Camaraderie and affinity can mean the difference between success and failure for some professionals, especially in careers in which representation of some groups has been sporadic or where staying connected in general may be challenging.
Dr. Chithra Durgam, a dentist in private practice in North Bergen, N.J., has firsthand experience in closing such gaps through her 18 years as a general dentist.
“The profession can be isolating because we are entrepreneurs who are also operators within the business, so our time is limited. We're trying to build our business, manage multiple family commitments and then pursue other opportunities. With so much to juggle, it can be difficult to find colleagues willing to take time to share their experiences,” Dr. Durgam said.
Being a woman in dentistry, Dr. Durgam has overcome some frustrating incidents related to gender. She spent four years as an associate in another dental office before launching her own, which she’s grown over 14 years in private practice.
“I found, prior to being in my own office, that there were definitely times when gender roles came into play,” Dr. Durgam said. “For instance, when I worked for somebody else, they had female dentists treating children and the adults were seen by men.”
Another time, she rented office space from a dentist who tended to offer unsolicited advice. “I had a landlord who was a practicing dentist in a nearby town, and he was constantly trying to give me orders on how to run my office, even though he had no ownership in it,” Dr. Durgam said. But Dr. Durgam hasn’t let any such challenges undermine her professional growth. “Being able to break away from that, establish my business, pursue speaking opportunities and pursue entrepreneurial endeavors where I’m ultimately the one making the decisions has been life-changing for me,” she said.
She’s found ways to engage both female and male dentists in supporting her trajectory while also giving back to the profession in general. She is a member of the board of directors of the Hudson County Dental Society and the Bergen County CASA (National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association) and volunteers widely with her practice at dental events. She also mentors other women regularly.
Dr. Durgam has found that building camaraderie outside of gender is as important as developing affinity with other women. Some of her biggest supporters, in fact, she said, have been men.
“As much as I want women to succeed, the rise in my career would be attributed to men. At key points, the contribution of famous men gave me a chance I would not otherwise receive,” she said. “Lew Leone of Fox News gave me a chance to be on Good Day New York to discuss the importance of flossing to dispute the 2016 AP [Associated Press] study on the medical benefits of flossing and Gary Vaynerchuk, who included in me in his No. 1 New York Times best-seller list book, Crushing It!, took the time to take a chance on me which paid huge dividends.
“I hope our profession moves in the direction where we are all supporting each other because we need men to support us. It’s very important that we’re working together. But, it’s very important that we as women also work together and collaborate because we have a special bond of similar life experiences.”
Dr. Durgam has built a reputation for her deft use of social media to promote her practice, Aesthetic Dental, which has fed an active speaking avocation. She sees social media as a sort of great equalizer for dental practices and a way that women dentists can help level the playing field for opportunities. “One of the best ways to grow a dental practice is to develop your personal brand. Whether you are an employee dentist or own your own practice, your personal brand and reputation will always stay with you. As dentists, we tend to invest in our clinical skills, which change as technology advances, but outsource our brand and advertising to third parties. In the future, the longevity of a dentist's career will be predicated on his or her brand presence.”
Networking widely is something that Dr. Durgam recommends to women at every stage of their careers. “It’s important to never put networking on the back burner,” she said. “It’s easy to dismiss networking as a nonproductive activity when you could be spending time with family or reading a dental journal. The time to be networking is now. When a crisis or situation comes up where you need advice, you can't rely on others when you haven't been spending time building relationships. Also, without strong relationships, the willingness of the other person to help and give his or her very best is diminished.”
For more information on Dr. Durgam, visit her website.
Ms. Williams is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in practice and research news for dental and medical professionals. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.