If Jessica Li ’18 can save even one life, she says, it’ll be enough.
In April, she and her fiancé, Weimen Li ’17, created a company to distribute masks in the U.S. made by his family in China. The two want to make masks affordable and accessible to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, but their new venture also has a secondary purpose.
They named it for Jessica’s father, who died of cancer this spring.
“We created the company, but I call it a project,” she says from her home in Houston, Texas. “It’s following in his legacy.”
Jessica and Weimen both work for ExxonMobile, he as an instrument engineer and she in public and governmental affairs, specializing in digital media strategy for new technologies such as biofuels. She studied chemistry at Princeton and he studied electrical engineering.
For Jessica, this story begins with her father, Bing Li, who approached life with an “unwavering spirit of optimism.” Speaking no English, he immigrated from China at age 40 and for the past dozen years devoted himself to volunteering and local journalism, she said. He’d write and take pictures at church events, high school concerts — the pieces that build a community.
So when he was diagnosed with the latest stage possible of colon cancer in June 2019, people she didn’t even know started calling to anxiously ask what they could do. She moved him from Maryland to Houston, and says that with care from the MD Anderson Cancer Center, he stretched his 2-week prognosis into 8 months.
“The moment before he left us, the final words he wrote on a white board, in very delicate calligraphy, were, ‘I love you all and I wish you all the best,’” Jessica says. “This is somebody who in his final day and words was wishing the best for other people. The grief after he left us was utterly unmeasurable, but let me channel that grief into momentum.”
He spent the last 12 days of his life on a mechanical respirator, just before the coronavirus began forcing patients across the world onto the same machines.
“It’s a really sad experience to watch,” says Weimen. “The person has to be tied down because of the very unnatural feeling of having tubes placed into the throat. Patients that are put on the ventilator are isolated and quarantined. Your loved one goes into the ICU and you don’t know what’s going on.
“It’s something we wanted to help prevent.”
Weimen’s family owns a factory in China that makes face masks: Zhongshan Haochen Worker's Safety Supplies and Equipment Ltd. So in April the couple set about creating a company to import those masks into the U.S. They named it Gnomedica LLC for the little gnome that was Bing Li’s good luck charm.
“We thought, ‘This is it. This is how we can save Americans from the tragedy of COVID-19 and the tragedy of mechanical ventilation,’” Weimen says.
Government regulations, shipping, and other elements of the supply chain during this pandemic can require strong stewardship to navigate, Jessica says. That’s where she and Weimen come in. “A large part of this project is to channel the most affordable, reliable protection,” she says. They also keep a supply of masks here in the U.S., ready to be sold, so they can respond quickly when a need arises.
Already Gnomedica has landed contracts, including one for the city of Baltimore, Jessica says. She and Weimen also made a donation recently — 10,000 masks to MD Anderson.
And for those seeking to purchase masks for donation, the couple is willing to sell at cost.
“If we can just save one life, I think it’s the most meaningful thing we can do,” Jessica says. “And raise awareness to, please, wear a mask.”