As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Vaswani.
Driven by the purpose of “disruption without disintermediation,” CEO Neil Vaswani co-founded Corestream in 2006. His vision to bring value to all participants in the voluntary benefits ecosystem — human resources (HR) professionals, insurance brokers and employees — has resulted in nearly two million people with access to voluntary benefits through a Corestream-powered, employer-branded portal. The platform’s automation capabilities have reconciled over $205 million in premiums without requiring human intervention.
Coretream’s award-winning voluntary benefits platform allows many of the country’s most recognizable brands to build a more engaging relationship with their employees, becoming an integral part of protecting and enhancing their livelihoods. True to his belief in putting people first, Neil continues to lead with an emphasis on the importance of supporting the “whole” employee and all aspects of their lives.
Neil earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Entrepreneurship and Finance from Babson College.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have always been an entrepreneur at heart with fire in the belly and if you have both of those things, the itch to start a company is overwhelming and can be an unstoppable force. This feeling was so strong that I would get angry with myself every day that I had not started a company. At the age of 14, I started a noodle business in high school and that was the first stepping stone on my entrepreneurial journey. It eventually led me to four years at Babson and ultimately to starting Corestream. As a kid, I witnessed the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur — my father was one too — and realized that those “down” moments motivated me to succeed more than anything. The desire to be accomplished while creating something special and unique was paramount in my DNA. Early on in my career, I tried the Wall Street route and felt like I was just a number or a cog in a big machine that could be replaced easily by the next number crunching kid. It was not fulfilling, hence the desire to start Corestream. The goal was to create something that in turn created value for each and every constituent that it touched — a win/win model vs. a zero sum that Wall Street often caters to.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In August of 2006, I had an important meeting with a large investment/VC firm in NYC to raise capital. At the time, I lived downtown and my meeting was in midtown Manhattan. So on the day of my meeting, I packed-up my things and made my way to the subway, just as I’d done countless times before. Only this time, of all times, rather than an uneventful and on-time commute, the train got stuck! By the time my fellow passengers and I got out, I was already late for my meeting. I ran up the subway station stairs and out into the bright sunlight, and heat, of a New York City August afternoon. Keep in mind — August in New York can make Florida feel cool. I’m now running down sidewalks and across streets, trying to make up time. I finally arrive at the investment firm’s offices and I’m shown into the conference room. This is where it goes from bad to worse. The conference room is warm and because I’ve just finished rushing from the subway station to the office, almost immediately I start sweating. I don’t mean just a little, I mean beads of sweat are rolling down my face. The situation is compounded because my body gets even warmer from the embarrassment, which of course results in more perspiring. I couldn’t risk taking off my blazer since I was sure I was soaked, so I kept it on. Needless to say — we did not raise money from that firm! Great lesson — don’t take the subway in August if you can avoid it and don’t be late!!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I listen to the podcast “Masters of Scale” a fair amount, which is hosted by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn. Books I’ve read that stood out would include “Founders at Work” by Jessica Livingston and “Good to Great” by James C. Collins. All three of these sources have helped me realize that there are other people out there who have gone through something similar when building a company. They’ve given me guiding principles that have helped build my confidence and made me realize that throughout the journey, I’ll make mistakes and that’s ok. In the past, I’ve been hard on myself as an entrepreneur. I’ve felt lonely at times. When I listen to “Masters of Scale” or read “Founders at Work”, I begin to understand what other founders did to scale their business and it helps me empathize with not only them, but with myself.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I have referred to Corestream’s purpose as ‘disruption without disintermediation.’ When you think about true industry innovation, often there is a market participant, an incumbent that loses out. When it comes to the voluntary benefits ecosystem that Corestream participates in, there are a few key players or incumbents: an insurance provider, a broker and the employer. With my benefits industry expertise, I knew I could create something that would bring value to each participant while delivering real value to the most important player — the end user/employee. With Corestream the employer sees an increase in employee engagement without taking on additional administrative burden, employees can feel that their employers care about them as people and brokers and insurance carriers provide additional value to their clients and enjoy revenue gains. Corestream’s mission is to create value for all parties that engage with our platform, which is unique in our industry.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
No matter what level of success you reach, you must always stay humble. Throughout my entrepreneurial journey, I realized that with each milestone or goal that I achieved, I would reflect on the experiences I went through and what it took to reach that goal. I would then look forward to the future and fully appreciate what was needed from me and my team to achieve that next milestone. I found this process to not only be a humbling experience but one that is so crucial to growth.
