By G. Nagesh Rao ’02

“Knowledge and thoroughness,” inscribed on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute seal, guides me as an alumnus whose mission is to apply myself wholly and with purpose. When the COVID-19 pandemic was thrust upon us, this virus changed our definition of “normal” and tested the very fabric of our global resiliency as a human species. The “knowledge and thoroughness” that enabled us to cultivate a thriving global economy and ensure continuous advances in science and technology were suddenly threatened by a microscopic, contagious virus.

When the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), my employer during the early days of the pandemic, was tasked with the implementation of the historic CARES act funding to support small businesses, I was appointed technical architect lead for the agency’s COVID-19 response within the agency Command Center. Knowing that tens of millions of small business owners and entrepreneurs were in anxiety over the financial uncertainty was tough to handle emotionally, but as a Rensselaer alumnus, I was trained to remain resilient.

Although it was a surreal moment as everyone across the federal government rushed to get situated to work from home, my key colleagues and I came into the office daily to keep operations running. At that moment in time, we wanted to ensure our digital tools could withstand the onslaught of small business owners seeking emergency aid and relief from our agency. My team worked day and night, fueled by caffeine and adrenaline, to figure out the technical machinations required for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — $700 billion combined and deployed in a matter of months (massive and unprecedented, mind you).

We had to move quickly and thoroughly, while ensuring our solutions could be modified to adapt to constantly evolving legislative and policy decision-making. My time studying materials engineering and philosophy at Rensselaer helped hone my problem-solving skills and ensure that I was applying “knowledge and thoroughness” when leading teams working on the technology solutions being deployed by SBA to help America’s small business owners and entrepreneurs.

In addition to problems with more practical solutions, all of the events of 2020 presented us with an opportunity to self-reflect on a deeper level than many of us had before. Science and technology are agnostic by their very intrinsic nature, but their application toward a purposeful cause requires a nuanced understanding of their impact and potential for a ripple effect. For instance, isn’t the purpose of advancing technology to help enable an equitable balance, not exacerbate the inequities around us? During the pandemic, we undoubtedly exposed the inherent inequalities that exist when it comes to technology accessibility. We seek solutions to maintain stability and a sense of normalcy, but the inequalities have become more and more apparent, forcing questions about our country and world as a whole: Is there true access to opportunity or just an illusion that opportunity can be attained?

Nagesh Rao ’02 is a technology and policy expert with more than 20 years’ experience in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. He currently serves as the chief information officer for the Bureau of Industry and Security at the U.S. Department of Commerce.