Be brave. Many times in my life I have had to be brave enough to take the risks to get where I am at today. Brave enough to stand up for what I believed in even if it risked my own career, brave enough to set boundaries, brave enough to get rid of people who bring you down, brave enough to take financial risks, brave enough to try something I have never done before. Sometimes my family gets scared for me when they hear of the risks I take but bravery is not the lack of fear, but the ability to move forward in spite of fear.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Christie Prendergast.
Dr. Christie is a double-board certified female plastic surgeon with a non-traditional path to medicine. She grew up in Europe & Asia with a large family and as a first-generation physician, never dreamed of becoming a doctor. At age 17, with $100 to her name, she moved to Los Angeles and through hard work and mentorship, found her way into medicine. Her medical degree laid down the foundation of a holistic approach to plastic surgery — treating inside-out. Her passion for helping others, cancer research, and surgical artistry lead her to pursue a career in general surgery as well as plastic surgery.
Dr. Christie’s vision is to collectively use 16 years of education to change the beauty world! She wants to start by making beauty procedures less overwhelming for consumers through education and curating beauty treatments. The Beauty MatrixTM is a treatment strategy developed by Dr. Christie to help patients desiring rejuvenation navigate through cosmetic treatments. She believes correctly addressing all the components of aging with a long-term strategy yields the best natural results.
Dr. Christie is recognized by colleagues and industry professionals as a rising star within the field of plastic surgery. She shares a passion for innovation, collaboration, entrepreneurship, & technology but isn’t afraid to call out the hype. She collaborates with the top cosmetic companies in R&D, education, and is a brand ambassador for many aesthetic technologies. Despite her many accomplishments, those who know Dr. Christie can speak of her kindness, excellent bedside manner, and dedication to her patients.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I had a very unconventional path to medicine that didn’t start until I was in college. I actually grew up in Europe and Asia and as a child from a very poor family with 12 siblings. My childhood was consumed with surviving and caring for my younger siblings that I never really thought about what I was going to be when I grew up. I left home at 17 and moved to Los Angeles and my first job was as a secretary. One of the skills I had developed as a teen was touch typing from a computer game that was donated to us. I used this skill to get my first job because I really had no other job-friendly skills. With no formal education and working odd jobs to make a living, I quickly realized that I needed to change my world because I wanted to give myself and my siblings a better life. I wasn’t sure where to start, but I knew that if I started with school, I would eventually figure it out. I started off by enrolling in junior college while working a full-time job
At the time, my only influence was traveling all over the world and so I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Because of my lack of formal education as a child, I had really never had any exposure to math or science at this point in my life. As soon as I was exposed to science I was immediately fascinated. I never really considered being a doctor as I just didn’t think this was in the realm of possibility and did not have exposure to doctors as a child so it wasn’t even on my radar.
It was through mentorship when I was at University while teaching organic chemistry that one of my professors asked me if I had ever considered becoming a doctor that first made me consider pursuing medicine as a career. Of course this was no easy task! Getting into medical school requires letters of recommendation, experience, essays, top standardized exam scores, and money to apply. I can attest to how difficult this can be for someone that comes from a disadvantaged background which is why I help mentor other students that are in my position. Through a lot of hard work, I was accepted in to medical school and fell in love with plastic surgery and have never looked back!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Well I opened two practices in the middle of COVID so every part of that has been interesting and challenging! It really took an extra leap of faith in a time of uncertainty to proceed with a business plan that was hard to fathom when the economy was shut down. The best part for me, was a pause in clinical activity that allowed me to really focus on all the details of my practice. We had to renovate two different office spaces and ordering “non-essential” items during this time was basically impossible. As a perfectionist, it was hard to live with a room that was only half wallpapered or having to adapt without items that we are use to like PPE, but it was the challenges that we had to overcome in building this business that I think helped me build a strong practice.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well when we first opened we had one of our main treatment rooms that was only half- wallpapered because of COVID and then protests where Beverly Hills was shut down for weeks. I just had non-stop problems with ordering 9 rolls of wallpaper (LOL). In hindsight, it is quite funny but at the time I was so stressed and frustrated because I had spent 3 hours standing in line at UPS to try to pick up the wallpaper from the warehouse plus was on the phone with the vendor for countless hours and despite my determination, I was still unable to prevail against the obstacles that were thrown at us
In an industry where you are often judged as a plastic surgeon by the office space that you have, at first I was really stressed out about allowing patients in to a half-completed space but also was being bombarded with requests for treatments. But, I literally have the best patients in the world and when I would apologize about the half-done space they universally assured me that none of that matter. They were there to see and support me and my practice. One of my patients told me that if other patient’s complained about the aesthetics of the practice, that they don’t deserve to see me in first place!
