Profession Progression, the Story of a Lifetime, Part 3: Deb Roberge

In She's a Heroine, She's an Entrepreneur, Success by Deb Roberge

My Role Model

You could say that creative thinking runs in the family. I didn’t really think of it that way until later in life. But I did look up to my maternal grandfather! He was a New York physician who had graduated from Columbia Medical School. He was also an immigrant who had to overcome a lot of obstacles, but managed to accomplish so much in spite of that.

Looking at my grandfather, I was always impressed and fascinated by what he accomplished. He was my role model, always caring for the lives of others. I wanted to be like him. As far back as I can remember, I longed to be in the medical profession. I wanted to have the gratification of caring for the health and lives of others.

First Major Obstacle

Like my grandfather, I too had obstacles to overcome. My father was a an incredibly intelligent and talented man. Having graduated from NYU, he went on to become an aeronautical engineer. The problem was that he believed such things were only for men. He let me know that as a female I would not be a candidate for college, but rather technical or vocational school.

I used a bit of my creative thinking skills to try to get his support for going into medicine as a profession. But my father, probably due to his Eastern European upbringing, was adamant. “Not only don’t you have the temperament for medicine,” he thundered, “you also don’t have the patience or even intelligence to make it through all the schooling. So I’m certainly not supporting you and your lofty goals.”

That’s just how he was. Overbearing, self-centered, and a bit arrogant. I received little praise, support, or even love from him.

From this point on I kept many of my dreams to myself. I would occasionally share my thoughts with my mom who would simply smile, neither encouraging nor discouraging me, for she too was under the authoritarian control of my father. That said, my mother was an angel and tried her best to love and support all three of her children (I being the eldest).

Creative Thinking and a Way Forward

As time passed, I found my comfort zone in my own little world. Though I still didn’t fully recognize it, my creative thinking led me towards a great love for the arts, music, theatre and acting. I tried out for every production and play that was presented in junior and senior high school. Watching the reaction of the audience and seeing people smile was my greatest joy.

Genuine delight was an emotion I didn’t see very often growing up, so this definitely filled a need. I was also happy that my mother never missed a performance. On the other hand, my father proudly announced that he never saw me even once.

Into the Future

Before I knew it, my classmates and I were graduating from high school and starting to research our future options. By this point I was sure that medical school was not in my future. There was simply no way around my father’s will. He had other plans for me. “Debi,” he said, “college is totally unnecessary for females. It’s much more about vocational/technical schools. You need to be thinking of Katherine Gibbs (a famous secretarial school) for example.”

Shorthand and typing? Are you kidding? I’d rather die!

I realized I needed direct gratification. I wanted to make a positive difference for others, to make them smile. How can anyone get that from typing a corporate letter or taking dictation? However, my father’s word was the law. I had learned this early on based on his fiery temper and bitter tongue. Never ask anything more than once, or you will hear a string of horrible negatives that will only make you feel worse.

But the clock was ticking, and I needed to figure out what my future would be . . . and be accepted by my father.

Dental Hygiene

A girlfriend that I really admired told me she was planning to go to dental hygiene school. It occurred to me that the role of women in dentistry was very significant. I thought, “This isn’t medical school, but perhaps it will be something that I would enjoy and that my father would approve.”

So I applied, was accepted, and started my journey. Soon after I graduated and began working in a practice, I knew it wasn’t for me. I just didn’t have the emotional makeup to handle it. Practicing hygiene requires causing patients a degree of discomfort. I needed acceptance, not apprehension.

Once again, creative thinking kicked in, and I decided to go to dental assisting school. Yes, I actually entered a vocational program, just as my father had wanted.

Dental Assistant

After I graduated from assisting school, I soon found a job with a very progressive (for its day) endodontic practice in New York, where I was still living. During my time there, they contracted a time and motion efficiency expert, whose efforts I found very intriguing. I asked a lot of questions and followed him whenever I had the opportunity.

This was my first taste of “out of the box” creative thinking. All my creative, artistic instincts lit up. Each evening I would go home and jot down thoughts to share with him. Surprisingly he didn’t turn me away, but listened and appreciated my suggestions and observations.

Marriage and Family

After only a year with this practice, I met my husband – the man who became the father of my three children. He was a well-educated, professional, registered pharmacist and research chemist. I thought he would be my answer to everything.

My father greatly approved of him. After all, he was successful and well-credentialed. He had a very high work ethic. So much so that he worked seven days a week. Actually, we both worked, but I raised our three children. He was rarely home and continued to remind me that he was the “main breadwinner” and had no choice but to work all those hours.

