Munjal Shah Of Health IQ: ” I believe leadership requires one trait — optimism”

I believe leadership requires one trait — optimism. I set expectations low and over deliver. Unfettered optimism is a draw — you can see that those people see a different world that’s possible. The global health and wellness market is worth more than 1.5 trillion dollars. So many people are looking to improve their physical, mental, and emotional wellness. […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

I believe leadership requires one trait — optimism. I set expectations low and over deliver. Unfettered optimism is a draw — you can see that those people see a different world that’s possible.

The global health and wellness market is worth more than 1.5 trillion dollars. So many people are looking to improve their physical, mental, and emotional wellness. At the same time, so many people are needed to help provide these services. What does it take to create a highly successful career in the health and wellness industry?

In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The Health and Wellness Industry” we are talking to health and wellness professionals who can share insights and stories from their experiences.

In this particular interview, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Munjal Shah.

Munjal Shah is the co-founder and CEO of Health IQ. Health IQ uses data and medical science to provide special rate insurance for health conscious seniors. Munjal is a serial entrepreneur that has built many innovative companies in the past. Prior to Health IQ, Munjal was co-founder & CEO of Like.com (computer vision/machine learning company sold to Google) & co-founder & CEO of Andale (eventually sold to Alibaba). Munjal has a Masters in CS from Stanford and a Bachelors in CS from UCSD.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?

I was born overseas in India but spent my early years in Indonesia where my dad was an expat working for a US company. We moved to the U.S. when I was about 7 years old and grew up living the suburban lifestyle in Silicon Valley, which was a pretty normal place to live back then. I played with my friends at the park unsupervised like many kids who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. I loved being outdoors where riding your bike for miles around the neighborhood was just a normal part of life. Being active and going to the park every afternoon was just the normal life, so I really developed a love of being outdoors and free.

I started biking as a kid which progressed to racing. This gave me this sense of the commitment to fitness, but overall, it also gave me the ability to fend for myself and be out there 20 miles away from home with no cell phone. I had wanderlust at an early age.

Was there a particular person or event that inspired you to live a wellness-focused lifestyle? Can you tell us about your main motivation to go all in?

So, two parts — two people in my life introduced me to cycling, which I ended up loving. One was my next door neighbor, who worked a blue collar job at the local newspaper. He loved cycling and introduced me to it. He used to take me on long rides as my dad wasn’t really into sports.

Then the second person was a volunteer cycling coach in high school who drove me and the other kids all over California for races — just because he loved cycling.

Once I got past high school, I stopped cycling and started to gain weight. I kept gaining weight all throughout my 20s and into my 30s. By the time I was 37, I was running 2 different companies that I had created — Andale and Like.com.

We sold Like.com to Google in 2010. It was a day that should have been the high point of my career. Yet, the very next day I ended up with in the ER with chest pains. My father had his first heart attack in his mid-40s and while I did not have a heart attack, it did end up being something serious because I wasn’t taking care of my health. What should have been the best day of my life, business-wise, ended up not so great. It was then that I decided I really needed to get control of my health.

I lost 40 pounds and that’s when I decided to really go all in and focus on taking care of my health. I started with diet and nutrition, but a few years later I took courses in endocrinology at Stanford School of Medicine via their extension program. I learned everything I could about wellness and eventually started a company around it — Health IQ. To all these people out there seeking to find their mission in life — my mission found me — you just have to be receptive to it. That’s why I’m building this company that I am today.

When I had young kids and was overweight, friends and family advised me to “Take care of your health now. You have young kids.” Those words didn’t motivate me, it just made me feel bad about myself. I thought, there has got to be a better way, and that’s the foundational concept of Health IQ. We celebrate the people doing it right rather than demeaning people who are doing it wrong. We celebrate the people who have taken responsibility instead of telling the people who haven’t that they really need to do better, which is a negative message.

As a company, this is what we focus on because the other approach doesn’t really work. In addition, we realized that the best way to celebrate their achievements is through a financial reward. At Health IQ, we give lower rates to health-conscious people. That can be the “healthy” health conscious, somebody who’s really fit and in good health. It can also be the “unhealthy” health conscious meaning someone who is clinically diagnosed as having a disease but manages their disease in a responsible way. They look at their blood sugar every day and careful about what they eat. We think they’re heroes too, and they deserve a lower rate as well, so we provide both groups with the lower rate.

Most people with a wellbeing centered lifestyle have a “go-to” activity, exercise, beverage, or food that is part of their routine. What is yours and can you tell us how it helps you?

When I first started losing weight, I had just started running. After researching the importance of maintaining muscle mass as you age, I began weight lifting to compliment my running.

