Nikita Patel, co-founder and CEO of Fortify Health

Photo of Nikita Patel

Nikita Patel started working in the charity sector when she left university and through her work became interested in problems surrounding global health. She is now the co-founder and CEO of Fortify Health, an evidence-driven nutrition organisation working in India that aims to address the issue of micronutrient deficiencies. The organisation works with government and millers to facilitate the fortification of wheat flour in order to reduce anaemia and neural tube defects at population scale. Fortify Health currently has nine team members, and will total 14 team members by May 2021, and is continuing to grow. They have received two incubation grants totalling 1.3 million dollars from GiveWell, a rigorous charity evaluator based in the bay area. They have partnered with seven mills across India, and Nikita hopes that the organisation will continue to further expand their ground operations and mill partnerships as the Fortify Health team continues to grow.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I hadn’t considered entrepreneurship when I was younger – I’ve always craved stability, which often doesn’t go hand in hand with the world of starting your own business or organisation. I knew that I wanted to work in the charity sector and I’ve always wanted to do something prosocial and impactful with my career, as well as with other resources like time and money, so I started out working for a large charity, which I really loved. Leaving that organisation was a difficult decision to make – it felt risky going off and doing my own thing, and I’m a pretty risk-averse person. As someone who’s not particularly confident, and who has historically appreciated consistent guidance, I wasn’t sure if starting a new organisation would suit me, but after a lot of discussion and analysis with my co-founder, we eventually decided to take the leap. We both concluded that while some decisions are the most risky, those (evidence-based) risks can have the potential to be the most impactful. For us, it kind of felt like it was a ‘now or never’ decision.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Fortify Health Logo

Entrepreneurship for me is about linking your career to your values in a more high risk way. It’s about maximising positive impact by doing something that someone else otherwise wouldn’t have tried – if I’m able to generate more impact by starting something new that wouldn’t have existed otherwise, that’s a good reason to jump into something more risky. This is often referred to as your personal counterfactual impact, and for me, this is the biggest incentive to start and stay in entrepreneurship.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I was already pretty convinced by the evidence behind what we are doing. Food fortification is a well-researched area which has previously had a lot of buy-in from funders and the public health community alike. Support from international experts on fortification, and their welcoming us into the sphere, was an important part of building my confidence in our organisation. Because we are a charity, our growth is down to the discretion of big analytical foundations at every stage. We are evaluated every couple of years or so based on our organisational progress, and the global evidence around fortification. Seeing the progress of the work we are doing proved that our idea had traction, and having organisations like GiveWell commit 2 separate grants to our work proved that we must be doing something right! Having said that, I also think that it’s really important in our sector of work not to be overly confident with the exact project you’re developing. It’s more important to run with the robust evidence, rather than trying to build a specific organisation and then get funding around it. You should be going in alignment with what foundations have researched so that you can fit yourselves into making an impact, rather than the other way round.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly, situational judgement of some sort is really important. Having the ability to make decisions in both long term and short term ways. A lot of the time you might focus on micro-decisions and on putting out small fires, but that might not be as beneficial in the long-run, and vice versa. Having good colleagues really helps with decision-making, so there’s an element of collaboration there as well. Another thing, which can be underrated but I think is really important, is listening skills. I initially struggled with being quite an introverted person but after reading Quiet by Susan Cain I came to realise that listening to others well is actually a valuable skill. Being a good listener allows you to better take in everybody’s opinion, synthesise it, and then help collaboratively to make changes rather than just jumping in with individual, executive decisions. Thirdly, empathy – I think that trying to understand how your team, or even your beneficiaries, might be thinking or feeling is key to a successful organisation, especially in the charity sector. Empathising with your team will result in them being more satisfied, which will ultimately result in your charity having a higher impact, because your team will be more keen to produce better work. Empathy in leadership also creates more psychological safety at work, which results in more transparent feedback loops, allowing the organisation to improve on its shortcomings more quickly.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
For me, it’s been watching the growth of the organisation and the team. It’s been really rewarding to see the Fortify Health team flourish and to watch them work on something that’s grown from just a seed of an idea into something that’s having a genuine impact. Also, imagining how much that impact might increase in the future is exciting, and I think this also helps the team remain motivated.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
The Good Food Institute. They are a non-profit organisation working to change the global food system, by facilitating a climate for alternative proteins i.e. a world where meat, eggs and dairy do not come from animals. I find them especially inspiring because they started out small in 2016 but now have a team of over 100 people, and are at the forefront of the work toward more sustainable, kind food systems that will replace resource-intensive, cruelly-sourced animal products. I find their mission to be all-encompassing – not just for human health but also for animal welfare, climate change, and sustainability. Their organisation encapsulates everything I care about in one place, and they do it so well.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I have a couple of connections within The Good Food Institute’s India branch who have been really helpful with Fortify Health’s work in India. If I were to speak to the CEO of their head office in the US, I think I’d ask: could you describe your vision for how the world will look in 100 years’ time if your organisation’s mission succeeds? I see the Good Food Institute as a very hopeful organisation, and it would be uplifting to hear more about the vision they are trying to reach. I think – for all organisations – understanding that hopeful vision would be really helpful, as it can be easy to only observe the stresses on the world in this field. Most prosocial organisations, whether it’s in global health or food systems, are looking to bring about the same kind of world at the end of the day.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
The first time Fortify Health secured a partnership. Our main program is to scale up wheat flour fortification in the open market, by supporting millers directly to fortify the flour they make. In the early stages of Fortify Health, we had virtually no idea how to go about this or whether we were going about it correctly. When we got our first partnership we were just a tiny team and we thought that we might never end up partnering with a mill, since we knew nobody in this industry, so securing our first mill partner was a big milestone. Now we have a much more systematic approach to mill outreach, but at the time we were essentially cold-calling mills, with little luck in general. That partnership was the first indicator to us that our intervention might actually work and that we might be able to (slowly) snowball this program. It’s easy to forget how uncertain the initial stages of running your own organisation is – I don’t miss that part so much! I know a lot of entrepreneurs thrive off of the initial excitement of a new venture and find it the most thrilling stage, but I actually quite like the current stability and having a small tight-knit team.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I still haven’t mastered the art of having uncomfortable conversations – I find this quite difficult. Part of the role of being a CEO or a manager of any kind means that you have to have uncomfortable conversations. I’m naturally quite conflict averse, so this is something I’m still working on. I found this especially hard in the early stages, when I was younger and I didn’t have as much experience upon which to base my decisions. I don’t think anybody loves uncomfortable conversations to be fair, so I’m not aiming to ever thrive in those situations; I’m personally just working on being more assertive and less anxious in such instances.

