What Does it Mean to Win in a Pandemic? The answer may surprise you.

Three entrepreneurs tell us their secret to winning in a crisis. Josh Gosfield/Illustration

In January 2020, Micheal Kirban, CEO of Vita Coco, saw his company’s global profits soar. As customers stockpiled his coconut water, sales tripled. It’s a dream any entrepreneur hopes for. “My business is on fire,” says Kirban.

As shutdowns spread across the U.S., Kirban’s salespeople were posting and boasting on social media about their sales. “On the one hand, I’m thinking, ‘This is great,'” Kirban told us. “On the other hand, I’m thinking about the restaurant, hospitality, and retail workers, who live paycheck to paycheck, now they aren’t getting paid.” 

In good times, winning for an entrepreneur is straight-forward: Having the most popular product, gaining market share, or seeing a spike in profits. But in the midst of the global pandemic, what does it mean to win? 

Kirban, whose entrepreneur father always taught him to be responsible for others, felt he had to do something. Although Vita Coco is a small business, Kirban wanted to use his profits to make a large donation—a million dollars. “My CFO didn’t love the idea,” admits Kirban. “Neither did my 7-year-old son or 9-year-old daughter. They said, ‘Daddy, that’s a lot of money to give away!’ But I knew we had to dig deep on this.” 

When Kirban sent out an email to his 300 employees to share the news about the company’s $1 million donation to feed hungry families, he got back more emails than ever before. “It was overwhelming,” he said. “People wrote to say how moved and how proud they were. One said, ‘Oh my God, I’m in a carpet store now, and I’ve got to wipe the tears from my eyes.'” 

For Kirban and his employees, winning the bottom line in the middle of a pandemic didn’t feel like winning. But using profits to help people in need did. 

“What we’re seeing now in this pandemic are examples of a natural, spontaneous human response that I call ‘unconditional altruism,'” says Athena Aktipis, a psychology professor and co-director of the Human Generosity Project. Aktipis defines unconditional altruism as a spontaneous act of generosity, such as Kirban’s, when the giver is not expecting to be paid back. This response of reaching out to help people in need is most common during a crisis—Black Swan events, such as earthquakes, floods, and pandemics.

Andrew Le, the founder of Buoy Health, is also a winner in the pandemic. Buoy Health offers a digital health screener, which sorts through a database of thousands of symptoms to help a consumer detect the likelihood of having a medical condition. The screener helps the user understand their level of risk for a particular condition and connects them to the right health care provider.   

Buoy Health was in the right place at the right time. Well before the pandemic hit the U.S., Le realized how fast and deadly the spread of COVID-19 could be. While others ignored the coming crisis, Le jumped into action. He led his team of engineers on an 11-day, moonshot quest to collect COVID-19 data from around the globe and build a COVID-19 feature into their digital screener. Once the feature was built, Le spread the word. His home state of Massachusetts, with 6.8 million residents, asked Le to customize the feature for its Mass.gov website, a partnership that would double Buoy’s user base.  

Although it was a boon to their bottom line, Le and his team felt something much more personal and profound than a business victory. Racing against time, clocking 20-hour workdays to customize their COVID-19 screener, they were motivated not so much by gaining market share, but by providing medical advice to fearful people, and saving lives. After the job was done, Le held an emotional company-wide meeting. “I was bawling,” he said. “And I wasn’t the only one.” 

Doing good feels good. And doing good gave the Buoy Health employees something that profits could not buy—the gratifying sense that they weren’t spectators in a pandemic, but agents of change whose work was helping people in need, even saving lives. 

When the institutions we depend on can’t take care of us, then who can? It’s often those who’ve escaped suffering and have the time, money, or resources to channel into helping those in need. Aktipis explains that societies rich with people like Kirban, Le, and their employees have an advantage over societies that aren’t. Although we’re taught about the survival of the fittest, Aktipis has found in her research of societies such as the Maasai herders in Kenya and American cattle ranchers along the Mexican border that the practice of unconditional altruism not only keeps a society stable; it increases their long-term chances of survival. It’s an unwritten code: When you’re in trouble, and I have the resources, I’ll help you, and down the road, when I’m in trouble, and you have the resources, hopefully, you’ll help me.  

And what about the toilet paper maker? For Juan Corzo Jr., who co-runs Miami-based family business South Florida Tissue Paper Co., business is booming—sales are up 550 percent. “Sure, it feels good to be doing well,” Corzo told us. “But it’s also sad to see the four hundred people from the hospitality and restaurant industries who show up every day at our factory looking for work. I’ve been able to hire about 18 laid-off workers. And I’d love to hire more. But it’ll take us at least 8 weeks to expand productions.”

Of course, Corzo could jack up his prices as other paper product profiteers have. But for Corzo, success is not about cold, hard cash. He hasn’t raised his prices a penny. “Our product isn’t a want thing; it’s a need thing,” Corzo said. “Success to me is being able to fulfill this need for our community as best we can. I’m humbled to be able to provide it. Next time it may be us needing something we don’t have.”

This article was originally published in Psychology Today

Follow us on Instagram @Find.Your.Road_for more stories & strategies on people & work. Find us at SweeneyGosfield.com