Moments before leaving the Shark Tank green room to pitch Cabinet Health, the sustainable healthcare startup he co-founded with Achal Patel, Russell Gong remembered why he started the business in the first place.
“When I thought about that, all the nervousness started to fade away. Shark Tank could be the ultimate ‘make you look bad’ environment, but if you’re really standing for something you believe in, you can never be at fault for that, and you can never be embarrassed by that,” says Gong, who appeared with Patel on the January 13 episode of the popular ABC reality series.
“This would be my advice for any Sloanies who are preparing for their next pitch.”
Increasing impact at scale
After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Richmond, Gong initially focused on community advocacy for immigrant organizations in the public sector. Later work introduced him to one of the first iterations of a plastic bag tax law.
“That was really the beginning of my interest in sustainability,” he says.
Gong then left the public sector for private industry and joined Deloitte, where he ran a program that helped scale social enterprises and mission-oriented companies. The new role took him around the world to find and support such organizations—including a group procuring prosthetic arms and legs for Syrian children who lost their limbs in the country’s vicious civil war.
The experience inspired Gong to dedicate himself to combating natural and manmade disasters, and to enlist in the Army National Guard. “My ultimate goal,” he explains, “was to figure out how best to use myself to combat issues like what I saw in the Syrian refugee camps.”
Both Deloitte and the Army National Guard provided Gong with options. So, too, did Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Business Strategy, a popular course offered by the MIT Sloan Executive Education program. Gong enrolled in the course in 2017 when he realized that he needed new tools and technologies to better help organizations with scalability.
“My draw to the course was really looking for tools that help increase the impact and the decision-making of my work, and I can say that I walked away with exactly that—the ability to point to a variety of different methods and tools,” says Gong. “I brought them on a daily basis to my work at Deloitte, and I bring them just as often to Cabinet Health.”
Bus-tling with ideas
Gong and Patel became fast friends during a bumpy bus ride across the Balkan Peninsula while working together at Deloitte. They both had big dreams about taking their learnings and applying them back home—Patel in healthcare, Gong in sustainability—and these early conversations ultimately laid the foundation for Cabinet Health.
After a few more years at Deloitte, the pair left to co-found Cabinet, a certified B Corp dedicated to improving the environmental impact and quality of healthcare by eliminating single-use plastic in medicine.
“I see an enormous amount of potential with 194 billion single-use plastic medicine bottles. If I can even move it one percent, it’s worth a lifetime of work,” says Gong. “It’s not just about Cabinet removing plastic from pharmacy shelves, hospitals, and hotels, but encouraging big pharma and other medical organizations to follow suit. That keeps me extremely motivated.”
Educating potential investors and customers about reducing plastic waste is a significant challenge, let alone convincing everyone to change their consumption behavior vis-à-vis sustainability, but Gong believes it’s worth the effort.
“My son is going to inherit a world in which there is a lot of plastic waste and carbon emissions, and I don’t want him to live in a fearful world,” he says. “I don’t want him to have to choose between his health and the health of the environment.”
Making deals for sustainability
Shark Tank stars Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, and Lori Greiner all supported the company’s mission to provide plastic-free packaging for over-the-counter medicines, but in the end Kevin O’Leary and guest investor Tony Xu, co-founder and CEO of DoorDash, ultimately agreed to a deal with Gong and Patel.
Receiving financial support and additional collaboration from O’Leary and Xu was a fantastic outcome for Cabinet Health’s Shark Tank debut, but Gong is quick to point out that his and Patel’s reasoning for doing the show was much bigger than that.
“It was an opportunity to amplify our mission and educate the country about the plastic waste problem in healthcare and the promise of sustainable alternatives,” he says.
And it seems to have worked, as the response following the episode’s airdate has been tremendous. Experts in sustainability and medicine, previous and current customers, and even school groups have reached out to Gong and Patel. Many want to contribute to Cabinet Health itself, while others want to go even further and make pledges toward reducing plastic consumption altogether.
“We decided to focus on our research, our logic, and our reasons for why people should care about this,” says Gong, “and that can translate to any pitch—not just Shark Tank. If you have that, nothing can go wrong that you can’t be proud of.”