Shrey Kapoor and Chrys Nikopoulos are students at Harvard Business School, Class of 2021. Shrey and Chrys co-founded FinGig, a volunteer initiative which has helped over 500 self-employed Americans access federal aid dollars during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shrey Kapoor and Chrys Nikopoulos are classmates at Harvard Business School, and became fast friends over their passion for the gig economy and the future of work. They both spent their summer before HBS working with fintech-focused venture capital funds in India and the US, exploring investments in innovative digital products to empower the financially underserved.

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Chrys and his parents in Aldrich early in the spring semester

At the start of their first spring semester at HBS, Shrey and Chrys would meet almost daily after class to chat with HBS alumni and professors, brainstorming ideas and initiatives to promote financial inclusion in the gig economy. Things would soon change with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in early March.

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Shrey posing in front of the HBS sign on campus

“It was a surreal experience to be sitting in one of the final in-person classes of the semester and receiving notifications of COVID-19 lockdowns and witnessing the immediate impact,” mentioned Shrey.

As HBS launched virtual classes for the remainder of the semester, the devastating effects of COVID-19 were quickly becoming apparent with long lines at foodbanks across the US and spiking unemployment figures. Some were fortunate in that they could work remotely during the pandemic, but for a huge swath of the population, working from home was simply not an option. This was especially true for many gig workers and small business owners – it’s tough to work from home when your day-to-day is driving an Uber, styling hair, or running a neighborhood coffee shop. These self-employed individuals were forced to make a tough decision: either continue working and put their family at risk of COVID-19, or stay at home and not get paid.

In early April, Congress stepped in and began providing relief to America’s small businesses by introducing two key programs: the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Emergency Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program. Both provided cash grants and low interest loans to qualifying small businesses and gig workers. As COVID-19 spread, the two classmates found new urgency in their work on financial inclusion for self-employed individuals. As they both closely followed the developments around the release of PPP and EIDL, they immediately realized there was a major problem: although the programs had included self-employed Americans as eligible applicants, this critical segment of the US economy was largely unaware of the available funds and was seeing much-needed aid dollars going to larger businesses. “This is when FinGig was born – out of a realization that we could use our experience and passion to make a difference in the lives of self-employed Americans,” notes Chrys.

“We started small and local by asking delivery and rideshare drivers in our neighborhood if they had heard of PPP and if they had received aid dollars,” adds Shrey who remained in the Boston area while Chrys relocated to Florida to stay with family. The two began polling local gig workers to try and understand the barriers they were experiencing in applying for federal aid. After a few emails, phone calls, and socially distanced conversations, the classmates realized that most gig workers were incorrectly assuming that PPP and EIDL were only intended for larger corporations. “We immediately saw an opportunity to jump in and help these individuals, while also spreading awareness about these programs,” says Chrys.

After conversations with over 40 Uber drivers and other gig workers in the Boston area, the team picked up on common barriers to applying for federal aid and realized that they could scale an operation to help these individuals. They set up a simple website to allow self-employed Americans to submit a request for FinGig’s help. They began posting about their volunteer initiative on countless online forums where self-employed workers gather, and FinGig quickly took off.

“In early April, we had one or two people visiting our website per day (and that may have just been our parents checking out our website!), but once word began to spread about our services, we were quickly up to several hundred hits per day and the traffic only grew from there,” notes Chrys. “It didn’t take long before we realized that we could not do this alone, there was too much volume for two people to handle,” adds Shrey.

The co-founders began assembling a volunteer team that consisted of students from across the US who wanted to make their summer a meaningful experience by giving back. We developed onboarding materials to synthesize our learnings about federal programs, and we invited our new volunteers to listen in on some of our client conversations. When asked about growing their operations, Shrey notes that “we put a lot of thought into how we allocate our incoming clients to our volunteer team – we actually use a lot of the concepts we learned in TOM (RC class Technology and Operations Management) about bottlenecks to ensure that our clients were quickly attended to.”

Adding to the challenge of managing their volunteer team was the evolving landscape of new rules and regulations governing the federal aid programs. “Our clients were relying on us to track legislative updates in these programs and it came down to Shrey and myself to stay up-to-date on these changes,” notes Chrys who is a licensed CPA and leaned on his past experience with KPMG LLP in New York to understand the intricacies behind the federal initiatives.

“It was actually a unique setup for both of us – we were attending online HBS classes during the morning hours, and then in the afternoon we were managing a volunteer organization that was experiencing surging demand,” says Shrey. At this early stage, every initiative needs guidance, support, and honest critique to succeed. For FinGig, the Harvard i-lab proved to be a valuable resource that introduced the co-founders to experienced entrepreneurs and mentors who helped them not just with strategy, but also served as a source of honest critique on less consequential points such as website design choices.

As spring turned to summer, FinGig was attracting dozens of new clients per day that were relying on the volunteer team for assistance with their federal aid applications. In addition to managing the day-to-day operations of FinGig, the co-founders were also signed on with summer MBA internships to work remotely with leading firms on the west coast. “As we started our MBA internships, we were lucky that our employers supported FinGig’s mission. I remember on my first day, my manager was so supportive and enthusiastic about FinGig that he asked to become a volunteer himself and help our clients apply for PPP. If that isn’t 100% support, I don’t know what is,” recalls Chrys as he looks back on a valuable summer experience with an investment fund in Seattle.

When talking about balancing a full-time internship with FinGig, Shrey smiled and noted, “calling it a balancing act is perhaps too eloquent; it was more like juggling a few bowling balls while climbing up 10 flights of stairs. I would focus 100% on my internship with an LA-based fintech startup during the day, and then 100% on FinGig in the morning and evening hours which ended up feeling like a round-the-clock operation for much of the summer.”

In late June, the daily incoming requests for FinGig skyrocketed after we were featured on the NBC Charlotte TV affiliate. The co-founders were interviewed on the local news to spread the word about federal aid. Check out their on-air interview feature here.

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A screenshot of Shrey and Chrys' interview on NBC Charlotte promoting federal aid dollars for self-employed Americans during COVID-19

“One of the many amazing things about studying at an institution like Harvard Business School is the caring and inspirational leaders that you’re surrounded by, and via two of our classmates we were able to engage directly with the Small Business Administration,” notes Chrys. In early August, the co-founders hosted a first-of-a-kind Q&A webinar with the SBA to field questions directly from FinGig clients. The webinar was a huge hit and attracted over 100 questions from our clients across the US. Additionally, FinGig was proud to partner with the HBS student-led team at MBAsFightCovid19.com which helped expand FinGig’s reach across the US to even more gig workers.

“With all of the negative COVID-19 headlines, it’s easy to get discouraged but we consider ourselves fortunate that we were able to make a positive difference in the lives of hard working entrepreneurs,” says Shrey. “Helping our clients was a two-way street and our entire team has learned so much from helping the self-employed and small business backbone of the US economy,” adds Chrys.

Both Chrys and Shrey are looking forward to returning to Harvard Business School in the fall and plan to continue operating their venture during their upcoming semester in Boston.