Dentistry – A Graced Journey

In Reflection by Diana P Friedman

Professional paths and careers are often defined by singular incidents which allow us to pivot towards our purpose, actualize ourselves, and excel. Such was my journey into dentistry.

In my mid 20s I was faced with a life altering medical disease. Alone and despondent, I struggled to find the fortitude and determination to work through this journey towards wellness. One of the most significant challenges I faced was the side effect of my care, which caused deteriorating oral health. This started impacting my ability to nourish myself and regain my strength. Mounting medical debt and inability to work full time made seeking dental care a scary and tenuous process. I was fortunate to come across a dentist whose practice was a block away from the hospital where I was treated, who saw me as a human being in need of help and offered to treat me, gratis, simply because it was the right thing to do. I trust this was the pivot point in my recovery and pathway to health.

I was fortunate to experience first-hand and appreciate the power dentistry has. Dentistry is not only about teeth or gums, it is about so much more! Dentistry is about wellness, health, nutrition, proper oral function, self-perception, individual confidence, and much more. Following my recovery, I found myself thinking–what a better industry to dedicate my career to! Reflecting on the life altering gifts a dentist granted me, I chose my path into dentistry, not as a clinician but as a business executive. This was the start of a most incredible and affirming journey, which continues to grace me to this very day, nearly 40 years later.

During the years of ill health, I was determined not to waste valuable time and make every day count. I had great faith that I would recover and be able to live a long, happy, and productive life. For this reason, I chose to use those tough years to complete my academic education at Arizona State University. ASU allowed me flexibility to earn a living as a teaching assistant and assistant editor of an academic journal while I navigated through the surgeries and requirements for my medical care. During those years of treatment, I was fortunate to complete an MA degree in Sociology, a dual MBA in Management and Marketing, as well as my studies towards a PhD degree in Social Psychology.

I was very fortunate early in my dental industry career to operate at ‘ground zero’–the front line where dentistry is practiced, where patients seek and receive care, where dentists define their treatment philosophy and execute on a practice strategy and operating plan. I worked in a few dental practices as an office manager, before transitioning to practice management consultancy at The Michael Schuster Center for Professional Development (Practice Management Consultant and lecturer) and later The Levin Group (Vice President of Business Development). At the time I did not appreciate how going deep to understand the machinations of a dental practice is so critical to being able to drive value and success in this complex business. These were the cornerstones to my ability to become an effective and successful leader down the path. The years I invested in learning the art and craft of dentistry and the optimal management of patient care and practices, shaped my thinking, ways of working, and leadership style.

During those first years in our great industry, I was fortunate and blessed to welcome the first of many mentors who dramatically, and positively impacted my career and life journey. Among them were Dr. Michael Schuster, Dr. Cecil Barton, Catherine Kolkowski, Mark Battiato, Steve Kess, to name but a few. Their lessons of kindness, wisdom, sharing, and mentorship shaped the professional I am today. I stood on the shoulders of these and many other giants, who taught me to be a lifelong giver, mentor, teacher, and resource to others in our industry. This aspect of my career has and continues to enrich my life even in semi-retirement.

As I recovered my health, I had a tremendous sense of gratitude and indebtedness. I felt my life was spared in order to do some good in our gracious world. For this reason I chose to volunteer two and a half years for two international aid organizations, working under the auspices of USAid. Both organizations engaged in helping train business executives and entrepreneurs in establishing new businesses in developing countries. This was the period right after the fall of the wall and the opening of Eastern Europe and the USSR to the west. A great need existed for experts to travel to Russia and the Republics to help the transition to a free economy. I traveled to Central Asia and led entrepreneurial projects, living in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Russia proper. During these incredible years I taught business entrepreneurship at several universities and business associations and supported the development and expansion of privately and government owned business enterprises.