Unfortunately, I hurt my back — bursting two discs in my back via a car accident — and I struggled to run or lift weights. I could still do some movements, but it was limited. Then the pandemic came and that’s when I rediscovered cycling. I was able to find cycling again during the pandemic because I was at home 5 or 6 pm and I could go for a quick ride before sunset. I couldn’t do that before because by the time I got home it was dark…and cycling indoors is only so fun. There was just something so nice about being outside after being cooped up for so long. So I continue cycling with a little bit of weightlifting and little bit of running.

Another component that has really helped me be health conscious is diet. It’s not just exercise and that’s the hardest part for people. People have different approaches but the most important thing for me, is to not rely on self-control. There’s this fallacy that people just have to have the discipline and have self-control. You have to just not have the temptation around because if you have bad food in your house, you’re going to eat it. When you have a bad day or have a bad meeting, that’s going to be the thing you reach for. So, I really believe a lot of this is just having food on the side that’s healthy. I cycle so much now that I can eat a little more liberally than I could before. For most of the time that I’ve been health conscious now since running this company, it’s really been about choosing to not have certain foods in the house and eating a low glycemic diet that won’t spike my blood sugar.

For me, it was really that personal journey I went on and then said, “hey, there’s got to be a way to build a company around this that changes the world and makes it more health conscious.”

That was the beauty of Health IQ. Health is two parts; the cards you’re dealt with and how you play the cards. You can’t control the first, but you can control the second, and Health IQ set out to measure the second part and provide our customers a discount on it. I believe that it’s fair and okay to assess people on how health conscious they are, and believe we are touching on something.

Most people don’t realize how many micro stresses they have throughout the day — particularly in the morning, trying to get to work on time or getting kids to school on time. One of the things people find when building a wellness company is, a lot of times when you build a company around wellness, you don’t have the time to continue your own wellness. You choose to work at a company because you believe in its mission, and then you realize it’s just really hard to balance.

One of the things that’s really enabled one to combine those since the pandemic is that I’ve moved Health IQ to fully remote. What I’ve come to realize as the leader is that one of the best things, I can do for the health of my employees is let them work from home on-going. They instantly earn back that commute time. It provides them time to be with their loved ones but also take care of their health. If you are coming home at 7pm because you’re stuck in traffic for an hour for before getting home, you’re likely famished and gritty. When you eat a late dinner, you are less likely to work out with a full stomach.

To live a wellness-focused life is one thing, but how did it become your career? How did it all start?

There are two stories, so I’ll tell you both.

The original idea for Health IQ was slightly different. We were going to use blood tests to create a sense of how health conscious you are. One day we made a quiz, a health IQ test, to attract potential candidates. Candidates began taking the tests for fun but these tests were our way to encourage the world to be more health conscious and the test went totally viral. It became the foundation of the company — how to measure your health IQ. We went with that idea and made it more robust. There’s just serendipity to a lot of things in this world and this was a very serendipitous kind of thing.

We wrote this test just for fun and for a little bit of marketing, and all of a sudden it became the foundation of the company’s ability to not just to assess how healthy you are, but how health conscious you are.

The other thing I would say is back in the early days of the company, we were working a lot of hours, so we just put a gym in the middle of our office. We literally put a weight machine and treadmills in the middle of the office. However, we ended up putting them all facing each other in a conference room so you could work out while doing 2-hour design meetings not ever realizing it’s been 2 hours. This ended up becoming a really big part of the early culture of the company. You could come to the office in your gym clothes, we didn’t care. If you got a 20-minute break or you were working on coding for 3 hours and want to take 15 minutes and get the blood pumping, go for it. That was something we hadn’t realized would make such a big difference in our culture and foundation, but it really did.

Can you share a story about the biggest challenges you faced when you were first starting? How did you resolve that? What are the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

One of the biggest challenges was knowledge. When I started my journey, I was trying to eat better but just didn’t understand what was in this food and how it was made. I was constantly surprised as I started measuring things. You realize that gin and tonic was just a little bit of alcohol with essentially soda. I thought the sweetness was from the gin, but no, that sweetness was from the tonic water.

Should I have known that? Maybe, but it’s not something many people think about. I went to a popular “healthy” Mexican restaurant and thought I would have the steak salad. Yet, there was a huge spike in my blood sugar levels. Quickly realizing that it was due to the sauce that the steak was marinated in. The hardest challenges are what I call the surprising sugars. I thought I had made a good choice but I hadn’t and didn’t realize this until I started measuring. I constantly had to be on the lookout because nobody else was going look out for me except for me, and I had to get really educated about it. It’s not an easy thing to do — there’s lots of tricks and boobytraps, in addition to many things you just don’t know. Here I was trying to do the right thing and constantly getting “tricked” by one thing or the other.

I resolved it two ways. One, I did an experiment where I wore a continuous glucose meter for two weeks. It’s a really great way to improve your health because you don’t have to wear it forever. It teaches you about how much sugar is in all the normal things you eat. More importantly, not just how much sugar is in them but how your body react to the amount of sugar in them. Measuring, learning what it does, and how your body reacts more to some forms of carbs, et cetera.

