It all started with a T-shirt.
I didn’t know it at the time, but exotic travel, work in dynamic laboratories, interacting with government departments, dealing with Fortune 500 companies, all would come from what began with that T-shirt. Was I to become a CIA agent? An extra in the Mission Impossible movies? A PhD in chemical science?
No. I was to become a CEO.
How did one T-shirt drive this journey, fuel what would become an obsession, inspire my career and teach me about leadership? The shirt was given to be by my maternal grandfather, Dr. Seymour Birnbach, an oral and maxilofacial surgeon, and professor at NYU Dental school. To me, he was just “Big Grandpa.” At over 6 feet tall, he was my dentist, and I loved sitting in the chair in his minty smelling office. When he gave me that T-shirt, the one that read “I ❤️ my dentist…He’s my Grandpa” – I was proud. Proud and super-smiley. Proud that I had a cool T-shirt, proud that my grandfather was so smart that he was a dentist, and proud that I had my own private doctor.
At 6 years old, I was aware of only very few professions; doctor, dentist, lawyer, fireman, and Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. So, when I heard that my paternal grandfather Morton Charlestein, “Little Grandpa” (he was about 5’10), was “in business,” I had no idea what that meant. But I knew that I loved him, and as I grew, I learned what his business was, and I began to think how much fun it seemed.
The business, Premier Dental Products Company, was started in 1913 by his father, Julius Charlestein. It was unique in that it developed, manufactured and distributed innovative products and consumables for dentists worldwide.
At first, I thought it was pretty amazing that “Little Grandpa” actually made things for “Big Grandpa” to buy (probably at a friends and family discount) and use at my check-ups. Later, I realized that this exchange extended much further than my familial microcosm; and was something that I wanted to be a part of and to further expand.
I did become part of the company, and that expansion allowed me to look at possibilities for other “Big Grandpas,” other dentists serving their children, their nieces, their friends. What needs did they have? What made their patients’ lives better? How could we innovate to ensure that we were bringing the best technologies and products to them?
These became my challenges – and meeting them, my obsession. In time, I earned the opportunity to lead and chose to pursue innovation on behalf of dentists. For me, leadership was not about changing the course of my predecessors, but honoring it while placing a greater emphasis on developing and seeking out the innovative tools that a new generation of dentists requires. In leading our organization forward, we always focus on the dentist, always on “grandpa” (Big and Little. Little was actually my boss!), and always on the patient.
When we think of innovation and technology, rarely do we think of oral health. Dentists however, do. This is what moves them forward in their practices, and in their patients’ lives. Technology that is in their products (much like “Intel Inside”) gives dentists the innovative tools they need to best serve patients; technology such as data management, marketing, and EMR is driving their practices. Dentists move us forward by delivering the best oral care possible, through the most innovative offerings.
So, when you take your next selfie and marvel at your amazing smile, think for a moment of what and who made it possible. Think about who would be on your “I Love My Dentist” shirt, because that dentist represents a quiet industry of innovators who are taking on an important mission – one that I’m proud to provide leadership to support.