When Apoorva Pasricha (MBA 2019) assumed her role with the City of San Jose’s Mayor’s Office of Technology & Innovation as an HBS Leadership Fellow in August 2019, her mandate was to implement San Jose’s ‘Smart City’ road map. "My entire career has been driven by solving problems at the intersection of the private and public sectors,” Pasricha says. “I’m excited by the way technology will change our urban lives."

For the first half of her tenure, Pasricha led the City’s digital inclusion initiative. Recognizing that approximately ten percent of its citizens did not have internet access, devices, or digital literacy, San Jose launched a $24 million fund, to be distributed over the next ten years, to provide grants to community groups serving low-income residents. "I was responsible for proposing the framework for funding distribution,” says Pasricha. “How would funds be allocated? To which groups? And on what basis?” To integrate operations and reach the public, she also oversaw the launch of SJDigitalInclusion.org, San Jose’s portal for the initiative.

Building the website from scratch, along with identifying potential corporate partners, crafting fundraising pitches, and managing multiple stakeholders, has been a challenge Pasricha has welcomed. She says, “To close the digital divide in San Jose we’ve been running this collaborative effort between the public and private sectors that feels much like launching a start-up within an established organization.”

Pivoting in the Midst of a Pandemic

By October 2019, the grant application was launched and in February 2020, the City Council began approving grants and distributing funds. “No other city,” Pasricha notes, “has launched an initiative like this.”

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck. As San Jose’s schools transitioned to online learning, “the pandemic highlighted digital inequities around devices and connectivity and created a greater sense of urgency,” says Pasricha. Suddenly, Pasricha and her colleagues had to reorganize their functional priorities. “How do we pivot what we’re doing to focus on the educational side because that’s what’s needed immediately?” she asked. “The crisis emphasizes the necessity of agility.” Within days, the Mayor’s Office redirected their efforts to help schools “financially and operationally.” With $1 million in distributed grant moneys to nonprofit partners, “we have an ecosystem for digital equity, twenty-three organizations trained to help schools get connected.”

In addition, Pasricha had been working on an AI-powered Chatbot to help San Jose residents access City services in a user-friendly and accessible way. When San Jose became one of the first cities to impose a home shelter order and priorities shifted due to COVID-19, the project was quickly retooled to address the pandemic. “It is critical to enable residents to access COVID-19 resources easily,” she explains and “in the context of city government, the Mayor’s team has to be creative with its authority.”

As of April 27, the Chatbot is now live and available to 1.9 million people as part of the new Silicon Valley Strong website, the centralized clearing house of coronavirus resources. “One of the things you can do to calm the frenzy is communicate since it builds trust with our “customer,” the resident in the City,” says Pasricha.

Planning for the Future

Pasricha has been working remotely since March 10. As a practical matter, she advises, “Buy a good set of headphones – you’re going to be on calls all day.” At a deeper level, “My entire job is a relationship business. A large chunk of my phone conversations begin with a mini-check-in. It may take time away from content, but it’s important to maintain the quality of our relationships – it’s instrumental to the success of our team.”

As Pasricha continues her one-year fellowship at the Mayor’s Office through the summer, she anticipates that “with our shelter-in-place orders, the nature of our work will not go back to normal. Economic recovery will be top of mind for everyone.” To address these concerns in San Jose, Pasricha and her colleagues are collaborating with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group to launch an Economic Recovery Council to forge a strategic path forward for inclusive revitalization.

“On a personal level,” Pasricha says, “I appreciate the coordination of multiple sectors that will have to play a big part of any recovery; that’s where I see my work going. It’s an ‘all hands on deck’ approach. I feel that I’m part of an essential team because there’s so much to be done that I can contribute to.”