The second is just learning to always look at the label. If it’s pre-packaged food, ask yourself what’s in this? I should know what I’m putting in my body. I also like elimination diets because they are easy. It’s a simple as “don’t eat that.” I don’t have to think about it every meal and not weighing my meals. If my portion size may be too big, I just don’t eat it. I found that even though they always say, you can consume all things in moderation, you should never do that.

According to a 23 and Me test, I found I was glucose intolerant and I thought, “Why don’t I just not eat those foods? Maybe I should just eliminate milk and just see if I feel better?” I eliminated dairy products from my diet and suddenly, I just lost weight. So at every meal, I’d turn down cheese, for example, because they’re very high in calories. Telling yourself you have allergies to certain foods is not a bad answer. In my case, it was just so much easier to say “I don’t eat that” and you don’t eat it. You’re not tempted to eat it, not even a little bit. This approach was just a lot easier for me to not have to think about every meal.

Can you share with us how the work you are doing is helping to make a bigger impact in the world? Can you share a story that illustrates that?

At Health IQ, we give people discounts to those who are health conscious. We believe that people are incentivized to save money in their lives and they will do things to save money on their insurance. Will they be a little bit healthier? Will they think “Oh no, I want to make sure I keep riding, or I will keep walking because that’s saving me money on my insurance, and I want to keep saving money”. We think saving money for people is a very big draw. It’s not the main reason everybody should take their health seriously. They do it for themselves but we offer an added incentive/bonus.

We also provide education, like daily quizzes that help you learn. For every wrong answer, we will explain why, so there are many micro learning opportunities. We believe in the power of this aspirational idea of celebrating the people doing it right. Will you change the world by harassing the people that are doing it wrong? Not necessarily because you have to convince that guy, you have to give him a scare, he has to get off the couch and do the work and that doesn’t always work. In fact a lot of times it just makes them feel bad about him or herself. I know that happened to me when I was overweight, running a company, and didn’t have time for this until it caught up with me.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Today, we are very focused on helping seniors improve their health. We discovered that a lot of chronic diseases creates a different quality of life when you’re older. Between 65 to 80 years old is when individuals who have a lot of chronic disease really struggle with their quality of life. They call this expanding the health span, rather than expanding life span. Many people may not want to live longer, but they want to live better for as long as they can. That’s what our focus is on, to help people live better.

We recently just launched an auto insurance product. With this product, we came to the realization that there are more accidents per hundred million miles driven in the senior population than in all the other age groups combined. People think 16-year-olds are your highest risk drivers but it’s actually the seniors when you add up all these fatalities.

We thought this was kind of nuts. What’s going on here? It turns out it was due to all the seniors that have early dementia and didn’t know it. They aren’t driving down the freeway at 90 mph but what they are doing is they get confused, end up crossing the wrong lanes, and end up causing 21% of accidents — with 43% of these being fatalities. The good news is that even if you have the worst genes, dementia isn’t all genetic. Give them a healthy lifestyle and they can cut this risk in half.

To help with this, we developed a sharp senior quiz. It’s an online quiz that tests reaction times, peripheral vision, and short-term memory. We had a bunch of seniors who gave us permission to access their DMV records take this test. From there, we built this gigantic new dataset where people had taken our quiz and we saw how many accidents they had in the last three years. It turned out the seniors who did well in our quiz still had way too many accidents. So we built a new insurance product. But think about what we did — we developed a way to assess and keep not only our seniors safe but the rest of us safe on the road as well.

Right now, we are trying to figure out how to give away the senior quiz. Generally, everyone likes to take a quiz to save money. Could this quiz really help seniors to assess? Statistically, we know there’s the 20% that shouldn’t be driving and it’s mostly when you’re in your 80s, but it’s also when your 75 to 80. 80% of the seniors are going to do fine on the quiz. Plus, what used to feel like a prison sentence where you were stuck in your house and can’t drive anymore, but in today’s world, especially in urban areas, that’s not really the case anymore. You can get everywhere you want to go. It’s probably even cheaper than owning a car if you don’t go out too much.

This auto insurance is a great example of how we took a product that helped us to give discounts and insurance for seniors who have good brain health. However, it’s actually a tool that we can use to help all seniors assess their overall brain health that we’re going to be trying to help all society with.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I believe leadership is really about one primary trait — optimism. So many people grow up in their professional careers thinking they can be the devil’s advocate, that they can be the person who points out issues in everybody else’s plan. There is a need for somebody like that — they do help make a better plan, but that’s not who people follow. An analogy I always draw upon is imagine that Gandhi was going to lead this movement. We’re going to free India, but I want to set expectations low so we under promise and over deliver.

