Being able to take a load off the medical workers and giving people a way to volunteer have been our biggest achievements
Matthew Lombardi (MSc International Relations 2012) is a Senior Consultant with Deloitte from Toronto. When Canada went into lockdown due to COVID-19, Matthew and his friends decided to do something to help medical workers on the frontline. They launched Grocery Hero, a platform helping medical workers to get their groceries.
How did Grocery Hero come about?
I have a friend who is an ER doctor and he described how he and his colleagues, from doctors to nurses, paramedics, lab technicians or cleaning staff, just didn’t want to go inside the grocery stores and risk exposing the public or themselves. To keep exposure to a minimum, they thought it was better if frontline medical workers avoided those spaces right now. I started getting him his groceries and I just thought that surely lots of others would be willing to do this as well.
I talked about this with four other friends one Thursday night after lockdown, and by the Sunday morning we launched Grocery Hero, a technology platform that matches grocery volunteers and medical workers based on postcode. Neither my friends nor I are engineers so, to put it in North American terminology, we have ‘bootstrapped’ this. We have spent less than $50 Canadian as we mostly use free online tools. It’s basically a simple matching algorithm and a sign up form, but that enables us to match people quickly with those that live nearby. As of today, 75% of our matches are within a kilometre of each other — we are basically introducing people who have been neighbours forever!
Within a week of founding Grocery Hero, you already had 2500+ sign ups. How did you get Grocery Hero up and running so quickly?
We launched it just using Facebook, Google and Instagram, we didn’t pay for any marketing at all. It spread online and by word of mouth among medical workers and among people who wanted to volunteer. While we knew there was demand for the service, we think the real reason this took off was because there is such a supply of people willing to help. I think we accidentally stumbled upon a way to give people a very targeted and very meaningful way to volunteer. Everyone knows how to grocery shop. It doesn’t take any special skills. When you tell people that they can help a medical worker in such a simple way right in their community, they are eager to get involved.
What have been your biggest achievements with Grocery Hero so far?
Being able to take a load off the medical workers and giving people a way to volunteer have been our biggest achievements. The stories that we’re hearing back are from medical workers saying things like ‘I live with my elderly parents and I’m a nurse. I don’t want the extra exposure of going to the grocery store, but don’t want to send my elderly parents either, so Grocery Hero has helped me focus on my job.’ I think it’s important for medical workers right now to feel like people are rallying around them and helping in small ways. Generally, that means staying home and following public health advice, but this is one more active way that is acceptable within the bounds of social distancing that people can do. All the medical workers we’ve heard from have been so grateful.
A medical worker’s family say thank you to their Grocery Hero (via Twitter)
What have been the greatest challenges?
We are doing this off the side of our desks – the five of us have full time jobs and so we’re doing this in our evenings and weekends, and on minimal cost. But we’ve had some interesting experiences where people have stepped up to help.
Google in Canada found out that we built the platform mostly using free Google tools and they came to us and said ‘We’re willing to help you guys with some development on the back end’ so that’s been amazing. And a law firm offered to incorporate us which will help us if we need to spend more money to grow the platform. People have been generous all around – not just volunteers – but also organisations who have seen what we’re doing.
We have also been shocked by the number of politicians who have endorsed the platform – the Mayor of Toronto, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Premier of Ontario. I think public officials right now have a tough job, and they are all looking for shoots of optimism and ways their communities can come together. This platform has given them a way to do that.
How have you managed to balance your work and life commitments around running Grocery Hero?
We manage to make it work, and all of our employers have been supportive. The other thing is, there is nothing else to do in the evenings! We’re all meant to be at home social distancing, so this is a welcome distraction in the evenings and weekends. It gives us a positive outlet so we’re not just sitting at home at night worried or stressed about COVID-19.
What are your fondest memories of your time at LSE?
How much time do you have? There are so many! The public lecture series really stands out for me, I saw some amazing speakers in my time such as the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates and Madeleine Albright. And the friends I met at LSE are still some of my very best friends – a couple of whom have reached out to help us with Grocery Hero because they are technology entrepreneurs and were able to give advice on the platform. All in all, what I remember most is the richness of campus life and the amazing friends that I am still close with.
How has your LSE experience influenced you in your life?
I think LSE has always prided itself in being integrated with public life. The lecture series shows that, but in general the School’s academic expertise is always meant to have a practical element in terms of what is going on in the world. One of the things that LSE drives home is that you are not just getting an education, you’re getting it to make an impact in the world. We’re all very lucky and happy to be able to do this in a time of crisis and making an impact in our communities and across Canada has been a privilege for us.
This interview is cross-posted from the LSE Alumni website here.