Lessons from a Female Entrepreneur in a Male Dominated Industry

You walk into a dental office and what do you see? I bet that most of the time, you see the name of a male dentist on the door, around age 50, and all-female support staff inside: female receptionists, female dental assistants, female dental hygienists, etc. 

Whatever the reason, the fact is that a dental office is a man’s world. I have even heard male dental students having dreams of running their own string of dental offices and coming in a couple times a week to check on “the ladies.” And I don't blame them. It’s engrained, evolutionarily speaking. Even I, as a female, have thoughts of how cool it would be to have an office filled with men I control. Human nature.

But imagine being a 26-year-old female entrepreneur, trying to tell well-established 50-year-old male dentists that you have a plan to change their industry. Those beautiful souls who are truly open minded to listen to you are slim pickings, my friend. You remind them of their rebellious teenage daughter, their younger sister, one of those rude millennial Groupon patients, a door to door make-up saleswoman, or a detached Ivy league snob who thinks she is a know it all. Either one isn’t great. Good luck on the sell.

Or worse, they relish the power dynamic. To be clear, this rarely happens, but it does. They have something you want (their cooperation and business). So, they wonder how far they can push your “dedication” to your business. It would be illegal to make a move on their employees or their patients, but you just walked in off the street and so you are fair game, “little lady”. Your “big dreams” will require… “hard work"...

Personally, none of that really phases me. Being an odd ball gets me the conversations in the first place. Weird situations are to be entirely expected and prepared for. You are kidding yourself if you think they are outrageous or once in a lifetime.

Here are tips I recommend to female healthcare entrepreneurs on how to deal with them gracefully:

1) BRING OUT THE PANT SUIT. 

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs do not wear suits. They get made fun of if they do. But you are not in Silicon Valley and that culture does not exist in healthcare yet. So, you cannot look like this is a normal day at the computer. Minimum professional dress is slacks and a belted cardigan. Dark blue/black/white/gray. Throwing in a collared shirt is a good step up, even if no jacket. Be taken seriously.

2) SLOW DOWN AND MAINTAIN YOUR POKER FACE

You are going to get questions about risk, more so than vision. You are going to get questions on what qualifies you to know anything about this, versus what you have learned along the way. You can boil inside about the state of society all you want, but knowing how to LOOK unphased is a must. How you get there is your personal journey. You can fake it: cognitive behavioral therapy, lasers that zap the capillaries in your face so you can’t blush, a fidget toy under the table, whatever, I have tried it all. The worst you can do is speak faster or match the intensity of the questions coming at you. The worst. If you are getting flustered – pause, breathe, look pensive, say “one moment” and jot down notes on your note pad. Have the self-respect that you talking slowly does not imply you are wasting their time, as the time spent together is an investment. The more deliberate your words versus rambling, the easier to gain trust and increase comprehension.

 3) LET THEM KNOW; “LADIES ARE PIMPS, TOO”... 

Here’s a big one. Many women refuse to work with people who come on to them. I actually don’t. It means they find you interesting and are willing to bare their emotions, which is much easier to work with than indifference or ambiguity. Egos are very fragile, and so if you want to work with the players, you have to play the game. You can’t out right offend them or ignore what they just said or go on a pedagogical rant about how their daughter would feel if people responded to her in that way. Acknowledge it, smirk, roll your eyes, stare them down, and say that in another life absolutely, but right now you have enough men in your life as well as someone you find special (even if you don’t have any of that). This way you gave a reason to say no they could understand, complimented them back, created some mystery, maintained your power, and can keep going. Obviously if they get aggressive get away, but it’s usually not the case. A shared witty moment goes a long way.

It’s certainly harder for us, but it is not impossible. The business landscape is getting better for women, but it is far from perfect. So don’t sulk and wait – adapt, shine, and go reach your potential.

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The Millennium Dentist Podcast: A polarizing future for dentistry!

A few weeks ago I had a blast talking to Sully Sullivan, DDS, the host and creator of the Millennial Dentist podcast.  

Have a listen!

This is what he said:

What an episode we have in store today! If you aren’t living under a rock or neck deep in pathology books (which you might be) then you have probably heard about the new “Floss Bar”. According to their website, “Floss Bar is a lifestyle brand empowering consumers to take back their power in the dental chair. It’s a network of actual dental offices we banded together, all run similarly, working to disrupt the industry by offering choice. ”Those choices are things like having exams, x rays, and other things usually required.  

So if that doesn’t sound polarizing I don’t know what is. Actually typing that I am kind of wondering when us a dentists took the choice away to begin with. Anyway, this episode is sure to get some attention. I do want to thank Eva Sadej the founder for coming on and talking with us about Floss Bar. It was a very interesting episode and I think she will be very successful. Hopefully, we encouraged to work on a couple things!  

Sully

 

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Why I Left Wharton to Pursue My Start-Up

Many people ask me this. “You left the top business school on the Forbes rankings…to go clean teeth?” And I say yep, you got it.

I want to explain to everyone why I am taking a leave of absence from my MBA program. It’s not JUST that I am passionate about Floss Bar. Working on Floss Bar is certainly an addiction. But there are a number of practical realities that convinced me taking a leap of faith is worth it.

1. Running an early stage business involves chaos that distracts you from school

Managing a dental services company is hard work. You operate on many levels such as;

- Supply and staffing

- Making sure the morale of your staff is at its best

- Pitch and monetize the business

- Build relationships and secure major deals

Few things go as planned. You learn by doing the best you can, getting advice, and fighting forest fires the rest of the time. This keeps your mind distracted from any other major goal you have or activity you need to invest time in.