How have you funded your ideas?
We had an initial seed grant from an organisation called Charity Science and since then we’ve had two grants from Give Well, the first of which was around $300,000 and the second of which was $1 million. We’re due another evaluation at the end of this year with GiveWell, so fingers crossed, if the evidence holds up and our program looks promising enough, there will be opportunity for further funding.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
GiveWell has been our biggest facilitator of funding, and the GiveWell Incubation Grant can be seen as a marker of a high-potential program by people in the impact space. If we don’t receive funding from them again this year then we might look into applying to other foundations or even individual philanthropists, or even slightly pivot if there are questions around the evidence behind our program.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
One of the huge benefits about being in Oxford is the people that you meet. Oxford University Innovation (OUI) was really welcoming, and it was great to talk to more experienced people in this sector. I learnt a lot from them, and the OUI community helped me build up my confidence. A lot of the work I do is based in India rather than in Oxford itself, so I don’t have much other experience of opportunities for entrepreneurs in Oxford.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? One London-based resource that has some connections in Oxford is Charity Entrepreneurship. They’re an incubator programme for new, high-impact charities and they have brilliant guidance on their website and an online course for entrepreneurs. Because they’re quite new, they’ve been building new resources each year, and they just released a useful handbook. I’ve found their mentorship super helpful because there’s not loads of guidance out there for new charities, as it’s a more niche area of the entrepreneurial world. The resources made for profit-driven companies can still be supportive, but at the end of the day it’s a different mission and they aren’t always relevant.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I’m naturally not very confident which, combined with being a woman, hasn’t helped sometimes. This was quite obvious when we started the company, because my co-founder – who’s brilliant– is a confident and charismatic man. In meetings I found that often people would address him and only him. That was something that did bother me a bit in the beginning. Of course, it’s important to remember that we work mainly outside of the UK, so I don’t want to criticise cultural norms, but equally I know other women who have faced this problem in this sector. I recognise that it was partly to do with not being the loudest voice in the room, but I’m equally confident that it was to do with being a woman. Personally, as someone who tends to doubt myself, I also find the ‘fake it until you make it’ mentality quite hard to adopt when it comes to leadership. I still often question my own skills and capabilities, so having to go out in front of a majority older, more experienced team and do any sort of motivational speech is something I find quite stressful. This past year, I’ve tried to overcome this by forcing myself into uncomfortable situations where I have to speak publicly in front of strangers. I’d never have done that in the past – public speaking is my biggest fear! Pushing myself out of my comfort zone in this way has made me feel much more confident in front of my own team. I’ve also found that revising my knowledge in my own time has helped. Because I’m not a specialist or an expert in this area by any means, unlike a lot of the people on my team, going away and spending time learning and recapping important context by myself allows me to feel confident in what I’m talking about. For me, if I know something inside out I feel much more secure in what I’m doing, but I find it hard to speak up when I only know the surface of what I’m talking about.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
I’d say your own networks are your biggest resource; it’s definitely worth finding strong mentors in your circles, or you could even create a small group with other women with whom you feel comfortable sharing updates, advice, and doubts. I’ve found my best resources have been a reading group with like-minded women, wonderful mentors, and meetups with other women founders.

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
When I was at Oxford I would’ve really valued events or resources being made more accessible for women who are more introverted and shy. The opportunities that are geared towards women tend to be things that only more extroverted or confident women sign up for. I think that there should be more of a push to incorporate quieter, naturally introverted women into these spheres. Often those women don’t realise that they are able to do these things, and don’t consider ability to listen will or strong attention to detail as real skills that will help them in leadership. I fell into entrepreneurship through luck, but maybe I would’ve considered it earlier if I’d internalised that introversion isn’t a weakness in business.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I guess in my current role, the most important part of my role is the ability to listen and make people feel comfortable. The hard skills are important and really useful, and you definitely need them when you start off as an entrepreneur (especially if you’re working in something very scientific or technological), but as your role evolves and your company expands, your role quickly shifts into people skills. That’s something I didn’t expect, and I’d say it’s important to value and build up your ability to empathise, listening skills, time management, situational judgement, and confidence. I’m definitely not an expert at any of these, but I’ve seen improvements on them over my 3.5 years at Fortify Health.