Unfettered optimism is a draw. Those people see a different world that is possible and people are very attracted to that. That can be many great things, you can be a great people manager, you can be a great executive, but if you want to be the top leader you have to project a level of optimism about where things are going all the time. It doesn’t mean you can’t admit there was a failure in the organization but you have to then take that and say okay, we didn’t get it right, but here’s how it’s going to get better and here’s why I believe we still have this mission to go conquer in the world. That is the most important element — being able to project that optimism.

First of all, it’s an optimistic view that we can make the world’s health better. Health is hard and there are a lot of setbacks. Secondly, it’s an optimistic view that we can do this through an aspirational model where we celebrate the people doing it right. The whole company can be optimistic in just it’s mission and in what it’s trying to do. When we interview potential candidates, we also look for people who are naturally a little more optimistic.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. Wellness is an incredibly broad topic. How would you define the term “Wellness”? Can you explain what you mean?

Wellness to me is quality of life because ultimately people want a trauma- and pain-free life. The goal of all of this is to help people get to that level of life quality, that health status we talked about. I think the definition of wellness is healing whatever is ailing you.

I’ve gone through a whole health journey; I’ve lost a bunch of weight, I’m metabolically very healthy, but because of a car accident I have back pain and it hurts every day. I have days I can’t put my socks on myself and because I just can’t bend over without pain. I still hold the desk when I put on my pants in the morning, so I don’t fall over, yet I bike 120 miles a week, because somehow that position on my bike doesn’t hurt my back. If you asked me, what’s wellness to me, it would be having a pain free day without hurting. That’s wellness for me and to grow older without the problem getting worse. My biggest fear is that if it’s bad now at 48 years old, what will it be like going when I’m 68 or 78? Wellness is different for each person but I think that wellness is the thing that keeps you feeling like you are whole from a physical health and mental health standpoint. It is a journey for you to resolve the thing that’s bothering you the most and there are many unexpected ways to do it. Something as simple as getting enough sleep would actually help me lose weight. I didn’t realize there’s all these unusual new things for you to learn, but I think you can ask anybody, especially someone who’s older — “What’s the number one thing you wish you didn’t have as a pain or an issue?” And they’ll all tell you something. If you didn’t have that “something”, would you feel better about yourself? Would you feel better about your life? Helping solve what’s weighing them down mentally and physically causing them to feel disabled is the number one thing for me that I’m looking for.

As an expert, this might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Can you please share a few reasons with our readers about why focusing on our wellness should be a priority in our lives?

I think many people cannot see the ghost of Christmas future. If you spend enough time at nursing homes and you spend enough time with people who are between 65 and 85, you will realize that it is so important for you to do the things you can do right now so that you can enjoy life at 65 to 85-years old. There’s two decades there for you to work at getting healthy now and it doesn’t really change your life a whole lot now, health wise, but it definitely will later. This is a down payment you need to do today. You’re going to have two decades of good quality life when you’re retired and you’ll have all the time in the world to do all the things you ever wanted to do. There’s a saying that when you’re young you have health and time but you have no money. When you’re middle aged, you have money and health but you have no time, and then when you’re older you have money and time, but often times, no health.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increasingly growing understanding of the necessity for companies to be mindful of the wellness of their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, can you share steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental and physical wellness?

The number one thing that we’ve figured out is to let everybody stay remote indefinitely and we got rid of all our offices. We now have approximately 800 remote employees. Out of all the corporate programs and different initiatives, nothing has been more effective worldwide than avoiding long commutes and giving that time back with your family and having that time to exercise. That 5 to 6pm hour block is the key exercise window for both mornings and evenings. This is the single best thing we can do for quality of life both mentally and physically.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The Health and Wellness Industry”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

I believe leadership requires one trait — optimism. I set expectations low and over deliver. Unfettered optimism is a draw — you can see that those people see a different world that’s possible. People are very attracted to that. That doesn’t mean you can’t admit a failure in the organization. You can be many great things — you can be a great people manager or a great executive, but if you want to be a top leader, you must project a level of optimism about where things are going all the time.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would promote the most wellness to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The original idea for Health IQ was slightly different. We were going to use blood tests to create a sense of how health conscious you are, and then one day we made a quiz, the health IQ test as a way to attract candidates and also encourage the world to be more health conscious. We found our customers like taking tests like this for fun. That test went totally viral and it became the foundation of the company. All of a sudden, it became the foundation of the company’s ability to not just to assess how healthy you are, but how health conscious you are. We went with that concept and made it more robust and organized it.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Tom Brady. Tom Brady is just an amazing guy in terms of being preventative with his health. He follows an extremely great diet. He has really found a way to age but maintain his athleticism through a tremendous amount of self-care. He is amazing for what he can do at his age and all the accomplishments he’s hitting. For example, he doesn’t eat tomatoes because tomatoes are inflammatory. His diet management is unreal.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.