Passion and ‘Papi’: How Pooja Ika ’19 Is Rethinking Health Care
Pooja Ika ’19 developed a passion for health care as a little girl after accompanying her mother, Gayatri Ika, a primary care physician, to work every summer. Ika observed the intimate relationship her mother had with her patients, how she knew their names, their children, and their life’s stories. She built a relationship with them, where she was not only their doctor but also their friend, confidant, and someone they truly trusted.
Over time, though, Ika realized her mother’s approach is seen less and less these days. So, she embarked on a mission to be a better partner to all of the stakeholders within the care community. She wanted to bring the same warmth and comfort people feel when they see their doctor to the health insurance side.
“It’s important to understand health care is as individualized and personal as you can get,” she said. “Each member is unique and special, therefore each relationship with our members is going to be unique and different. We understand that our members do not fit into cookie-cutter molds, nor do we want them to.”
Ika points to her parents—and Babson College—in getting her start and developing her passion into a solution-oriented venture. Ika’s father, Ravi, is the president and CEO at nirvanaHealth.
“My father taught me a lot about the business aspect of health care and that in entrepreneurship you have to be resilient, fearless, and innovative,” Ika said. “At Babson, I learned the basics of starting a business and gained the confidence to speak in front of multiple audiences. As the CEO, I need to know that the way I speak to my vendors, is going to be different than how I speak to my investors, regulators, and providers.”
“When you go in with the mindset that anything is possible, you spend less time questioning the feasibility and more time thinking about the path to success and identifying a solution.”
Pooja Ika ’19, founder and CEO, eternalHealth
As a senior at Babson in April 2019, Ika incorporated eternalHealth, knowing that she wanted to be a disrupter and catalyst for change in the health care industry. She led eternalHealth into the market in one year, although it typically takes three years.
“We had an uphill battle at times, because we are in a heavily regulated space, but we showed perseverance and resilience,” Ika said. “I learned a lot at Babson, but if there is one thing that I will always remember, it is the importance of pivoting, and I learned this my very first year at Babson through FME (Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship). When you go in with the mindset that anything is possible, you spend less time questioning the feasibility and more time thinking about the path to success and identifying a solution.”
Pooja and ‘Papi’
What Ika loved about Babson was the hands-on approach and applying what she learned in the classroom to real-life situations. “I’m someone who needs to see, touch, and feel something to understand and grasp the concept,” she said. “The fact that Babson has many interactive classes was beneficial for someone like me.”
One of the more public real-life situations for Ika came in the form of finding a partner. When envisioning someone who embodied eternalHealth’s values and who was warm, friendly, welcoming, and trustworthy, Ika turned to one of the most recognizable figures in all of New England: Boston Red Sox legend David Ortiz, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022.
Ika met “Big Papi” at one of his charity events about 10 years ago, and they stayed in contact. The David Ortiz Children’s Fund provides essential support for children in the Dominican Republic and in New England who cannot afford the critical cardiac services they need.
“We set up a Zoom call. Ten minutes into my pitch, he said, ‘Pooja, stop, I’m in,’ ” Ika said. “He said from the moment I started talking he could see and hear my passion. He was sold because we’re making care accessible. David is not only our spokesperson but also our partner, as he is working to ensure everyone knows the value of eternalHealth. When you see our marketing, you see him, because he, as a person, embodies everything we are as an organization.”
Ortiz’s involvement extended to the Babson campus in September 2021, when he spent several hours at Govoni Field filming eternalHealth’s first commercial. In addition to working with members of the production crew and Ika’s team, Ortiz took time to sign autographs, pose for pictures, and even greet Roger as he exited the field. The Boston sports icon quickly changed before heading into the city for an eternalHealth event that night.
“David is a good friend and he is the best person to simplify health care for the Medicare beneficiaries in the state,” Ika said. “Everything starts with education, and I could not think of a better teacher than David. He truly believes in what we are doing, and he is always looking to learn more about the Medicare space.”
Evolving Health Care
Ika acknowledged that the healthcare system can be complicated, and insurance companies are not always the best at helping navigate it. Her long-term goals are to have eternalHealth act as a catalyst for change and to push other insurers to offer products and benefits that are high quality and robust, with low out-of-pocket costs and premiums.
When you think about a health plan, there are around 15-20 siloed departments, and all of those departments leverage different technology solutions from various vendors. This causes inefficiencies, a greater margin for error, and a higher cost.
“With the nirvanaHealth platform, that eternalHealth has embraced in its entirety, we are able to take the 2,000-3,000 functions that occur across the 15-20 departments and automate them,” Ika said.
Ika indicated that by year three the company’s selling, general, and administrative costs will be about 7-8% of the premium revenue, whereas typically large health plans are at 10-12% and startups are at more than 15%. By achieving a reduction in costs, dollars can be invested into the total cost of care, provider incentives, and member acquisition and satisfaction initiatives.
“All in all, Babson shaped me into a leader that understands my ultimate responsibility is to make sure everyone feels heard, appreciated, and fulfilled,” Ika said.
Posted in Entrepreneurial Leadership