It reminded me of what I often tell my own patients when I perform plastic surgery procedures on them, and that is a quote from Aristotle where he said, “the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” I really strive to help my patients stay true to themselves and change the outer things that are inwardly significant to them. It is part of the bond that I form with my patients in my artistic interpretation of the things that affect their inner self-confidence. Here I was worrying about how others were judging me and none of that really matters! It only matters how you judge yourself.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes my company different is our underlying philosophy built around The Beauty MatrixTM which is a guide that I developed to help patients navigate through cosmetic treatments. I developed The Beauty MatrixTM after seeing patient frustrations, lack of education and expertise amongst providers, and misguided beauty treatments within our profession and I realized that there is no expert putting everything together!
For example, many patients want to start with rejuvenation but don’t really know where to start. They end up hearing from a friend or reading about a treatment that they think will be the answer to their aging problems however, every patient requires an individualized approach and an understanding of your skin types and problem areas is necessary to formulate a good long- term anti-aging strategy. If you just show up to a random medical spa (most of which are not performed by well-trained professionals) and they do injections for everyone, guess what you are going to get? An injection! If you go to another spa and they do threads, your aging plan with them will start with threads and so on. This might be fine to start with but over time if that is the only tool in your shed you are going to start looking bizarre and more importantly loose your unique features or identity.
I really want to help educate patients and providers on how to approach patients rejuvenation goals and provide patients with a good long-term strategy that will be a better return on their investments and most importantly, prevent them from getting botched.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on so many exciting projects right now my challenge is just taking one at a time! One of the things that I most passionate about is finding new technologies that work for all skin types. What do I mean by that? Most patients who have ethnic skin really cannot use a lot of heat-based technologies without running the risks of more problems than the benefits that they will get from the technology. There are some new technologies that are coming out that address ethnic skin concerns for the first time! As a half Asian, half English girl, I have struggled with acne, rosacea, and hyperpigmentation and while I am obsessed with skin-tightening technologies, I really cannot do any of these treatments because they all cause hyperpigmentation or rosacea flares.
Two things that I am obsessed with right now is a medical-grade facial technology called Salt Facial. What I love about this is that first, it is for all skin types. Second, it uses a salt-based exfoliation that can range from super gentle for the rosacea skin all the way to the strength of an erbium laser treatment without generating any heat so once again, it is great for all skin types and finishes off with ultrasound and LED therapy. The results are amazing!
The other technology that I am absolutely obsessed with right now is Opus from Alma Laser. I took on a brand ambassadorship with them because it is such a unique technology that is unlike the other types of energy we currently utilize. This device uses plasma energy (4th state of matter) that acts like a CO2 laser in that it both resurfaces and tightens skin. But, unlike CO2, it has minimal downtime and minimal heat generation! Once again, that makes this technology safe for all skin types. Unlike CO2 which really cannot be performed in ethnic skin and also has a lot of risks with variable light wave absorption & scatter, this technology gives better results without the the risks. This is what we really need companies to be striving for in R&D of new technology. As you can see, I am a geek and these types of new and improved aesthetic technologies get me so excited (LOL)!