My only regret was that, in this equation, I gained so much more than I could even have been able to give. I gained better entrepreneurial tools and learned first-hand how to build businesses from scratch–grassroots entrepreneurship, develop and train professional executives and operational associates, create jobs, exercise empathy, and–in a small way–be a change agent making a difference in the world. The changes I was humbled to be a part of were not on a grand scale. Often, it was one person, entrepreneur, or small business. Yet, observing the impact on small communities in the regions I lived in was beyond gratifying. I shall forever be respectful to have been given the opportunity to serve in these beautiful countries. Before departing the region, I was gifted a small, beautiful, red, hand-woven Turkmen rug. I have placed it by my bedside. My first step every day of my life is in Turkmenistan–giving thanks for that region and its incredible, tenacious, beautiful people. This region shall forever remain my soul’s home.

Returning to the USA, I re-engaged in my professional career. My goal was singular–to ascend to the role of CEO of a dental company and serve on industry NFP boards so that I may earn the ability to impact this great industry for the better. I needed to make up for the years invested in regaining health and volunteering and so I had to be extremely strategic in career choices. My first ‘big corp’ role was at Philips Sonicare. I joined as Director of Professional Marketing, Education, and Professional Relations. Sonicare was a labor of love, focused on educating clinicians and patients about biofilms and the breakthrough technology that Sonicare offered to help consumers achieve better oral health and a brighter smile. These happy years involved great engagement with the dental hygiene and periodontal communities. This was the first time I understood the power of science (evidence-based innovation) and data in driving success, as well as how to build and proactively defend a global brand.

In assessing my path, it became clear that pharmaceuticals and biologics would become more central to oral care. My entire experience had been on the device side of the business. This is why I was fortunate to join Novalar Pharmaceuticals as Vice President of Marketing, leading the commercialization of Oraverse, a first in class anesthesia reversal agent. This was my first experience dealing with an FDA approved drug, and leading a commercialization process from infancy–developing product name, pricing, packaging, value proposition, marketing launch strategies and commercialization execution plan.

At this juncture in my career, the professional journey I was on brought me to my first President and CEO role at Sesame Communications. The six years I spent in Seattle were challenging, rewarding, complex, and exceedingly gratifying on a professional as well a personal basis. This role allowed me to expand my tool kit to understand corporate culture development, building high performing teams, scaling up a business, and leading a company through a successful exit. Great lessons with an incredible team of professionals!

During the years in Seattle, I refocused my energy and heart on philanthropic and NFP activities, serving on the Board of Directors of incredible organizations such as The Dental Trade Alliance and the Seattle Symphony, as well as association committees such as The American Association of Orthodontists and the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. The main focus in dental organization was understanding and finding solutions for the access to care issues plaguing broad swaths of the population. This was hard and rewarding work, being of service to an industry of professionals, caregivers, and patients who seek oral health.

The successful sale of Sesame Communications allowed me the opportunity to pivot and relocate to New York to work at Henry Schein as Vice President of Data Analytics and Market Intelligence. My goal was to master understanding of data to optimize business performance and sales growth. What better company to do this in than the largest distributor in the world!

My final career move was to Danaher, now Envista. I joined the company with the goal of leveraging my turnaround and business scaling experience to optimize results in specific businesses the conglomerate owned. My first stop was in Wisconsin, as General Manager of Orascoptic, the top visualization company in the USA. I greatly enjoyed being in a manufacturing work environment, working on the plant floor and understanding a completely new business. After successfully steering the company, I was given the opportunity to join Implant Direct as its North America Commercial Leader. After completing my task at ID I chose to retire early to enjoy life with my beloved husband and balance family first. During the pandemic, as the world shut down, I pivoted and am now working part time as a corporate consultant, executive mentor, as well as serve on two boards of directors.

The professional path I journeyed on includes incredible mentors, customers, colleagues, and friends. In recognition of the advice, time, knowledge, and heart they showed me, I remain to this day a mentor to others. This has been the highest privilege of success, in my eyes, and an activity that humbles me daily and fills my heart with great satisfaction and gratitude.

You and I find ourselves servants of the greatest industry I know, dentistry, and its many and diverse stakeholders. I wish you a journey filled with great mentors, roles, colleagues, products and customers. These were some of the cornerstones which made my life worth fighting for, forty years ago.