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Like everyone worldwide, this year’s Fortune 40 Under 40 have faced the challenge of dealing with a pandemic that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and has resulted in millions more quarantined and working from home. But it’s through adversity that true leaders emerge.
Fortune asked the 2020 honorees how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted their lives and work.
Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
On adapting to a work-from-home-at-all-times life…
Adelina Grozdanova, 36
Cofounder and head of investor group, Upgrade
Zoom, Zoom, Zoom! I used to think that to close business, we always have to fly and see clients in person. I learned that virtual meetings can be equally successful (and save time)!
I also learned that it’s important to remain engaged with business partners through challenging times. Never presuppose what business partners are thinking, but reach out, stay in touch, and find out if you can be helpful to them. It is surprising how many opportunities come out of it.
Jamal Raad, 35
Cofounder and campaign director, Evergreen Action
I sometimes take calls from my bed, and my dog attends more of my meetings than he used to. I’ve learned that everyone is struggling in their own way through this. Try to be patient. Try to be kind. Try to be generous. We are all humans trying to survive a pandemic in our own ways.
On setting boundaries between life and work…
Ambar Bhattacharyya, 37
Managing director, Maverick Ventures
Before the pandemic, work had pretty defined boundaries. Either you were working or you were not. However, in this pandemic, we no longer have those boundaries. Everyone I meet is bringing more of their personal life into the work setting. I’m seeing—and giving—glimpses of spouses, kids, pets—or the lack thereof. Many people have been directly impacted by COVID-19. So many people are in really hard situations.
This has been a profound change for me in terms of empathizing with others. Beyond acknowledging everyone’s personal situation, it has required me to embrace that there are many moments over the course of a day where work comes second, and personal situations come first. And I’ve certainly been on both ends of that, and I have seen others accept these realities too. I hope this drive towards human empathy continues well beyond this moment in time.
Keia Cole, 39
Head of digital experience, MassMutual
As a team, we need to be more innovative to manage shifting priorities, adjust to the new external environment, and accelerate the delivery of certain products and features.
When the pace quickened, I was terrible about setting boundaries between my work and home lives. I worked as soon as I was ready in the morning and often until it was time for dinner at night. I was missing my time spent in transit—the subway commute and travel to our other offices—when I would catch up on personal email, interesting articles, or just unplug. I now build in the equivalent of my previous commute time during my day, whether that is meditating or catching up on television during the morning, or ending the day for a scheduled Peloton ride with my colleagues.
Elizabeth Hamon Reid, 39
VP engineering, Google Geo
The biggest change that I’ve made as a result of the pandemic is that I have to be more intentional in a number of areas. Lines between work and family blur unless I set stronger boundaries. I don’t have the same implicit sense of how my team and colleagues are doing, so I need to be more proactive to check in. The challenge of prioritization doubled or tripled, so I try to be more deliberate about where I’m spending time.
On improvising when the old ways of work aren’t coming back…
Lucas Joppa, 38
Chief environmental officer, Microsoft
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love whiteboard sessions, drawing out new ideas, strategies, and even budgets.
In the time of COVID-19, that in-person ideation time is gone, and it is difficult but not impossible to replicate. Doing this successfully requires formally scheduling what used to be impromptu planning sessions and using new collaboration tools. Where whiteboards used to draw the team together, we now use white space—unstructured time together to see a problem from all angles. This white space is an often forgotten workplace element in the new, hyper-calendared world.
Julia Cheek, 36
Founder and CEO, Everlywell
I have learned that some “ways work was done” aren’t necessary. Two of the executives I’ve hired since March, I’ve still never met in person. Moving forward, we’ll be flexible on how work gets done and how we can think differently about virtual and in-person time. And of course, I’ve gotten to see a lot of milestones with my son that I would have missed otherwise! So that’s the silver lining for me.
On paying attention to one’s mental health…
André Blackman, 38
Founder and CEO, Onboard Health
A big lesson during this time has been how vital it is to take time to invest in your mental health—whether through meditation, quiet alone time, or a walk in the woods—not only because of the events of this year but because of how much it improves your focus, happiness, and ability to thrive despite hardships.
David Rogier, 37
Cofounder and CEO, MasterClass
You mean besides sweatpants? Kidding. I was always taught to separate emotions from work. During this pandemic, that’s impossible. Emotions are too front and center. Instead of pushing them aside, I bring them up and ask others to do the same. We talk about our feelings in executive meetings—after all, this pandemic has impacted everyone, and we’re all being tested in new ways. Not only that, but I believe developing emotional intelligence among leadership in the workplace better serves both employees and your business as a whole.
On working with others during times of crisis…
Rebecca Mann, 39
Global head of enterprise partnerships commercial development, Western Union
I feel that I better understand how much we need each other. None of us were ever meant to go through life alone, especially a trying time such as this one. I’m not sure any of us knew just how much we relied on human connection and personal interaction until we began a global quarantine. Fortunately, with technology, we’ve been able to close the gaps in many ways we never thought possible, but I for one will never again take my own need for connecting with other people for granted.
Stacy-Marie Ishmael, 36
Editorial director, the Texas Tribune
I have had lots of experience both managing and being a part of distributed teams operating on demanding timelines to manage complex work. I have no experience in surviving a pandemic. What’s changed is that I am even more acutely aware of just how important it is to make accommodations for people before they need to ask for them, and that no one can both do good work and be in video calls for 8-plus hours a day.
On ensuring that no one gets left behind and civil liberties are preserved…
Charlotte Clymer, 33
Writer, LGBTQ advocate, and consultant
It’s made me rethink how labor structures are formed and enabled and what kind of responsibility I have in them. Wherever we are in our professional lives, we have an obligation to ensure that no one gets left behind, and what’s quite clear is that America has been leaving behind a lot of people and most of them are women, people of color, and those living on a minimum wage. This pandemic presents an incredible opportunity to restructure the way we do business in this country. We can become an equitable and ethical culture in how we think about labor.
Carmela Troncoso, 37
Assistant professor, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)
For me the pandemic changed everything. By a series of coincidences, I ended up working on a contact-tracing app for COVID-19. This changed my goals as I had to leave almost all my professor roles to become the technical lead of an app development to create an alternative technology that could be adopted by governments in few months so as to avoid the creation of surveillance infrastructures.
What I learned is that with a good team a lot of things can be achieved. Organization and communication can get support from society, and that can change everything, including what governments plan to deploy.
Jose Antonio Vargas, 39
Founder, Define American
As an undocumented entrepreneur, I’m used to physical limitations that lead to mental and emotional blocks. I haven’t left America since arriving here in 1993; if I leave, there’s no guarantee I’d be allowed back. I haven’t traveled outside of the U.S. for 27 years; I see the world online and experience other countries through movies, television, books, etc. Because I am here illegally, there are certain things I cannot do, forcing me to always think outside the box and figure out how to open windows when doors are shut. I always have to adapt. In some ways, my undocumented condition prepared me for the limitations of pandemic life. I’ve learned and valued my resilience even more.
On what really matters…
Max Cutler, 29
Managing director, Parcast at Spotify
From a personal perspective, the pandemic has forced me to slow down and reflect on what truly matters in both my work and personal life. I’ve had to become more comfortable with saying no to projects and activities I don’t want to do. Life is short, we should do what we love. I also discovered I am not as good of a cook as I thought I was.
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