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Well, I really look at my team as partners in my business and have a profit-sharing model in support of that. The beauty industry is full of predators, and people who are just in it for profit which not only affects patient care but the employees in this industry have been taken advantage of, used and unvalued in what they can contribute to a practice. I look at medicine and in particular surgery, as a team sport. My goal is to empower my employees and support them in their role in the company.
I have also learned that if you are not learning, you are not going to get any better. Creating an environment where your employees feel that they can provide you with feedback on how you are doing as a boss is equally as important as you providing feedback on them as an employee. For example, I am a surgeon and have now been in a male-dominant environment for many years. It was recently brought to my attention from one of my employees that in moments of stress, I can sometimes come across as insensitive to her feelings. Even though that was absolutely not my intention, I literally had no idea that this was how I was being perceived and having this feedback really allowed me to correct my behavior in those moments. We have come up with a code word that just allows us to push a reset button and take a breath and start over with our communication if she is feeling that way and it actually just always makes us laugh.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
In training, as you move up to a chief resident you are in charge of leading a whole team of future surgeons. I had this opportunity twice as I completed two residencies in both general surgery and plastic surgery. These skills really helped me in my current practice because you have to learn to be a team leader. Being a good leader is not always a natural skill and I used my own mentors as examples of skills that I wanted to emulate as a leader. My first job as a secretary has also proved invaluable as a team leader because being able to do all your own administrative duties sets the stage for what you expect from your team and is paramount to keeping your team organized. But, in my opinion, the most important traits for a team leader is to be a good, honest, and caring person. Always trying to do right by your team is how you get your team to do the same for you and builds teamwork.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I completely agree and I am no exception to this. I have had a number of people who have had key influences throughout my life that guided me to where I am at today. First, my grandfather was a math professor and seeing how he was able to provide for his family through education is what gave me my starting point.
One of the things that I love about medicine is the built-in mentorship. From college to completion of my training I have had key people who have influenced me through each step. I initially started college planning on doing optometry. I eventually transferred from junior college to college and while teaching organic chemistry to make extra money, my professor asked me if I ever thought of going to medical school. I ultimately ended up applying to medical school because of his encouragement.
In medical school, I was influenced by my City of Hope Cancer Center rotation and chose to go into general surgery. I was fascinated by cancer biology and the complexity of cancer surgeries through mentorship. One of the surgical oncologist there took me under his wing and helped me get into his research lab and made me want to do surgeries just like him. He also saw my technical potential as a surgeon and arranged for me to do an audition rotation at UCSD where I ultimately went for general surgery.
I went into plastic surgery because one of my mentors who was a surgeon at UCSD was both a general and plastic surgeon. She would perform the breast cancer removal and the reconstruction and her influence sparked my interest in plastic surgery. This was further fostered by another plastic surgeon in my program who ran a non-profit group for cleft lip and palate repairs in Mexico. She allowed me to accompany her on a few of their mission trips and solidified my plans to pursue a career in plastic surgery!
Mentorship is so important and in my opinion, a duty that we should all bear to help those behind us achieve greatness and contribute to the future in medicine!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I still have so many future plans to bring goodness to the world but in the short term, I think my success in becoming a plastic surgeon from where I started is how I can bring goodness to others through mentorship. Just serving as a role model for young girls who may not be considering a career as a surgeon or don’t think they have a chance is what I am starting with. I really want to be an example of an immigrant girl who came from nothing and is now a double- boarded plastic surgeon with a world of opportunity ahead in a super fun and exciting field!
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Be true to yourself
I had one of the surgery interns who I mentored who has now graduated recently reach out to me and thank me for giving him “the best advice of his residency.” I couldn’t remember what I said but apparently, I told him that he was going to struggle learning from people who he was much smarter than. First, I laughed as this seems like the kind of advice I would give but what he said to me, was that this advice always let him believe in himself.
