Dr. Kiran Patel: For philanthropy to be successful, it has to be impactful, replicable, scalable and sustainable

Dr. Kiran Patel
Dr. Kiran Patel; Photo by Saju Varghese/American Bazaar

It is a blessing to be able to contribute to my “Karma bhoomi” (United States), “Janma bhoomi” (Zambia) and “Mathru bhoomi” (India), says Tampa philanthropist Dr. Kiran Patel, who received India’s Pravasi Bharatiya Samman last week.

Tampa-based cardiologist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Dr. Kiran C. Patel was honored with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman (Overseas Indian Award) by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind on January 23, 2019.

Patel was born in Kabwe, now in Zambia, to Gujarati parents and went to India as a teenager to study medicine in Ahmadabad. There he met his future wife, Pallavi, a fellow medical student. The couple moved back to Zambia after their graduation and marriage in 1972. They came to the United States in 1976 to do postgraduate training in internal medicine at the New Jersey College of Medicine & Dentistry’s Jersey City Medical Center. The two moved to Tampa in 1980, where they started practices. Two years later, they launched a physicians’ practice ownership and management company — the first of their many ventures.

In the next three and a half decades, Patel would build multiple billion dollar companies, in areas such as healthcare and hospitality industry, and exit from two: WellCare in 2002 and America’s 1st Choice in last April.

In the past decade and a half, Kiran and Pallavi Patel have donated hundreds of millions to various causes worldwide, primarily in the United States, India and Zambia. In the past year and a half alone, they made philanthropic commitments of more than a quarter billion dollar. In September 2017, their foundation, the Drs. Kiran Patel and Pallavi Patel Family Foundation, committed $200 million to the Nova Southeastern University in Florida, the largest Indian American donation to a US institution. On December 13,  ground was broken for a $20 million charter school in Temple Terrace, FL, fully funded by Patel.

Last month, in a wide-ranging interview to the American Bazaar at his home in Carrollwood, FL, Patel spoke about his philanthropy, business and other issues. Here are the edited excerpts:

A lot has been written about your philanthropy and especially in the past year and a half. You made a $200 million commitment to the Nova Southeastern University in Florida in September 2017. What is your inspiration and what keeps you going in this direction?

I think very few people are blessed the way we are. Not many people get this opportunity. Either because they may not have means or if they have means, they may not have that desire, vision or passion to do it. Also, they may not have a family, a wife or children who don’t mind them spending this kind of money. And those are very rare combinations to get all that together and I have been fortunate enough. I can’t thank God enough for giving me such a great opportunity to touch so many lives. It has been a passion and a vision for me to impact the world in a positive manner through education and health. That is where the Nova investment was great because we were able to train doctors and para medicals who are going to touch the world in many ways. Both in Africa and India, we have multiple hospitals, schools and anathashrams (orphanages). Our focus is to spend our energy and our resources towards arts, education and health. I believe that not many people get this opportunity. Either because they may not have means or even if they have means, they don’t have that desire, vision or passion to do it. Also, they may not have a family, a wife or children who don’t mind them spending this kind of money. And those are very rare combinations to get all that together and I have been fortunate enough. .I can’t thank god enough for giving me such a great opportunity to touch so many lives in so many lives in so many different ways.

When it comes to giving back, you have always leaned toward education, in colleges and universities. Now you are be funding this $20 million charter school in the Tampa area, which is named after you. Why are these the ideal places to start?

The high school years for a student are the most crucial. If you can produce a child out of high school, prepared to face the world, you have given him the best position to go to great universities, colleges, etc. So, the idea of getting involved in a charter school was very simple. Our kids have lots of options but unfortunately kids with no means have one choice and that is a public-school system. Whether that is good, bad or indifferent, it doesn’t matter. If you have a great student that is stuck in a public system, his potential will not reach the highest. Now, there are exceptions and some will flourish no matter where they are. But to create an environment, where an average student now accelerates to a place where he can have these types of opportunities open to him, is what we are trying to achieve.

