Howard Schiffer is the Founder and President of the global public health nonprofit, Vitamin Angels, which took on a major public health challenge when it started in 1994: to eliminate vitamin A deficiency in children under 5, which can lead to illness, blindness, and even death. In 2018, Schiffer announced a new goal for the organization: to eliminate infant mortality surrounding childbirth due to vitamin deficiency diseases by the year 2030. Today, Vitamin Angels provides life-changing essential vitamins and minerals to over 70 million vulnerable mothers and children in more than 70 countries, including all 50 states in the U.S. Under Howard’s leadership, Vitamin Angels has twice been named a Top 10 “Highly Rated Charity Relying Solely on Private Contributions” by Charity Navigator in addition to earning nine consecutive 4-star ratings, and also has a Platinum rating from GuideStar.
What is your business and what do you do?
Vitamin Angels helps at-risk populations in need, specifically pregnant women, new moms, babies and children under five gain access to life changing and life-saving vitamins and minerals. We work with communities that have been marginalized and strive to promote nutrition equity across the lifespan. My focus is holding the vision for the organization and articulating our overarching message, being the public face and speaker, maintaining our high-level relationships, and ensuring the integrity of our culture.
What sparked your vision to launch your business?
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, and the vitamin company I owned got a call from a relief agency requesting donations of vitamins for families in the area. My “a-ha!” moment came soon after realizing how grateful my 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. I had finally found my ‘why’ and Vitamin Angels was born.
What has been your favorite failure and what did you learn?
Now I can laugh about it but at the time it was incredibly painful. Many years ago we had one of our biggest fundraising and donor recognition events at a big Industry trade show on the East Coast. The show organizers had offered their support if we did our event at the convention center. Typically our usual venues were much more creative (like art museums), but thinking that we could draw a large crowd we acquiesced. Our event organizer, who had done a few successful events for us before, was given creative control and came up with a ‘carnival’ type theme with games that the attendees could play. The evening ended with a Journey cover band. You get the idea. It was a complete disaster and people left in droves. I learned that our events have to be directly related to our work and that drawing in the people who are sincerely interested in our work is much more important that drawing in the biggest crowd. I also learned that you cannot have other people define your brand. Finally, I learned that it was only one night and that we could quickly move on and know a lot more about how to do better the next time.
What was your most memorable day of your career and why?
For our 20th anniversary we had a big celebration at the biggest trade show in the Natural Product’s Industry – Expo West. Our event was held at Angels Stadium. Our Events Manager planned the entire evening but kept it a secret from me. Our Brand Manager encouraged me to do my speech focused on the similarities between building Vitamin Angels and raising a family. My speech was essentially a love letter to my family. It was very emotional and the day of the event I thought about how much I wanted my family to hear it. Then that evening five minutes before I was about to speak, I dashed off to take a bathroom break. On my way back into the stadium, I glanced through the crowd and thought I saw a familiar face and realized it was my daughter Zoë. I couldn’t understand how she got there. Then I looked next to her and saw my wife, Kim, and my other two children Austin and Eliana. I was stunned. I still didn’t realize that our Events Manager and Brand Manager had planned to surprise me that night with the attendance of my wife and children! I was so moved seeing my family.
Our Domestic Programs Officer kicked off the night with the first speech and when she was done, she started her introduction about someone very special to the Vitamin Angels family. I was starting to get up out of my seat when she introduced my daughter Eliana! Again, I was in shock. Ellie had been out in Kenya and Vietnam and had seen Vitamin Angels work up close. She was so eloquent and spoke so beautifully about her experience. She got a standing ovation. I was in awe!
How do you continue to learn so you stay ahead in your industry?
I always try to look forward and avoid looking back. Fortunately we have some of the top minds in the area of infant and child nutrition working with us so they keep me abreast of the new research and what is having the greatest impact. Our work is about people, so I’m always attentive to world news, natural disasters, and other events that will affect the communities we serve. During COVID -19 this has been especially true as government health programs have been delayed or postponed and food supply chains have been disrupted. The need for our nutrition programs is now greater than ever.
How do you manage stress from running a successful business?
I meditate every morning and try to have a spiritual perspective. Having been around for twenty-six years has let me see so many crises come and go. On so many levels there’s no reason why Vitamin Angels should be in the position we are in today. We started with no funding, no credentials and no celebrity to help us promote our work. I’ve always felt like we’re being guided, that my life and Vitamin Angels are here for one reason – to make a difference in these women and children’s lives.
What is some bad advice you hear in your industry or with entrepreneurship that people should avoid?
When I started Vitamin Angels so many people would tell me; ‘Oh you should be on Oprah’ or ‘You should talk with Angelina Jolie’ or more recently ‘You should contact the Gates Foundation’. The truth is that so many people are running after celebrities or the big funders that you’re going to be one of many. I knew our base was the Natural Products Industry and we have built amazing long-term supporters there. You have to be true to who you are. It’s so easy to be distracted when you’re starting out. I always tried to listen to what I knew was true.
Where can readers find you on social media?
You can follow our work by connecting with Vitamin Angels on social media: