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“Welcoming Detours to Find Success”

Interview with Nita Bhatia, COO and Co-Founder of CrowFly

Women in Technology WNY features the stories of women in our local community and the various technology roles they fill, traditional and non-traditional. TechBuffalo highlights these women to encourage others to not only explore technology opportunities but to take advantage of them. Nita virtually stopped by, and we had a great conversation about the experiences that influenced her journey, how traveling and experiencing different cultures influence her mindset, skillset, and approaches, and why she believes that trusting your gut is very powerful.

Welcome Nita! I’m really excited to hear more about you. I’ve been told you recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. What was that like?

Mt. Kilimanjaro was an extraordinary experience that also required quite a bit of discipline and determination. Climbing a 19,000-foot mountain required us to make a goal for each day and stick to the plan to get to the top. Travel is more than a hobby or vacation to me; exploring new places, cultures, and histories is also one of my favorite ways to continually discover and challenge myself. That’s why I try to take one or two international trips each year — although it has been a while due to COVID-19. Normally, I use these trips as an opportunity to clear my mind after a long stretch of hard work, while at the same time pushing myself psychically and learning new things.

Tell me about your background in psychology and behavioral mental health.
I grew up with two close family members who were diagnosed with life-changing conditions. One suffered from a mental illness that caused him to go through debilitating difficulties. The other developed cancer at an extremely young age. As a young child, watching two loved ones suffer and not having many resources to cope were my biggest motivators to study psychology. After I earned my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I went on to Boston University’s Mental Health Counseling and Behavioral Medicine master’s program, which is affiliated with their medical school. It was there that I honed an interest in understanding the psychological effects of childhood cancer on both patients and their families.

After completing my master’s program at BU, I landed what was then my dream job as a research coordinator in Pediatric Oncology and Palliative Care at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical Center. I was running six different research studies for children and adolescents who had advanced or terminal cancer while conducting interviews to understand what they and their families were going through. During this time, I was simultaneously applying to Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology which was the next step in my plan. After several acceptances across the country, I carefully considered which program would be the best fit but also where I wanted to experience living. I decided to uproot my life in Boston and enroll in a seven-year Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at the University of Iowa. I was extremely nervous to move to the Midwest alone after a lifetime of being a Northeasterner, but at the same time, I was beyond thrilled to have made it that far in my life plan. To my utter dismay, it wasn’t what I had hoped for. After some time in the program, I felt very limited in the world of academia and knew that I couldn’t be my best self if I didn’t listen to my gut, which told me that I could make more of an impact and be happier if I moved on. To this day, leaving this program was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, but now looking back, it was also one of the best decisions I have ever made.

How did you get into FinTech?
After realizing the Ph.D. program wasn’t for me, I moved back to Buffalo, where I grew up. I was stressed because traditional Indian parents like mine have high expectations when it comes to education. Thankfully, I was able to explain the choice rationally to my parents, so they fully supported me taking a leave of absence from my Ph.D. studies. But at the same time, I had had such a clear professional path for so long and saw things as very black and white, and here I was starting over again. I felt an enormous amount of pressure to validate my decision to switch career paths and determine a new path for success. I networked as much as I could through clubs and local business connections. I learned that in Buffalo, there was a whole emerging field in business psychology. I met with helpful people and got a position bringing behavioral science into the hiring process at a local recruiting firm. It evolved quickly, and I started doing outside consulting for leadership development, coaching, and team development at an executive level.

It was at that point that John Bair reached out to me for what I had originally thought was executive coaching. We had coffee and he shared with me this idea of building a first-of-its-kind online platform for buying and selling guaranteed future structured settlement payments — one that would bring efficiency, fairness, and trust to an industry where it didn’t exist historically. These conversations made me realize what I was missing; I wanted to do something that will make an impact on those who need it most. And although there isn’t much professional security in an idea, I again followed my gut. I recognized this rare opportunity in the FinTech industry where I would be able to leverage my background in psychology and fulfill my desire to help disadvantaged populations, and I knew the risk would be worth the reward. My experience since then has proven that if you trust yourself as competent, capable, hardworking, and resourceful, then you should take the challenge. In my case, we’ve turned a great idea into an established, running, and profitable FinTech company.

What advice would you give to other women leaders/entrepreneurs?
First, your detours in life can often be your biggest blessings. If someone had told me five years ago that I would be where I am today, I would have never believed it. But every detour I took along the way has made me stronger, more confident, and more well-rounded. My master’s in psychology, organizational development, and executive coaching work, and now almost three years of being a co-founder and COO of a FinTech startup — my diverse background has come from all the risks and challenges I took along the way. And for women who want to break into the tech world, my story is an example of how a technology-focused background or degree is not always necessary to get started in the field. Years in academia shaped me into a detail-oriented person, which poised me for success with a startup. My degree and work experience in psychology has helped me be a good boss, network and communicate effectively, and help people. None of those experiences were explicitly about tech, but they’ve all translated to the work I do now.

Second, follow your gut, and own both the wins and losses. It’s an empowering approach, especially for women. I’m secure and confident in myself, now more than ever, because I have followed my own gut rather than the expectations that had been set for me. The more I listened to myself on this path, the more clarity I had in what was best for my life. Building and growing CrowFly specifically has given me more confidence, because I’ve taken a vision without much training or guidance, and a few years later, I have a team of staff and an innovative platform generating substantial revenue.

Third, anything is possible if you just trust yourself and have courage. If I hadn’t been open to the possibilities of these opportunities because of the risk, I wouldn’t be where I am. Believe in yourself, and things will work out. I have the proof of the last 10 years of my life to show for it.

Another great interview! Thanks for participating Nita. Read more about her career journey on her LinkedIn. Interested in learning more about CrowFly? Click here to visit their website. Follow TechBuffalo on LinkedIn & Twitter for more WIT features!