Chillin’ with Shilen at J.C. Newman Cigar Co.
Shilen Patel is the founder and chief executive officer of HealthAxis, a health insurance-focused software company in Tampa, which had revenue of $45 million in 2021.
He is a Tie Tampa Bay charter member and has mentored and invested in companies that have been a part of Tie Youth Programs.
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 to establishing the Shilen and Parita Patel Family Foundation to kick-off 2022.
Bridgette Bello, CEO and publisher of TBBW, interviewed Patel in front of a sold-out audience at J.C. Newman Cigar Co., in Tampa. This transcript has been edited for length and brevity.
Can you talk about the investment that you just received from the private equity firm? I know you have to be careful how many details you share, but share as much as you can with the people who came to see you tonight?
It was a minority growth equity investment. After 10 years of, basically, bootstrapping and self-funding, the company was looking, for the first time at, taking in an outside partner, using somebody else’s money to try to get to where we wanted to go. Bringing in outside perspectives. And it was a heck of a process.
The journey that we went on would have been difficult, maybe impossible, 10 years ago as a company based in this market. I think the best thing, or the coolest thing, about the investment is that it’s transformative.
It’s very meaningful to me and to our team, but from a Tampa Bay perspective, not a big deal anymore. I say that in a very positive way because I think that there’s so much excitement, and interest, in this market, from institutional investors. We have credibility now that’s been built up over the success of a lot of companies, over the last 10 to 15 years.
When I think about why that is I think about the institutions that exist here that weren’t here 10 to 15 years ago. Tie Tampa Bay is certainly one of them. Synapse is another.
It’s because of these catalytic things that were done a few years back and continue to get done. This community has gotten so much incredible momentum.
One of the questions I always like to ask is if anything amazing has happened since you were on the cover of TBBW. We were very intentional about doing [this CEO Connect] during Innovation Week. And that was partially because of Tie. You have had two big announcements. Can you talk about those?
A lot of good news has come through. I learned that I was named Community Leader of the Year by the Indo-United States Chamber of Commerce. I was invited by Hillsborough Community College to be their commencement speaker in May, which I’m really excited about. Just the opportunity to address pieces of the future, it’s exciting to me.
One other sort of internal piece of news, and we talked about this a little bit during the interview, after we succeeded in securing the investment and having an opportunity to reset and gain a little bit of perspective, to breathe. And I did start as, as was mentioned, our own family foundation. And I think the story of our family’s philanthropy is well known, it’s larger than life. We’re just trying to do our small piece.
As an initial commitment, we’ve decided that we’re going to be doing at least $1 million in small gifts and grants over the next 10 years, from the foundation. We’re going to look at other major gifts but we wanted to start walking a well-worn path in our family of finding ways to give back and connecting with more ways to make a difference.
Your family certainly has a long history of giving back to this community.
These are just our training wheels. I mean, my mother’s here, my father is on the other side of the world doing more amazing things. I think it’s just a start. But we know what’s possible, we’ve grown up around it. I think by the standards that we hope to fill, it’s a modest start.
You had a fun anecdote about cows and Indians. And we couldn’t really include it in the story. But it was extremely insightful. And I think it’s something that people could benefit from hearing. So do you mind sharing that?
As I recall, we were talking a lot about the cultural inclination toward handling risk and managing risk. When you think about Tie, which was an organization that is culturally agnostic now, but it began as a networking organization for Indian entrepreneurs, pockets of entrepreneurs, in different communities, trying to work to support each other, and building a support system, around mentorship, funding and those types of things.
When you’re Indian, people will often ask you what the whole thing with cows and cows being sacred. I’m sure there are many versions to this, but the one that always resonated to me was that when you live in a world of abundance, you could maybe look at that animal and you could say you’re going to eat well. It represents maybe X number of meals or X pounds of meat. When you live in a world of scarcity, you look at that same animal and you see a creature that can provide you milk, a creature that can plow your fields and help to sustain your family. You see an animal that is creating value, because that’s fuel to make fires, it’s building materials. And, eventually, if you take care of that animal, you’re going to have more of those animals.
This whole idea of looking at an asset, or a resource, and seeing many sources of value, seeing many ways in which it can help you sustain through uncertainty and through risk … the cow is not just food and sustenance, it’s life. It’s an opportunity.
You did something that was kind of a big deal that was called We Nourish. I want to give you the opportunity to talk about that because it had a tremendous impact. I know it was important to your family.
It was an opportunity with the Community Enrichment Lab. The idea was that we would workshop new models for philanthropy and try to bring some entrepreneurial mindsets to philanthropy and try to find different ways to deliver benefits to community stakeholders.
We had a whole bunch of grand plans. And then the pandemic came, in early 2020. Christian [Leon], our executive director, was really active and working in the Uptown area, trying to learn what the needs were. He was out in the community talking to a lot of the local business owners about the indoor dining restrictions.
We have this extremely diverse, and lively, dining scene on Fowler and Fletcher [Avenues], in the university area, and it was slowly dying because nobody could come visit them. They didn’t have the financial depth to keep people employed.
The We Nourish program was this idea that rather than waiting for people to be in these food lines, needing meals and needing food assistance, let’s try to [do something about it.] So, we would order between 50 to 200 meals from these small, local, family-owned restaurants or catering companies. And then we would distribute those meals. We would go and distribute them at a place of need, whether that was a school, an orphanage or a number of other places.
While we were trying to help solve this problem of people needing meals, and needing food assistance, we also helped business owners stave off eviction and keep their employees employed. In the end, it was a good entrepreneurial story. ♦