In 2020, the city of Detroit logged some 7,000 calls involving mental health emergencies—a critical issue, notes Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who says, “When the mentally ill turn to the police for a response, the system is broken.” To fix it, the city rolled out in December the Mental Health Co-Response Partnership, a pilot program implemented with the county’s mental health authority, Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network (DWIHN), designed to create better outcomes in emergencies involving first responders and citizens with mental or behavioral health challenges.

“We wanted to place behavioral health professionals in situations where their expertise would make a critical difference in resolving crisis situations, or even preventing them in the first place,” explains 2020–2021 HBS Leadership Fellow Sarika Mendu (MBA 2020). As senior advisor in the office of Mayor Duggan, she has spent much of her first post-HBS year managing the pilot.

Resolving Crisis Situations

Mendu and other members of the partnership developed a three-part initiative informed by the best practices they gathered from local stakeholders and officials across the country who are addressing similar challenges. “We spoke to folks in California and Texas, asking questions about coalition building, data collection, evaluation, stakeholder management, and community engagement,” she says. “This was at a time when COVID-19 was exposing a big range of underlying health inequities among the underserved in our communities. Everyone was scrambling to direct resources to places where they could do the most good.”

“We wanted to place behavioral health professionals in situations where their expertise would make a critical difference in resolving crisis situations, or even preventing them in the first place.”

—Sarika Mendu (MBA 2020)

Mendu also shadowed staff in Detroit’s 911 call centers, learning firsthand about their daily challenges. “Imagine listening to callers in crisis over a 16-hour shift. It’s an emotionally taxing job. We created crisis intervention training for the 90 call takers, establishing new protocols and role-playing exercises that enabled them to identify and correctly triage calls over to a clinician on site,” she explains. “That had a big impact on improving protocols to ensure that mental health specialists are available to assist when calls come in,” Mendu says about the first priority of the initiative. “Feedback was overwhelmingly positive.”

The second part was creating a crisis intervention team to partner with police patrols in neighborhoods where substance abuse, mental health issues, and homelessness are chronic problems. “The goal is to help first responders better assess situations and connect at-risk individuals with support services as needed,” Mendu says.

A third component of the initiative pairs mental health clinicians with outreach workers for the homeless to head off potential crises before they happen. “Our model was a program we researched in Houston that’s working well,” Mendu says. “I was able to lead the training session for the Detroit effort, which was an honor for me.”

Enabling Career Exploration

Each year, the HBS Leadership Fellows Program gives a select group of graduating MBAs the financial flexibility to explore careers in high-impact nonprofit or public sector positions for a year at a competitive salary. For Mendu, that meant the chance to work with Detroit’s former Chief Policy Officer Kim Rustem on a number of initiatives including the development and launch of the city’s Mental Health Co-Response Partnership, as well as with Andrea Smith, director of Workforce Training & Program Development at DWIHN.

Her role as senior advisor in the Detroit Mayor’s office is Mendu’s first experience in municipal government, but she has long embraced activism for social change. Before HBS, she spent two years at Teach for America, two years with an impact investment venture capital fund in India, and a year in Denmark as a Fulbright Research Fellow studying social return on investment methodologies.

Mendu says being chosen as an HBS Leadership Fellow was “very humbling” and a unique opportunity given the pandemic. “As COVID-19 has reminded us, private corporations rely on public programs and policy for financial assistance during times of crisis. In contrast, ‘good’ corporate strategy often emphasizes minimizing tax liability. How might our economy be strengthened if MBA leaders, across industries, understood and addressed this fundamental gap? For this reason, I strongly recommend MBA graduates consider spending time in the public sector.”

In Detroit’s all-hands-on-deck response to the pandemic, Mendu’s focus shifted this past spring to helping with vaccine rollout. More recently, she has been working on rental assistance with the housing department and helping to set up the deployment of Detroit’s $28 million share from the American Rescue Plan.

Although the fellowship grant that augments her salary has ended, Mendu has extended her stint with the city to be involved in implementing lasting measures to ease housing insecurity. As she explains, “It’s an exciting time to work here and see how these funds can facilitate transformational projects and systems.”

Rallying Students to Aid Small Businesses and Workers

Sarika Mendu (MBA 2020) has long been interested in social entrepreneurship as a vehicle to effect change. When the status quo isn’t working for those without power and privilege, Mendu, a 2020–2021 HBS Leadership Fellow, believes “the more fortunate among us have a deep obligation to disrupt it.”

Her HBS mentors included former United States Small Business Administration head Karen Mills (MBA 1977), a senior fellow at HBS, and Mitchell Weiss (MBA 2004), the Richard L. Menschel Professor of Management Practice and a former Leadership Fellow, whose Social Entrepreneurship course was a catalyst for real-world action when COVID-19 struck in the spring of Mendu’s second year. With small businesses confronting unprecedented challenges, she and classmate Amina Edwards (MBA 2020) launched “MBAs Fight COVID-19” to match distressed business owners with students offering pro bono consulting help.

“MBAs across the country were eager to pitch in,” Mendu reports. Later called The MBA Response, the organization has drawn on the knowledge of 1,200-plus MBA volunteers from 20 schools to help small businesses and nonprofits navigate challenges through the pandemic. “There’s a history of student involvement with large corporations, but small enterprises also benefit from MBA students’ skills,” she stresses.

Concern for those hit hard by COVID-19 was also behind an open letter penned by Mendu and classmates Amy Villaseñor (MBA 2020) and Steve Moore (MBA 2020), urging FORTUNE 500 CEOs to treat low-wage essential workers fairly during the pandemic. Cosigned by more than a thousand MBA students from universities across the country, the letter read, in part: “It is your turn to show that managers and CEOs can leverage their influence and resources to benefit their own frontline employees.”

This post originally appeared in Alumni Stories.