The Native Influence: Interview with Howard Schiffer

Howard founded Vitamin Angels in 1994 shortly after the Northridge Earthquake hit – he was 14 years into a successful career in the natural foods industry, when a relief agency contacted him requesting a donation of vitamins for families in the area. His “a-ha!” moment came soon after realizing how grateful his industry contacts were for the chance to make a difference, and after learning how vitamin A, one of the world’s most simple and inexpensive supplements that has the power to dramatically impact a child’s development, was inaccessible to so many children who needed it. With that, he founded the Vitamin Angels nonprofit organization, taking on a major public health challenge: to eliminate vitamin A deficiency in children under 5, which can lead to preventable illness, blindness, and even death. Now, 26 years later, Vitamin Angels is reaching over 70 million children annually with vitamin A, making it the largest distributor of the supplement to NGOs, government organizations, and faith-based organizations globally. In 2018, Howard announced a new goal for Vitamin Angels: to eliminate infant mortality surrounding childbirth due to vitamin deficiency diseases by the year 2030. To improve birth outcomes and save lives on a global scale, the nonprofit is aiming to reach 50 million women annually with prenatal multivitamins by the year 2030. The organization has come a long way, and yet Howard is still more focused than ever on helping mothers and children gain access to life-changing essential vitamins and minerals.

Personal Brand Pitch

I envision a world where every baby on the day she or he is born has a chance to live a full and productive life. Good health should be a right and not a privelege. I know that good nutrition and essential nutrients can be pivotal towards making this happen. This year Vitamin Angels is reaching 70 million children and 2 million pregnant women with evidence-based vitamin interventions in 70 countries, including every state in the United States.

How did you get into the industry?

I was a lay midwife in my early twenties and really got to understand the importance of maternal nutrition. This led me to the natural products industry. When I was thirty I ended up getting blood poisoning and almost died. I was in a coma for ten days and came out of that seeing how fragile life could be, that the thread connecting you to this world could snap at any moment, and that I needed to do something really important with my life.

By my forties I had a business in the natural products space but after fourteen years I had lost the passion. I heard a quote from Mark Twain that said; ‘The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you figure out why’. Then in 1994 there was an earthquake in Southern California, the vitamin company I owned got a call from a relief agency needing vitamins and Vitamin Angels was born. I had found my ‘why’. Twenty six years later, Vitamin Angels has grown into a global organization that reaches over 70 million undernourished pregnant women and children in over 70 countries, including the U.S., with essential vitamins and minerals.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

Joel Roberts, a media trainer I worked with told me ‘Everyone’s life is a laboratory to create one product’. When I look back at my path, I realize every step lead me to start Vitamin Angels. From being a lay midwife in the home birth movement, to getting into the vitamin industry during it’s early growth, to learning how to run an entrepreneurial business, I was given all of the essential tools needed to create Vitamin Angels as a unique and new model to solve a major global health challenge.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business? Greatest Accomplishment? 

Our metrics are simple; how many babies, childen and women are we reaching and what impact are we having on their lives. How many lives are we saving? How many cases of severe pneumonia, diarrhea or meningitis are we helping to avert? How many babies, children and women are we reaching who would not otherwise be reached?

How do you motivate others?

I show up everyday and remind people why we’re doing this. In my weekly email to my team recently I wrote –

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said: ‘Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.’

Clearly there is so much to be afraid of today. Together, we are pushing past these fears because we do know that there is something more important than fear; namely the mothers, babies and children we serve. Thank you for your support! 

What do you do best?

I bring heart to our work. I’ve said at Vitamin Angels that ‘How’ we do our work is as important as ‘What’ we do. We aren’t just handing out supplements. We’re letting these women and babies and children know that they’re important, that we care about them, and that they deserve a chance at a healthy life.

What makes you the best version of yourself?

Getting out to work in the field with the moms, babies and children we’re serving makes me come to life. I was in Guatemala with Carolina, a woman whose two girls had been greatly helped by our vitamins. I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to tell people when I spoke with our donors. She said ‘Yes, tell them thank you that God planted in your hearts to come help people’. Hearing something like this really reinforces the importance of everything we’re doing.

What are your aspirations?

Ten years ago, I would have said, ‘Well if we could be reaching 60 million children, I’ll be happy. Now that we’re reaching 70 million children, I’m thinking we should be reaching 100 million children. I honestly would love to get to a place where Vitamin Angels’ work is no longer needed, where all babies are healthy and thriving on the day they’re born.

Biggest Success?

Our biggest success is launching our Global Prenatal Campaign and helping to drive the conversation on changing the global recommendation from IFA (Iron Folic Acid) to Multiple Micronutrient Supplements (prenatal multivitamins), because I know how many lives will be saved when this happens, both mothers and babies!

Most Challenging Moment? 

Our most challening moments have always revolved around funding. Having a vision to see what is possible, and not yet having the funding to meet our highest goals.

Favorite People/Role Models?

My favorite people and my heroes are the moms and dads we work with every day around the world who despite living in untenable conditions, still wake up every morning and do everything they can to make a better life for their children. When I meet a mom who has woken up at 4 am and walked many miles with her 3 children to get to our vitamin distribution, I always thank her for making our work possible.

I’m also honored to work with our partnering health workers around the world who could be working in fancy cities but instead choose to work in some of the most remote villages in the world because they really believe that every mother deserves a healthy pregnancy and every child deserves a chance at a healthy life.

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