Shilen Patel’s vision of community building is the foundation of his business and his life

Shilen Patel admits his story is just a portion of the larger story of his family and what they have built, since arriving in the United States.

He was born in Tampa, but greatly appreciates the sacrifices and challenges of those that came before him.

“Always around me, as a norm, was sort of risk-taking—this idea of emergence, and this idea of building community,” Patel says. “I’m just part of a bigger story which, of course, is the story of our family.”

He’s speaking of Drs. Kiran and Pallavi Patel—his parents—and their profound impact on the Tampa Bay area, much of it making headline news, often.

Whether it’s establishing the Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine at Nova Southeastern University or the sizable charitable giving that their family foundation consistently delivers, the Patel family has had its fair share of press throughout the years.

Shilen, the youngest of their three children, clearly has much admiration for his parents, but also a profound respect for his grandfather.

“Of course my parents are well known, but I always think, first, about my grandfather, my father’s father,” Patel says. “He moved from our ancestral village in India to Zambia, which is where my father was born. He was one of the first in their village to take that risk and make a decision to move—and then a decision to build community. The same as my father in Tampa.”

Patel has continued the family tradition. He is currently the founder and CEO of HealthAxis, a health insurance-focused software company, in Tampa, which had revenue of $45 million in 2021. There, he is building community.

Related Reading: Tampa’s HealthAxis receives growth equity investment

***

Patel describes his family’s time in Zambia as helping a lot of other families settle and find new opportunities.

“I still run into people who tell me that their father, or their grandfather, stayed in my grandfather’s home for weeks, or months, while they were getting settled,” Patel says.

During this time, Zambia was a segregated society—with few institutions or gathering places accepting of Indians—and something as simple as playing a cricket match was an impossibility. Patel’s grandfather helped to establish a social and athletic club—a place for Indians far from home to feel community and familiarity.

“When I was very young, before my family was what everybody knows, we had humble beginnings. They came here as physicians. They had a skill, and they used that skill to provide for their family and it wasn’t really until I was a teenager, and going into adulthood, that all of these really amazing business successes started to come,” Patel says. “I grew up in a household that was very different than the life and the opportunities and the things that are around us now. Upper-middle-class, certainly very comfortable, very safe, but defined by community, friends of my family and extended family and relatives.”

While he never lacked for company, he does describe himself as an introvert with a tendency to be creative and dream.

“I was a pretty quiet kid. I was very reflective. I loved to read and had an extremely active imagination. I would just kind of build worlds and stories in my head. I spent a lot of time doing things creatively, from a storytelling standpoint,” he says.

In 2001, Patel graduated from Babson College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and his head was in two very different spaces. One side of his brain told him to go far away from home, where he would barely know anyone—he had built a business plan for a digital marketing company. The other, of course, was drawing him towards his family. Family is everything to the Patels.

During the last few months before graduating, Patel contemplated his connection to Tampa as his home and community. He made the choice of home and he returned and led his first company, then called Visionary Medical Systems.

“I thought, in two or three years, I could grow it and sell it and flip it,” he says. “Eight years later, after a lot of unexpected obstacles and a lot of learning, we grew it from about $1 million in revenue to over $30 million.”

After that, he exited the company but had accumulated a lot of knowledge about the industry.

“I thought that the product that we were selling—electronic medical records—was going to be this transformative technology,” he says. “The world of health care was far too fragmented. There’s this whole fragmented network of legacy tools, data and protocols out there. It makes it kind of irrelevant how badly a doctor, or a patient, wants to adopt the technology.”

“The most successful innovations in health care have been the ones that affect people’s money,” Patel says. “What I realized is, if I could make the insurance companies more technical, more modern, more data forward, more integrative, more interoperable with the other things going on around them, they would stop being the obstacle to innovation in health care.”

Patel goes on to explain that the issues in health care have not been innovation but instead, integration.

As Patel was trying to figure out his next venture, he started working on the beginning of what would become HealthAxis.

“I put together a diagram, a sketch of what I felt was necessary for health care to work correctly. In the middle of it was data—good, universally accessible, clean, homogenized information—that didn’t really exist because it was coming from so many places, and so many different formats and things,” he says.

In 2011, after selling what became Visionary HealthWare, Patel decided to take a two-year sabbatical and work toward an MBA. He attended the London Business School and Columbia Business School, a combined MBA program.

“The idea was we [Patel and his wife, Parita] would use this as an opportunity to see the world. I wanted to go somewhere where, as an American, I was in the minority,” he says. “I wanted to get a very broad, global perspective and understand business from around the world. Not just business in Tampa, not just business in the U.S. It was a wonderfully laid plan.”

