Family Physicians Group
Someone once commented on Robert Frost’s famous statement about “the road less traveled” that, “it is less traveled for a reason!” The path any successful businessperson takes is always fraught with challenges and difficulties, and when you’re a woman executive those challenges are often multiplied. But Dr. Nayana Vyas’ journey makes the typical entrepreneurial obstacles pale by comparison and the story of her remarkable accomplishments worthy of an epic novel.
Her Family Physicians Group includes 67 physicians and over 450 total employees, in 25 different locations. In 2012, its companywide revenue reached $200 million. But her story begins in the central African country of Uganda. She was the youngest child in her family with six older brothers. Her mother was uneducated and when her father died, she and her mother were dependent on her brothers. One of them was a physician, which she sites as being the source of her interest in medicine; however “the rest of my family did not like my choice. It was not what a woman was supposed to be,” she said. Nevertheless, Vyas pursued her dream and went to India to study.
Though she had an Indian heritage, going there was hardly a return to a culture she was familiar with; she spoke a different dialect and it was a dangerous place. Attacks on women were common, though not publicized as it is today. She commented, “In the almost seven years I lived in India, I rarely left the safety of my home except to study.” To complicate matters, India was at war with Pakistan and the drone of military aircraft and the roar of distant guns were constantly heard. Yet, that wasn’t the worst of it.
In her homeland of Uganda, the infamous dictator Idi Amin staged a bloody military coup. One of his first acts of despotism was to expel all people of Indian descent and to cancel their citizenship. Her family had 30 days to exit the country and fled to Switzerland, Canada and Great Britain, but thousands of others were not so fortunate. As political refugees, her family was accepted into their new countries, but she was in India and the Ugandan government simply canceled her passport. “I was stuck in India with no passport and no citizenship; I was a person without a country.”
Partners for Life
Dr. Vyas was faced with two choices. “One option was to complete a multi-year process to be accepted by the British government as a citizen of their country or [the second option was] to marry someone who had their British citizenship in order,” she said.
So she reached out to family friend Andy Vyas. Their families had known each other and they had been together in school for a few months, but he was in Bombay and she lived in Dehli. Though they hadn’t seen each other in years, they married quickly and moved to England. Andy, a CPA, would one day become the business manager of Dr. Vyas’ practice and eventually the CEO of their burgeoning medical company. But that was years away.
In England, Margret Thatcher was at No. 10 Downing Street and the sky was the limit for women. But not for women of Indian descent who wanted to practice medicine. “We were supposed to be the working class. England was not the diverse country it is today and people of Asian descent were not considered professional workers. My attempts to work as a physician were always met with resentment. For instance, my board exams and residency in India were not accepted. I had to retake all my exams, even failing once because I didn’t pronounce a word to their satisfaction.” But Vyas persevered and practiced for three years in the National Health System.
Though there were aspects of England’s medical system she liked, she wanted to be able to guide how she felt her patients should be cared for and decided to move to America. She preceded her husband, whose Indian degree was not recognized in the U.S., and went to work at Cook County General Hospital in Chicago. Andy joined her and went back to college; she was practically alone in now her fourth country of residence.
Anyone who has spent a winter in Chicago, especially someone who was accustomed to a perennially warm climate like in Uganda or India, might find it unbearable. Dr. Vyas longed for warmer temperatures and had opportunities to move to Houston, Orlando or Atlanta. She chose Orlando.
Breaking the Barriers
One would like to think Nayana and Andy Vyas lived happily ever after, but the challenges continued to mount. She went to work for a local doctor, who tried to take advantage of her situation. He underpaid her and often didn’t pay her wages. Then, when she decided she could do better on her own, he tried to block her from having medical privileges at the local hospitals.
Again her perseverance paid off and in 1987, she opened her first clinic. Her big break came when she bid on and won the contract to provide medical services for the Orlando Naval Training Center. “The contract was not just for primary care, it was also managing the center’s hospital and emergency room, the specialists, and the pharmacy. The military health care is structured in a similar way to Family Physicians Group. It includes all aspects of a patient’s care, not just one segment,” she explained.
When the contract expired they launched into an aggressive expansion program, purchasing clinics around Central Florida, including a group of Cigna clinics, one of which she had once worked in. “That was especially satisfying,” Dr. Vyas commented.
Today, their clinics are leaders in the field, focusing on patient care that is balanced and integrated – looking at patients and their needs as a whole. As Dr. Vyas said, “From head to toe”
“Today, it is common to find women practicing medicine. My daughter Anjali is a doctor and an executive in our company and luckily she did not experience the social pressures that I did.
“Throughout my life people were trying to push me in another direction. In my opinion, it was specifically because I didn’t fit their stereotypical thoughts of what women should be or do. But we find ways to move forward; there are no obstacles we cannot overcome. After all, I was a woman without a country, a political refugee and an immigrant. At any point I could have just rested, worked in a traditional job or gave into the obstacles that were put in my way. Instead, I kept focused on the vision I had for the best ways to treat patients.
“When you surround yourself with people who know your ability, respect you and you never lose faith in yourself, you will succeed.”