She is soft-spoken and unassuming. Unless you'd known in advance that Neisha Zafutto, 39, is Founder and President of one of the most successful billing companies in the addiction treatment field, you wouldn’t know by her reserved presentation.
Online, Neisha’s role is understated as head of a company that, on average, transmits over an impressive $60 million of claims monthly to insurance carriers and is estimated to bill $1 billion of adjudicated claims in 2015. Even her public Facebook account promotes her Chief Executive Officer, William McCormick, as the frequent face of Medivance Billing more than her own engagements. Her other posts demonstrate her relatable and accessible appeal, like her sharing of The Addict’s Mom’s happy-face emoticon exclaiming “This Hug’s for You” and group photos of her on-the-ground philanthropic work to support the destigmatization of mental health issues.
Yet, Neisha was anything but unassuming when she first envisioned Medivance Billing eight years ago. Neisha was recently divorced and had her toddler daughter, Nadja, on her hip when she had this overwhelming feeling inside that despite the challenges of being a single mother, she wanted to run her own business. She’d come from a lineage of women business owners after all.
Neisha’s mother, Joan Gordon, now 59, grew up watching her grandmother, Zafutto’s great-grandmother, blossom as an entrepreneur, first in the restaurant business, then dry cleaning and later owning a boarding house. The United States had just entered the tumultuous 1960s Civil Rights era. It was an interesting time to grow up, and especially as a black woman.
Despite her strong, enterprising grandmother, Gordon fell in love and would marry Neisha’s father at just 19 years old, straight out of high school. The two moved to New York. In 1976, she gave birth to Neisha. Shortly thereafter, the couple moved to Florida to raise their daughter.
Gordon began work almost immediately as an executive assistant to fifteen engineers at Florida’s male-dominated power and light company. A couple years later, in what would become a multigenerational pattern, Gordon divorced Zafutto’s father and faced life as a single mom when Zafutto was still a toddler.
Gordon held two and three jobs at a time to support herself and her daughter. She would fall in love again and give birth to another daughter, Zarina. That relationship would later dissolve also.
Two kids and no man to support her during an era when women married young and stayed married for financial security, Gordon defied odds. She set her sights on bigger dreams and was determined to realize her own desire to be an entrepreneur like her mother. With the $25,000 she’d saved, she purchased foreclosure homes, fixed them up and sold them again. Her business acumen proved spot-on and she was a financial success.
Decades later, when her own daughter approached her to borrow the money to start what would become known today as Medivance Billing Service, Gordon was not surprised. It was in Neisha’s blood after all.
Neisha had already been working in insurance collections and was highly successful for that company. “Since I was little, I’ve wanted something of my own. And I wanted my daughter to be proud of me. I saw the struggle she (mom) had every day as a single mother. I didn’t want my daughter to have the same struggles. “I wanted her to not have a silver spoon, but a starting point,” Zafutto says of her early days of ambition.
A starting point her daughter, now 20, has indeed. With a $75 thousand-dollar loan from her mother, Neisha and her now estranged sister would start and grow Medivance Billing Service from a two-bedroom apartment into today’s 112-employee company located in Fort Lauderdale’s bustling Sunrise business district. Joan, or “Ma,” as Zufatto calls her, joined the company in 2008. She now helps her daughter oversee the family-run business as Medivance Billing’s Chief Operating Officer.
Like in every family, there are growing pains. And Medivance Billing has weathered its’ own. The first came when Zafutto and her sister agreed to part ways in business a few years ago. Then Medivance Billig evolved and Joan and Neisha now found themselves spending a lot of working hours together with both in leadership roles. When asked about the challenges of working side-by-side with her mother twelve months out of the year, Zaffuto unabashedly opens up.
“It can be trying at times. We try to balance it as much as we can.” Neisha says. “There are times I have to close my lips. She knows that any decision we make, we are going to speak about it. But Zafutto lauds, “She makes good decisions and does a great job. And it’s great to see your mother daily.”
Gordon says she offers her daughter tough love when she needs to. “I am the first one to criticize her so she can be a better person and learn from it,” she says candidly. In the same breathe, Gordon boasts, “Neisha’s confident with distinct leadership abilities and very genuine. She’s not going to tell you things you want to hear, just like me.”
At home, Zafutto says her mother is still the matriarch of the family. “Ma cooks because I don’t cook,” chuckles Zafutto when asked what it’s like when the family gets together outside of the office or on holidays.” “I will clean. But when she (Gordon) is in the kitchen, she will fix up a plate for us and she’s just Ma.”