To me, it’s necessary to be conscious of what you don’t know and be open to coaching to reach the next level. Everyone should welcome coaching — we all need it and none of us are above it! When running a business, one must always choose humility over arrogance — and remember not to confuse this with a lack of confidence. Know when to accept guidance and feedback.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In a matter of days, COVID-19 forced many businesses into virtual work environments and similarly in people’s personal lives as we were all asked to stay at home. My family, unfortunately, experienced a tragic loss due to the pandemic and one of the most challenging aspects of that was not being able to spend time in-person with each other. We weren’t able to grieve together or comfort each other so we had to do a lot more through virtual means. We leaned on tools like Zoom to stay connected, even when we were all so physically far apart.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The main challenge we’ve seen at Corestream is the same one everyone is dealing with, the inability to communicate face-to-face with colleagues, clients, partners and others. For example, I personally prefer in-person candidate interviews and that’s just not happening today. However, we have continued to hire throughout the pandemic by interviewing via phone and video. In fact, the additional focus on process has actually allowed us to refine and improve our hiring. Instead of relying on our gut, as we might have done more in face-to-face settings, we’re relying more on data. Videoconferencing has become a big part of our internal communications too; we use it in one-on-one, small group and company-wide meetings.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
There is a lot of uncertainty and fear, no doubt about that. The advice I’ve given to anxious family and friends has been this: start talking regularly and more frequently to old college or high school friends and engage more with your loved ones at home. Our lives are not consumed by our usual day to day activities anymore. We’re not traveling, we’re not going into the office, and we have more time to connect with each other. Another idea I suggested to my friends and family and even myself, is to create a list of what to do to feel better and then check the boxes. Some of my personal boxes have been wiping things down, washing hands, social distancing, wearing a mask, etc. and it’s helped soothe not only my anxiety, but my loved ones as well.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The pandemic has forced a lot of companies to re-evaluate certain aspects of their business from internal operations to the products and services that are put on the market. One of the biggest opportunities that I see right now is for leaders to use this time, when things are slower, to reimagine their business and emphasize research and development. Look at ways the business can run more efficiently and improve your product offerings, then when the economy does re-emerge you’ll be ahead of your competition in delivering maximum value to the customer.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Working from home has forced people to see each other in a more authentic light. Now that we’ve been virtually introduced to each other’s personal lives, we will likely be more understanding of external situations outside your typical professional setting. I believe that employers will put more focus on supporting their employees’ holistic wellbeing and not just offer medical coverage, important as that is.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
One thing we do know is that we are witnessing a fundamental shift in the hierarchy of needs. Demand will shift. The question is how long does it sustain. If you look at people that lived through the Great Depression Era, they were savers and sometimes hoarders. They were changed forever so while the market is seeing a V shaped recovery — civilization may not.
COVID has been incredibly unpredictable so it has been very difficult to look around corners on this one. Consumer sentiment and demand will be equally unpredictable. Being agile in our thinking and execution is one of the strategies we’ve adopted to address that. The execution plan is simple: ideate, validate and iterate. Rinse and repeat.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
As the world begins contemplating what a post-pandemic era will look like, the value of putting people first will not only continue to be the right thing to do, but in the relationship between employer and employee, will be an increasingly valuable trait that generates greater company success. Employers that support the “whole” employee, and all aspects of their life, will enjoy a more engaged workforce.
In order to begin supporting the “whole” employee, I would encourage others to focus on increasing the level of authenticity within a company. From pets stepping into the camera during Zoom calls or kids screaming in the background, the work from home era has definitely pushed people to become more real and authentic with each other. I believe this is something that business leaders should carry into the post-COVID era.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.
As an entrepreneur, there will be bumps along the road, but persistence and grit is key. Paired with humility and confidence, this has guided me in my personal and professional life.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Yes, you can follow me on LinkedIn.