2. School is expensive, especially when you aren’t taking advantage of all the resources

I love Wharton. Love it. There are so many resources available and the students are really high caliber personally and professionally. The problem is that each semester I am dropping at least $50k all in. If you are running a business, you’re not going to the activities, parties, trips, and classes enough to really make your money work for you. This leads to constant feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out). You start comparing how often you socialize to how often your peers do and constantly feel behind.

3. Finance recruiters like ex-entrepreneurs, not current ones

One of the most important things you get out of business school is a great job. You start recruiting 2 months into your first year and it doesn’t stop until spring of the second year. Because financial firms are about to pay you hundreds of thousands of dollars, they are very selective in making sure you are committing to them. Logically, anyone who has their own start-up is a flight risk and has wanderlust that may cause them to leave their selective job too soon after the training period to be a good investment. It's simple business logic no matter how well you tell your story. And for me, I genuinely like finance. If not for Floss Bar, that is what I would be doing. I love a job where I have to be in the news flow constantly, analyze companies, and advise others. But no matter my pedigree, the first question I get in an interview is about my commitment to my startup. It’s the first thing that comes up when you google me. 

4. Angel investors do not like students

Being in school means you are hedging your options. Some investors love prudent people. But many are concerned that a few months of misfortune with your business and you will just go for your safe option and close the business they just invested in. It’s not even a power thing. It’s not that they want you to be desperate so they control you. It’s simple business logic. Your likelihood of raising money at a good valuation is much higher if you drop out.

5. Being pulled in too many directions is not a recipe for good health

I remember the week when midterms finished and I really went all out. That week I was cramming for midterms, taking them, sending out recruiting emails, traveling back and forth between NYC and Philly, hosting a high-flying guest, and I felt the need to go the three nights of parties in a row that all of my peers were at and drink whiskey every night with them. By Saturday morning, I was vomiting so hard I popped some capillaries in my eye and my poor guest had to hold my hair back as the Uber driver kicked us out of the car. I spent 3-days with bloodshot eyes nursing myself back to health. That was a wake-up call, big time.

6. Wharton offers a very generous leave of absence policy 

I am very lucky that I go to a school which lets you come back within 5 years if you fail. I mean, you will be paying them out of the nose again, but you will have the opportunity to reset your career without any issues. Taking a chance while in the nest is a no brainer to me. If you can prove people are willing to pay for something you made, it can be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Many of us have creative ideas. I plan to have plenty along my 100-years of life. But I only see myself executing them effectively and safely when I am young. Once you get out of business school, you just paid a whopping $200k and made $0 income for two years. Seriously, how likely are you to continue your start-up then?

To any student entrepreneurs out there who have proven their concept, get the heck out of class. Ramen noodles don’t taste that bad.
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How Floss Bar Was Born

Eva Sadej, Floss Bar's Founder on how she got the idea to start floss bar

“Are you a dentist?” “No” “Then how did you create Floss Bar? What inspired the idea?” I get this question often and it is a good one. People do not usually step far outside their field of expertise when they launch a new business.

I’m just a person. I studied Economics at Harvard. I go to Wharton Business School. My experience is in operations management and macro investment at a large hedge fund. I have no medical background. 

The problem

Floss Bar was inspired by my need to take care of my partner. The story is not tragic. Dentists have inconvenienced me, but none have harmed me. Rather, that story is simple, light and humorous:

All of my friends know that I have a great sense of smell. Subtle smells others do not notice bother me. Being meticulous about my own hygiene, I was pushing my partner too much. He already had reasonable hygiene for a guy, but every 3 months there would be a bit of tartar in the top teeth of that adorable toothy smile that would absorb red wine, no matter what cool new toothbrush I got him.

Attempting to manage his dental care was a mess. He has Canadian insurance. If he went to a dentist in NYC, he would be paying $220 a pop out-of-pocket ($880 a year) or I would be buying him what he considered a forced gift. I tried getting him a Groupon in NYC, but none of the times available at the discount dentists worked for his busy schedule. 

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Eva & Stuart 

At Floss Bar's launch party

So, if I wanted to avoid the late night purple smile, I had to understand the times of year he would be headed home to his mom in Toronto and discuss with her the possibilities of getting him an appointment. Pretty embarrassing for everyone involved. And impractical. He is a banker, his mom is a successful executive in Canada, and their dentist has a waiting list miles long. The man-power spent on this basic activity was a solid waste of time.

The solution

From this experience, I was convinced that there is a hole in the market for people like him and people like me: busy professionals who need times that suit their schedules and care about appearance enough to go more frequently. I did not know how to fix it, but I was intrigued by the business problem. So, I researched the laws, the market surveys, the industry breakdown, the companies in the space, etc.

As part of my search, I found that the problem is much bigger. It is a problem the majority of Americans are facing. My self-suiting business now became a social mission, and I worked harder on the ways I could find to reduce costs and pass on the benefits to the consumer.

After a phase of research, I talked. I talked and talked and talked to anyone who would listen to me. I had bad ideas about how to execute because I knew nothing about the space as an outsider. Quite honestly, at the beginning I wanted to train nail salon people how to clean teeth. It made very little sense (and was illegal). I stumbled upon so many painful conversations. 

The most useful people were those who told me no or gave me a hard time or ridiculed me. While it burned, they had the best ideas. 

The second most useful were those who had no idea what to do, but who encouraged me and lifted my spirits. I find that love is just as good as ideas, because love gives you the positive energy to be creative on your own,

After 40 or so conversations, I made a pitch deck and brought on some teammates. The team has had a rotating cast of characters, and I’m happy Jay has stuck it out with me.

My advice for those starting out is:

  • Lean in to the pain. The most difficult conversations are the ones where you learn the most.
  • If someone says it cannot be done, ask why. Keep trying to objectively understand the obstacles. Because you may find that they are not even real.
  • Take care of yourself. Half the battle is maintaining a strong and sharp mind which can tolerate the journey.