Your foundation is not an operating foundation. You work with organizations that are already doing great work on the ground. Is that an accurate description?

If I personally can’t touch, see and feel the project, I am not interested. So, we are in a way, an operating foundation. It’s never like I will write a check and walk away. So, we look at Nova University, the entire building will be constructed by my team. I may not get involved in things like admissions and education because that is not my strength. That is the strength of Nova University and that is what they should do. I call this a legacy gift. What I say to people is that “There’s a difference between feel-good charity and do-good charity.” A feel-good charity may be that you isolate and sprinkle your money and resources into 100 different places and never go back again. I believe in a do-good charity so I focus on an area and put all my resources there so I can really create an impact. For a project to be successful, it has to have four [requisites]: it has to be impactful; it has to be replicable, it has to be scalable; and it has to be sustainable.

Your foundation has been present in many countries, Zambia, India and Jamaica. But your philanthropic contributions here in the United States dwarf your international efforts…

There are two ways of looking at it: One is dollars and cents. The second is impact. When you say that my international effort is dwarfed by the effort here you are totally wrong. In India, we have several hospitals and schools. Imagine that the hospitals that we take care of are having 400 to 500 deliveries a month. And the cost of a delivery there is two dollars. Now how can you compare that with any amount of money spent? If you look at the taluka [the administrative region] we are present [in India], the infant mortality rate of a malnourished child was 20 percent — one in five. They don’t make it beyond six months. We brought it down to 3.5 percent. How can anybody compare that any amount of dollars spent anywhere? Those are priceless; circumstances are different, the values are different. For $75,000, I can build a school in Haiti. I am spending $20 million a year to build a high school [in the Tampa area]. Now, one can say that I spent more money here and less there, but the lives touched are equal, or more in other places. So I look at impact. I [live] in the United States, I believe it’s a blessing and I’ve made a lot of money. I believe I owe it to this country —it is my moral responsibility to give back.

A number of great and iconic institutions in the Tampa area carry your name. What does it mean to give to the local community?

I genuinely believe that not many people get this opportunity. A, because they may not have means; B, even if they have means, they don’t have that desire, vision or passion to do it; and, C, they may not have a family, a wife or children, who don’t mind me spending this kind of money. And those are very rare combinations to get all that together, and I have been fortunate enough to be in that position. I can’t thank God enough for giving me such a great opportunity to touch so many lives in so many lives in so many different ways.

You, rather jokingly thanked your grandchildren for letting you spend their inheritance money…

It is true because, if I don’t spend it today, on myself, or on philanthropy, they are the beneficiary. And really how much can you spend? You only have three meals a day. You may eat only so much. Whether you eat on a golden plate, or a paper plate, it is still the same food you are going to eat. So there’s only so much money you can spend on yourself, and the excess, I believe, should be used to impact and live a footprint in the world such that the world will be a better place because of our presence on this earth. That’s how I feel.

Besides education and healthcare, which you mentioned earlier, your foundation is also promoting art and culture. What is the thought behind that?

I think, to be a complete human being, art and culture are very important aspects. You can add spirituality to it, but if you think about it, art and culture are universal. Anybody can appreciate art and music regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or cultural background. It is a necessity that we have something like that.

You have mentioned in various speeches and interviews the influence your father had on you. Can you tell us more about your father?

If I think of any one person, that has influenced my thinking and way of living it is my dad. My father always believed in Gandhi and his principles. I recall when I was about 8 or 10 years old, my dad sent me to the bank to get some small change; in those days, we had pounds and shillings. So, one pound was 20 shillings and there were two shillings coins. When I came back, I counted and I found that there was a coin extra, a 2-shilling coin. He said “No, no. The bank can’t make a mistake. Count again.” I counted again and it was still there. I counted a third time and then he said “Now you go back and give that to the bank.” I had to walk a mile to the bank and back, only to give back two shillings. Those are very important lessons. I also remember that growing up, there was no Indian grocery in our town, so whenever he had to go to get his grocery he would contact entire neighborhood and bring over whatever they needed. In the community, although we were not wealthy, the impression was that he would be amongst the lead donors because he would go out of his way, sometimes in a bigger way than what he could afford.