Medivance Billing is not the first time Joan and Neisha would work together. Since Zafutto was 13 years old, she earned her room and board. At the time, her mother worked at a medical office. Zaffuto would spend her summer breaks at her mother’s job taking vital signs and checking in patients. “I didn’t pay her,” says Gordon. “I told her she ate my food and lived in my house.”
What Neisha demonstrated in hard-work ethic as a child, Gordon says she lacked in self-confidence. “She was very quiet and a thinker. However, she’s not quiet anymore,” Joan laughs. “She’s come out of her shell. When you’re battling with insurance carrier to gain maximum reimbursement for your clients, you learn to muster that fighting spirit that you didn’t even know you had.”
Indeed, the once quiet little girl found her voice as president and a leading lady in the behavioral healthcare business community. “People underestimate her business acumen. She is a very elegant person. She is the only African American female in her space. She really just stands out. She understands the responsibility that she has in her industry; she is seen as a force, especially in this community.” says Lee Pepper, Chief Marketing Officer for Foundations Recovery Network.
Yet Neisha’s force can be described less of a tsunami and more of a warm ocean wave that washes over you. Her power is so subtle it actually takes you by surprise and can take you under. “We started working with Medivance about three or four years ago. I was like, who are they?” snickers Pepper, now realizing that’s like asking who is Google when AOL was losing its position as the web search engine leader.
Pepper goes on to recount the times when there was a lot of distrust in billing and claims processing. “Medivance just came out very innovative. This is what sets them apart in the marketplace.”
Together, Medivance Billing and Foundations Recovery Network would build a formidable alliance, both in the Heroes in Recovery philanthropic efforts to raise awareness on mental health and in poignant industry panel discussions like ethics in addiction treatment services along with revenue cycle management. “Zafutto has allowed her CEO, “Bill” McCormick and business development head, James Gordon to be creative and innovative,” says Pepper. He adds, “They are like us in a lot of ways, looking for new ways to do things all the time. It probably comes from her background and her drive to make her place in her world. Being a white male myself, I don’t have to fight those biases.”
Zafutto says the addiction industry has been very welcoming overall and that she has rarely felt her race or sex play a role in how Medivance Billing Service is received. She concedes, though, there are certain clients who prefer dealing with a man or an owner that is not African American. “It doesn’t make me curl up in a ball and stop me. No, I just move on,” Zafutto says. She adds,” I carry myself with strength and portray someone that has morals and respect. People judge others instantly from their appearance. After talking to them, they may have a different idea of you.”
Although Neisha blushes with humility when I tell her people in her industry call her powerful, she indulges my curiosity about what that feels like to her. “I want people to look at me as a role model and advocate for others, to show them strength.” She adds, “My power lies in being able to help and motivate individuals. I want people to remember me in that ‘she had a great impact on my life’… to me that’s power.”
With eight years of experience and growth behind them, one might wonder if Neisha might slow down, take less of leadership role and enjoy her success. On the contrary, the little girl who found her voice eight years ago as president isn’t about to sit atop her kingdom idly. She says the industry is constantly evolving and that currently, behavioral healthcare is at the forefront. Neisha says Medivance Billing’s success is predicated on staying abreast of the changes that impact a treatment provider’s revenue growth.
So just as the president of our country is getting ready to slow down following his own eight-year run as head of the United States of America, Medivance Billing’s president is gearing up her game. “My personal goals consist of increasing my leadership role within the industry and providing increased advocacy to treatment center owners in need of business solutions,” Neisha says. “Being devoted, focused and dedicated to our clients’ needs is our mindset and our goals for the next eight years."
If the past eight years are any indication, Neisha is going to be one busy lady.
Jennifer Musselman, M.A., MFTI (70103) specializes in addiction, attachment and couples therapy in West Los Angeles, California and is a three-time published author of self-help books for women. Musselman's writing has also been featured in Forbes.com, LearnVest.com, PsychologyToday.com, Shape magazine and more. Musselman's first career as a business communications executive for Nickelodeon helped her transition into strategy and operations roles in the addiction community. She now serves as Chief Operating Officer, Thrive Treatment in Santa Monica, California, and is a partner at a full-service operation, clinical and marketing consulting firm for behavioral healthcare start-ups and expansions. She stays young by teaching at The University of Southern California as an adjunct professor.