and pushing millions into unemployment, WCK leapt into action.
Through previous calamities, WCK had established a steady formula: a disaster strikes and WCK rushes into the area, instantly meshing with local community groups and leaders. WCK establishes a central kitchen, crafts meals, and then distributes food to shelters and first responders. COVID-19, however, had made landfall across the United States. No ground zero. No reasonable timeline for recovery.
“There were no guardrails here,” Broksas says.
To scale its traditional response, WCK and Broksas concocted a novel strategy dubbed Chefs for America. WCK partnered with small, independent restaurants to produce and distribute hundreds of meals each day, while Broksas negotiated the involvement of third-party agents such as Uber Eats and Postmates to deliver meals to those who could not easily or safely venture outside. By early May, WCK’s efforts had put more than 6 million meals into the hands of vulnerable families, seniors, and health care workers across 218 cities—some 230,000 meals daily.
“It’s been hardcore seven days a week since mid-March,” Broksas says. “But people need fuel, as much to nourish the stomach as the soul and the mind.”
Broksas’s current work at WCK is the result of an accelerating 25-year love affair with entrepreneurship and social impact. As an undergraduate, he contemplated international diplomacy or politics, “before I interned on Capitol Hill,” he quips. Broksas spent much of his post-WSU life globetrotting to promote clean water solutions, global mobile connectivity, and off-grid power. Over a nine-year run with The Case Foundation, meanwhile, he investigated ways innovative technology and business models could drive social change.
“I wanted to make a difference, to apply business principles to large philanthropic opportunities at scale,” he says.
That passionate mindset made Broksas a perfect fit at WCK, which fashions itself much more like a Silicon Valley startup than a traditional nonprofit. When he joined WCK in July 2018, the organization’s fourth employee (it has since surpassed 40), Broksas brought his business acumen and enterprising spirit to an ambitious NGO with a noble mission to address hunger. He crafted partnerships with the likes of Google and Ford. He intensified WCK’s technology plan.
“I wanted to be a part of thinking strategically about reimagining the contemporary nonprofit,” he says. “That’s what we needed to be a sustainable, robust organization.”
After feeding people affected by hurricanes and wildfires, volcanoes and earthquakes over the last two years, WCK confronted its most significant challenge ever with COVID-19. Broksas helped WCK triage against present circumstances with its Chefs for America program while preparing for and anticipating additional needs amid an unparalleled public health crisis.
“Once we start taking care of people, we don’t want to stop until the local ecosystem is ready to kick back in,” he says. “That means we have to keep grinding, iterating, and adapting.”
Though a high-intensity effort, Broksas nevertheless calls it “immensely gratifying” to be an immediate lifeline for people in need.
“We have a unique model to address things quickly,” he says. “I’m massively proud to be a part of an organization that can deliver like this.”