One of his first philanthropic projects in India was a hospital named after him…

It was his desire to have a hospital and a school in his village, that’s what we did.

Talk to us about some of your other projects in India.

In India, post-Gujarat earthquake, I was instrumental in rebuilding four hospitals. In my own village, we have two hospitals, a pediatric and an adult. We have a school that is going all the way up to 12th grade, in the English medium and the Gujarati medium. During that earthquake, we also rebuilt a village and we had an anathashram (orphanage) because there were kids who lost their parents, either one or both, and we took care of them. There was another school that is for mentally-handicapped. Now we are expanding to 10 other hospitals. The scope of work in India, I believe, is significant. We will be feeding 50,000 kids a mid-day meal in partnership with [the charity] Akshaya Patra. You can see that we will be focusing on health, nourishment, education all over. Now the beauty of this is, from our village school, there are at least three doctors who graduated from that school and came back to our village to provide services.

What are some of your projects in Africa?

In Africa, I am doing an HIV hospice center and a school. We sponsored 55 children to have heart surgeries in India. So again, it’s in health and education. As you know, HIV is a tremendous challenge in Africa and we were one of the earlier ones to take on that challenge and work on it.

You are a product of three continents and three cultures, Zambia, India and the United States…

I have had the privilege to work and contribute to my Karma bhoomi, which is the United States. So that’s where I did all the action. Janma bhoomi, which is Zambia, where I was born. Mathru bhoomi is India, which is our motherland. I have been able to work and to create an impact on three continents where I have been tied to from my birth and spent all this time.

What is the status of the Nova Southeastern University project, which was announced in September 2017?

The new college will be ready to be open in September. So 2019 will be a major milestone because we will have a medical college here and the high school, which is opening next year in the Tampa Bay area.

And you will be moving to a new home?

And moving to my new home.

There is a lot of talk about the new home — 32,000 square foot, 40-bedroom home. Tell us more about it.

 I like to do things on a bigger scale. I planned a home that is above average in size, but the beauty is that all my six grandkids and my three kids will be staying with us. I believe that is priceless. One can talk about the cost but when you are able to have all the siblings live together around you. (In a space where) they are far enough if don’t need them and close enough if you need them. That’s what we’ve been able to achieve.

You have had two $1 billion plus health care businesses. Anthem Inc. bought America’s First Choice in 2018. What was the reason for the last exit?

I think there comes a point in an individual’s life where you have to decide, can you continue growing it and taking it to the next level? Or do you need a partner or somebody else to take it? And in my case, after taking it to a $1.7 billion enterprise, I felt to expand into multi-state, I needed a partner with experience and expertise in multi-state and personally I am not in favor of a publicly traded company. When you need additional capital, when you need additional talent, it’s better to pass it on to the right people.

I have three new companies that I believe will be multi-billion dollar exits in the next three years.

Finally,  what drives you? You could have easily retired after the last exit. Why do you want to keep you going? 

In Gujarati, there is a word called Navaruṁ.” It means idle. My dad used to say that “If you need something to be done, don’t give it to an idle man. Give it to a busy man.” An idle man is always going to remain idle, he is not going to do anything. I believe that God has given me some talent and it will be foolish of me not to utilize that talent. For me, money is really a byproduct.I enjoy what I am doing, I like to build companies, I like to grow companies. Can you imagine employing hundreds of thousands of people? How many lives are you touching with all the hotels and businesses I have? Technology companies, other companies, there will be a lot of people that are employed by me globally and that to me is very rewarding. Because you are touching so many lives. Our Hindu philosophy says that earning money is not a crime, and I believe this is for all religions, what is a crime is if you earn that money unethically or you use that money for an unethical purpose, then that is not right. So, earn ethically, spend ethically and enjoy it.

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