I lasted 13 years in that marriage before I finally moved on. There was no doubt in my mind. I knew life would be tough, but this was not a healthy life for me or my children.

Flying Solo Brings Out My Creative Instincts

This was the first time in my life that I had to learn how to fly solo. I had to make it for myself and my kids and not let them or myself down. My father gave me a terrible time. He told me that I was a fool to give up someone who could have maintained a good life for me and the kids. I did not agree that we would ever have a so-called “good” life.

Life in the trenches of the clinical area of dentistry went on, until one day I was asked to fill in at the front desk. I believe this was the cathartic moment of my life, if I had to pinpoint one. It’s when I finally realized that creative thinking was one of my strengths. Using my newly realized creative instincts, I began to integrate some of the ideas I had shared with our time and motion coach from a few years past.

The implementation of these new processes worked really well. So well that my doctor had me share some of my concepts with his friends and their teams.

Fast Forward 25 Years

Twenty-five years down the road, I remarried a man who had lost his wife 10 years prior. He wanted to move away from New York and go to Arizona. And I was more than willing to take my three kids and his two kids and do it! It just so happened that my brother and his wife lived where my new husband wanted to move. It all seemed so perfect.

What was even more exciting was that we learned of a crown and bridge dental lab for sale right where we were relocating. It was perfect for us since he was a businessman and I had the dental background. When we bought it, it was a failing business. But between his business savvy and my creative expertise, we turned the company around in a single year.

Things were wonderful . . . until he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and died less than a year after his diagnosis. No more marriage for me!

Celebrating My Strengths

So I thought I’d never remarry? That was until I met the husband that I didn’t know I was looking for all these years. We met on a tennis court and have been playing and working together ever since.

He was software developer by trade and the very first person ever to point out to me that I do have value. I am a strong force in the industry to which I’ve devoted my entire career. At 53, I found someone who would encourage me to celebrate my strengths. He convinced me that I have a lot going for me, that my ability to relate to people and interface on a personal with them was a gift. He reminded me of the creative thinking role I had played in the success of the dying dental lab. I had personally visited with prospective dentists (which was not a common practice). Thinking out of the box and relating personally was the true catalyst for the lab’s resurgent success.

Consultant Services

Having sold the lab shortly prior to my former husband’s death, I no longer owned the business. So my current husband prompted me to investigate the possibility of dental practice coaching. This would give me an opportunity to utilize my talents and prior experience.

I started by connecting with one of the most prominent women in dentistry in Phoenix at the time. She owned a dental consultancy and offered me a position teaching the methodology they had developed. Working with her clients, I was soon reminded of the major challenge dentists and their teams face in acquiring and retaining effective employees. They needed a team that aligned with their particular culture.

The systems normally utilized in the hiring process was missing in the dental industry. Legal limits were often stretched. There was a woeful lack of structure that was actually handicapping the industry.

Creating My Dental Placement Model

Creative thinking kicked into high gear as I started mentally troubleshooting the problems I saw. The need was critical, and the Phoenix group encouraged me to fill it. So I set about creating a business model for dental placement. It was so revolutionary that many felt I was on a fool’s errand.

But I was determined. I started an agency from scratch. Then I began personally visiting clients. In fact, I visited every client practice, starting with the few offices I had a previous relationship with. I presented my model, which included legally sanctioned materials to support every step of the hiring process. They not only appreciated my approach, they embraced it!

Word travelled fast. Within the first year, I had over 200 client dentists, having interviewed around 500 applicants. By the time I sold the business five years later, I had 800 clients and had interviewed over 3,000 job seekers.


Then I franchised my business model and eventually had eight franchise locations around the country. It had always been my goal to make a mark for women in dentistry. But this was truthfully more than I thought I would ever accomplish toward this end.

Managing the franchise system required a lot more travel than I was prepared to accommodate, so I sold the entire system after about five years. However, many of my contacts persisted in contacting me, pleading for help with their staffing needs.

Working Remotely

So for the last several years, I have pursued several avenues of creative thinking from home. Providing placement services remotely. Advising a few private clients. Developing some dental-practice-optimization software products. All with varying degrees of success.

During these ventures, I am continually exposed to challenges faced by dentists and team members alike. And that’s what inspires me and drives me on to the next thing.

I conceived my latest (and I feel certain my greatest) endeavor based on my involvement with numerous periodontists and their team. OurPerioTeam is a cloud-based software application that addresses their specific and unique needs and challenges that I feel will transform the way these specialists interact with their referring dentists, their teams and the patients that they share.

In summary, over these many years in our profession, I can honestly say that I’ve reached my “sweet spot” in life and career. I really feel blessed and grateful for the people who have directly and indirectly contributed.

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