And, as most wonderfully laid plans go, it didn’t go according to, well, plan.

After about five months in the master’s program, he heard about and acquired HealthAxis. Patel saw an opportunity to revisit his sketch of what health care could be, versus what it was. Within two months Parita found out she was pregnant with their firstborn, Mila. Another acquisition and another pregnancy came before graduation day.

The sabbatical would have to wait. The opportunity for Patel was, once again, back in the U.S.

***

Patel is profound when speaking about his business life. Thoughtful and eloquent. There is one topic that reveals a more emotional man. And that is when he speaks of his grandfather, Kiran Patel’s father, who the family calls bapuji.

“It’s the idea of legacy, and how important it is, and how impressed upon me it is,” he says. “Your purpose in this world is to make things better, whatever you see, wherever you are, leave that place better than how you found it.”

Like his elders that came before him, Patel remains dedicated to giving back to his community.

In 2019, Patel and Parita were chairs of the Glazer Children’s Museum’s gala, raising more than $600,000 that year.

“Having kids of that age, and understanding all of the things that we get to expose them to, and understanding that not all kids can do that, I think that the gateway that the Children’s Museum represented was really meaningful to us,” Patel says. “It was our first experience chairing an event of that type and having to go outside of ourselves to raise funds or make those big asks that we needed to make. I think that it spoke to the importance of the relationships that we have in our community and why people help one another.”

Patel chaired the Community Enrichment Lab, a nonprofit focused on what is now referred to as the Uptown area, near the University of South Florida. That experience led him to the USF Board of Trustees, in January 2021, and founding the Shilen and Parita Patel Family Foundation to kick off 2022.

***

Kiran and Pallavi Patel met in an “untraditional” way, as Patel describes it. They met in college and decided they liked each other.

“A love marriage,” Patel adds with a laugh. “Here, we just call that marriage.”

Related Photos: Go inside the ongoing construction of the Patel Estate in Tampa

The same kind that Patel and Parita have.

“I think what struck me when I met her is this is somebody whose life had been an amazing journey just to get to this moment where we’re in the same place.  She was up for the adventure of life—‘What’s next? Where to next?’ ” Patel says. “That has been our life. We have had the opportunity to see the world. We’ve had experiences that have been transformative.”

“I learned that from my parents, and I think that she did from her parents too—this sense of movement. There’s value in movement and not just being frozen in place and thinking this is who I am,” he says.

The couple values their travels together. They were married in India—across five different villages and days—with more than 1,500 people in attendance at the smallest event, Patel estimates.

“In the villages, there’s no guest list. If you’ve heard about the wedding, you’re invited,” he says laughing.

One thing the couple varies on is how often they should travel. They take at least two major trips a year but, “Shilen would be happy staying at home all the time,” Parita says, with a laugh.

***

When looking for the next great investment for himself, Patel says it always comes down to the people.

“I’m looking for individuals who have a strong relationship with an existing problem and feel a sense of ownership, or a sense of opportunity, to influence that problem. And then, obviously, I’m looking for credible plans around that,” he says.

His interest in solving these problems plays well for his work with TIE Tampa Bay and Synapse, which has its 2022 Summit at Amalie Arena on Feb. 17.

“Shilen has given so much of his time, talents and treasures to TIE Tampa Bay since its founding,” says Richard Heruska, president of TIE. “He co-founded and chaired the $3 million TIE Tampa Bay Angel Fund, a fund established to financially support Florida startups, improve understanding and awareness of angel investing among Tampa Bay investors and help startups fulfill their potential as value drivers and community assets.”

He is also a TIE Tampa Bay charter member, invested in the TIE Access program which invested in women and minority founders and has mentored and invested in companies that have been a part of TIE Youth Programs.

“Tampa has always represented possibilities for our family. When we came here, it was a quiet town,” Patel says. “Tampa was a community that I think represented a lot of what my parents loved about where they were from, and where they grew up, in the sense that it was a smaller community.”

Patel has achieved great things in life and business so far, but he still has one box to check on his list of goals.

“My goal is to own a soccer team,” he says. “I’ve made a few attempts, but I’m not there yet.”

He will no doubt get there. And another journey will begin for him.

“You can change whatever part of the world that you can touch by running a business, whether that’s making the lives of your employees better doing something that’s meaningful to customers or providing access to a good or service that wasn’t there before,” Patel says. “These are the changes that I feel are important to me.”

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