In surgery, you are beat down a lot as a person. You are so exhausted, bear so much responsibility, and on top of that, you are expected to accumulate a massive amount of knowledge in a hierarchical system where others may not share the same work ethic or knowledge as you. What he took from what I told him was that when he didn’t “fit into the system of medicine” that was not a reflection on him. He is brilliant, has accomplished so much during his training, and landed a competitive fellowship at Harvard, and I’m so proud of him!
Believe in yourself
There are too many examples for me to expand on this but I think you always have to have a strong inner core to stay on track in a field that gives you so many challenges. Being a surgeon is a combination of a super athlete and fighter pilot. You have to train your body, mind and soul for a lifetime marathon. If you don’t have a strong sense of self and a good support system, you will not succeed.
Lead by exampleI learned early in my career that I was so bothered by team leaders who did not lead by example and it made me not want to work hard for them. It is something that I strive to do in my practice and work hard to learn every aspect of my practice (even my IT & phone system LOL).
Be braveMany times in my life I have had to be brave enough to take the risks to get where I am at today. Brave enough to stand up for what I believed in even if it risked my own career, brave enough to set boundaries, brave enough to get rid of people who bring you down, brave enough to take financial risks, brave enough to try something I have never done before. Sometimes my family gets scared for me when they hear of the risks I take but bravery is not the lack of fear, but the ability to move forward in spite of fear.
Always be willing to learnIf you don’t keep learning you won’t keep growing. Since I never went to school until 17 I had to learn how to learn at an older age and since then, I have made sure I never stopped learning. I try to educate myself in things outside of medicine now like marketing and business so that I minimize being taken advantage of by my lack of knowledge. I also always want to learn from others as those who have already been through what you are currently going through can provide huge leaps ahead. This is the only shortcut you should be taking in life (LOL)!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like to inspire equality and diversity in healthcare. Recent events have shed light on the disparities in healthcare which I have personally witnessed. I think we can start by making changes in our industry through education of biases within our field as well as providing more opportunities for children from disadvantaged socioeconomic or ethnic backgrounds to be inspired to enter medicine. Diversity brings innovation!
Getting into medical school and becoming a surgeon is extremely intimidating and hard when you don’t have the support or resources to get there. I can personally attest to all of this. You have to get super competitive grades, have opportunity to shadow someone in medicine so you can get letters of recommendations, you have to have the opportunity to meet and interact with the people who can get you into the programs you want, you have to have finances to put yourself through the interview processes and expensive medical school tuition. After all of this, to become a surgeon you have to have the tenacity to go through the long grueling training process (I did 8 years of surgical training) where you get paid below minimum wage, take on a ton of responsibility, sacrifice sleep, your own health, relationships, and time with family and friends. Then when you are done with this, you have a ton of debt and have to figure out how to make a living and navigate through a whole new set of challenges while trying to balance catching up on all the things you missed out during your years in training! Having mentorship or role models that get you through all of this is what keeps you going and we currently do not have enough females or ethnic diversity in our field!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Well I love motivational quotes and find different contents speak to me at different points in my life even those not meant to be “motivational. I recently (like yesterday LOL) watched the comedian Deon Cole’s special on Netflix — Cole Hearted and he said, “don’t define success by trying to be like everyone else, but by doing something nobody else does.” This really spoke to me at this moment in my life. It is kind of scary to do something completely different in your industry especially in a profession so deeply seated in traditions. But, to achieve greatness you have to take risks! He also said something about how if you are 40, you only have 30 summers left. He was talking about having fun in life and I really liked this too. I look at it like I have 10–15 summers left to make a difference in this world and I have so much still to do!
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Viola Davis is a woman I would love to get to know better. She is an amazing woman and her life story has served as a personal inspiration to me in overcoming the odds to success. I also love that she used the hardships she went through in life to drive her talent instead of succumbing to her circumstances. Most importantly, she prioritizes giving back to others through mentorship and there is a reason she is one of the most influential women in the world. Her honesty about her struggles in life and upbringing allows her to be relatable and serve as an inspiration to others who come from similar backgrounds. I really want to leave a similar impact on this world like she has.
How can our readers connect with you on social media?