On April 7, Chelsea Mandello EMBA ’21 launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $1.1 million to fund the costs associated with sending 50,000 essential medical kits to hospitals, health care workers, doctors, nurses, corpsmen and first responders working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mandello is no stranger to service herself. The Navy veteran is the founder and CEO of Troopster, a nonprofit military care package organization whose mission is to streamline the process for family members and friends looking to send personalized packs to their loved ones deployed overseas.
Troopster will continue to send packages to military servicemembers forward-deployed around the world during the COVID-19 crisis, but Mandello has temporarily shifted the company’s focus to raise money so the organization can support the healthcare professionals who are saving lives in communities across the United States.
“There are a lot of individuals who are right now working under extreme conditions to save lives,” Mandello said.
Troopster reached out to different hospital administrators, doctors, and nurses to find out what supplies they need the most. In addition to the obvious ones such as surgical masks, gloves, and other private protective gear (PPE), Mandello said there were some surprise requests.
“Items like stress balls because these are very stressful conditions,” she explained. “There is a big request for oral care products like gum, toothpaste, and toothbrushes. Many of the nurses are sleeping at the hospitals and working overtime. They need to take care of their own personal hygiene.”
Mandello said the GoFundMe campaign will give her team the ability to package up the requested supplies into kits along with additional items like protein and energy bars, packets of B12 and B6, individually wrapped snacks, small packs of antibacterial soap, and more.
Troopster is leveraging its existing network of wholesalers and product partners with contacts in the U.S. Postal Service and the medical community to coordinate the acquisition of supplies and raise awareness about the initiative.
“We’re working hard to get these packages out to our healthcare heroes,” she said.
Heartbreak in a Box
Then-U.S. Navy Petty Officer Mandello was serving on active-duty as a photojournalist on an 11-month deployment in the Fifth Fleet area-of-operations when she had an idea for the company that would eventually become Troopster.
Conditions were harsh in the Mediterranean. Aside from the typical challenges of forward-deployment such as slow internet and sporadic mail deliveries, the ship was tasked with an anti-piracy operational mission, making life for the crew particularly difficult in that part of the world.
“There were a lot of current events happening so in addition to being exhausted from working 12-hour days, every single day, there was the added stress of the pirate activity,” she explained.
For Mandello and her fellow sailors, a care package was a huge morale boost. It had been three months since Mandello had last received mail from home when a care package arrived from her mom.
“I tore it open and virtually the entire box was ruined. Baked goods had gone bad, chocolates had melted, and it crushed me to be honest with you,” she said.
A self-proclaimed activist, Mandello saw a similar situation unfolding with crewmembers across the ship and thought there had to be a better way to send care packages to deployed troops.
“We have two-day shipping from Amazon, there has to be a solution out there,” she remembered thinking.
She fired up her internet connection to look for an answer and was surprised at what she didn’t see.
“There were no online services where someone like my mom who was in rural Kentucky could go on and personalize a care package from her home, and then be able to send it overseas and know that package will get to me,” she explained. “I felt not only like it was an injustice, but personally and on an emotional level, I saw the impact it was having on my friends and junior servicemembers. I wanted to take care of them. I felt the need to make this better.”
Mandello started to write a business plan describing what this imaginary company would look like. As a Public Relations, Advertising and Applied Communications major, she hadn’t taken many business classes. She pooled her resources and read everything she could find about starting a business.
Then, on Thanksgiving Day in 2015, she launched Troopster.
Expanding her scope
Mandello remained on active-duty during the first few years Troopster was operational. She ran the business out of her home and grew it enough to warrant a brick-and-mortar storefront in Norfolk, Virginia.
In May 2018, approximately three years after launching the company, Mandello transitioned out of the military and into civilian life as a full-time business executive.
One of the first decisions she made was go back to school and earn her business degree using the G.I. bill.
“In those first few years of running Troopster, I really stumbled through a lot. If there was a potential pitfall or obstacle, I collided head-on with it,” she explained. “I wanted to go to school so I could be better equipped. I wanted to have the tools and the capabilities, and my own knowledge and experience to make executive decisions on what the business should do.”
After asking her friends and local network for recommendations about graduate business programs throughout Virginia, she “gathered her gumption” and applied to William & Mary’s Executive MBA program.
“What I found was that William & Mary was the only program that all around everyone loved and it truly has met every expectation that I had,” she said. “The professors are subject matter experts. They’re engaging and enthusiastic; they’re entertaining. It’s so nice to feel that enthusiasm when you go to school.”
Mandello found she was immediately able to apply what she’s learning in class – from financial accounting to marketing and organizational behavior – directly back to her company. The experience has had an impact on everything – from how she approaches business as a CEO to how she can optimize Troopster’s day-to-day operations.
“William & Mary has given me more insight into how we run and how we can grow in a more feasible manner. My perspective prior to the Executive MBA program was limited only to the experiences that I had as far as running the operations. Now my scope has widened to the potentials for where we can go and the capabilities we have to get there.”
Dedicated to service
Mandello joined the U.S. Navy after completing her undergraduate education at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. The Louisville, Kentucky native comes from a military family; both of her parents and her two older brothers served in the U.S. Air Force.
“I had grown up hearing these amazing stories of their time overseas, going on these amazing missions and having these fantastic adventures,” she explained. “I thought that before I joined the corporate world and went to work at some big advertising firm, I could experience that for myself.”
She served for seven years and toured the world documenting naval life across thirteen countries and different naval platforms. But it was that fateful assignment on her seventh ship that altered the trajectory of her career and ultimately, the scope of her service to troops and their loved ones.
“If you told me ten years ago that I was going to start and run my own business, I’m not sure I would have believed you,” she said. “Troopster started because we didn’t want to tell our moms or our dads that we were going through this mentally difficult time and a ruined care package was added on top of it.”
The company is 100% run by veterans and to-date, they’ve sent over 12,000 care packages to troops worldwide. The care packs consist of individually wrapped food, beverage, and personal care items that won’t expire or be damaged in transit. Selections range from thematic packs by branch of service to novelty packs like Flamin’ Love (which includes spicy versions of popular snacks and bottles of hot sauce) or The Workout Package (which includes whey protein, protein bars and cookies, and a shaker bottle).
“We try to make it a lot cheaper for military spouses, families and friends. We get bulk discounts for the contents and we get bulk shipping rates for the packages. If you were to make the same exact box on your own and ship it, you would be paying three times as much then if you were to go to Troopster,” Mandello explains.
Troopster also works with businesses nationwide who want to host employee teambuilding events. The team travels to the businesses and brings the boxes, the contents, and the shipping labels so employees can work together to pack and ship the boxes overseas. They’ve also sponsored local packing parties as an opportunity for members of the community to come together to decorate boxes and cards for the troops.
In observation of social distancing measures, Mandello says these events have been put on hold for now. Instead she’s focused on driving Troopster’s initiatives domestically and abroad, and working towards completing her MBA.
“I am very thankful to be going to William & Mary,” she said. I appreciate all of the support I’ve received for not only my education but for my business. The goal for Troopster is to be the household name for military care packages. Anytime anyone who is related or affiliated with the military wants to support their deployed loved ones, they can count on Troopster.”