Dr. Karen Fields-Lever, a Spelman College and Howard University College of Dentistry graduate, is in love. It turns out mixing business with pleasure has helped her find career fulfillment. But it’s not the type of love affair one might think.
She has combined a love for her community with doing what pays her bills—successfully running a dental practice in Chicago while simultaneously managing a mobile dentistry initiative that has helped fill a vital need in the African American community among its most vulnerable: children and the elderly. Since 2016, she and her team have gone into schools, servicing more than 16,000 students, and taken to the streets not only to educate but to provide services that some either can’t afford or don’t have the capabilities of getting to.
BlackEnterprise.com talked to the innovative and savvy dentist about dental health in the black community, funding and starting her own initiative, and how other power women can add social entrepreneurship to their career agendas for professional advancement and fulfillment.
BlackEnterprise.com: When it comes to the black community and dental care, what are some issues you’ve seen, and how were you able to address them in your practice?
Dr. Karen Fields-Lever: If I get maybe 10 patients in my office, probably 8 out of the 10 are going to ask me when they can whiten their teeth as opposed to when can they get their cleaning. I think dentistry within the past five years has turned into more cosmetic as opposed to being [thought of as] integral to our health. …I had a patient who hadn’t been to the dentist in 40 years. … We had to pull out every single one of that man’s teeth…I told him, ‘I’m noticing, based on your teeth, it looks like you have a diabetic mouth. You have to go get checked out by a doctor.’ Turns out he did have diabetes.
We try to relay to patients that everything is connected. Your mouth is literally between your brain and your heart, and it is totally connected. …The plaque that is around your teeth is the plaque that is found in heart disease—it is all related. When [you get a cleaning], you lower your risk of certain heart diseases. [With the patient who is diabetic], we try to make sure he’s coming back and that he’s comfy in the chair. He likes sports on, so we have his ESPN on. We want them to come back.
Another thing that has been a blessing—I [provide] discounts. Patients should talk to the staff and say, ‘My insurance won’t pay for all of this, but could I set up a payment plan?’ I know it helps us as a culture and as a community. We can get sticker fright [about dental services], so I don’t want my patients to get that as well.
You were able to start your own practice—a business in the medical field. What are three key tips for other women professionals looking to start their own practice?
Well first, you have to have [good] credit. I had to truly build my credit. I think a lot of times a lot of our non-African American counterparts have family and trusts, and they’re coming from maybe a grandfather who had a practice. For me, it wasn’t like that. I did not come from a family of dentists or from money, so to get half a million dollars to start a practice—it just wasn’t there. I literally had to focus on building my credit and make sure it was A1. I had to reach out to [companies where] I might have had a bad mark on my credit report and say, ‘Listen I’m trying to start a business…so what do I need to do to bring [my credit score] up?’…It took about a year to do that and it helped.
Also, have faith. [In the beginning] it was the fear of the unknown that held me back just a little bit, but re-establishing my faith—knowing I could do it—helped out a lot.
And lastly having someone who I could bounce ideas around with—for me it was the hubby and colleagues—helped in answering questions about running a practice. Sometimes just a sounding board is important.
What made you take things mobile?
I had a colleague from dental school who told me she was practicing but doing a bit of mobile dentistry. She told me she’d been going into schools where she is allowed to do preventative services, and it’s rewarding. I thought it would be cool to take what I do, and I don’t have to be in an office setting to do it. I can go into areas where they don’t get exposed to a dentist—or maybe hadn’t gone in 10 years—and provide preventative services, [and they can see] a black doctor. It’s crazy that some of them see a black doctor and they’re just in awe. It’s a good way for me to expose some of our children to medical careers, and it is also a good way to market the office where they could have a brick-and-mortar to come back to.
My next initiative…I try to push it so we can get ahead of things for some children who are being bullied because of their teeth …I put that in my proposal when I wanted to do mobile. For children who may need braces…we can fix this. I want to push the bullying initiative bigger. I’m sometimes at the office, and we have a team out in the field. It’s a lot of work, but it’s cool and I love it.
How can other women be inspired by this and start their own mobile medical initiatives in their communities?
If you’re in dentistry, definitely do it because there is a need for it. Even our senior citizens need dental care. Eye [care]—that’s a big one for my eye-doctor colleagues. Our ear-doctor colleagues [are seeing that] our seniors are aging and losing three vital functions. Sometimes they [can’t get to] a brick-and-mortar.
How can women fund a practice or mobile medical initiative?
First, go for a bank loan. Bank of America has a program called Practice Solutions for doctors they will fund creative things that doctors are trying to do. They helped me fund my office. It’s a separate entity for doctors. They love young doctors [because] they know you’re going to have creative ideas, coming back to them for new stuff, and will potentially open more than one practice.
A friend just told me about the Robert Wood Johnson Fund. I hear they give out tons of grants for small businesses, especially women in small business. Another [resource] is Funding Circle. They love when you are fusing community service with a business. That’s another that has helped us out in the past.
Step out of the box. You don’t have to be in an office. You can do mobile or [teach online courses] as well.
What’s your advice for young women looking for a new career and to be of service to the community in medicine or science?
Find your niche. Find something you’re good at that you love. [Also,] find a mentor in that field who can tell you about the lifestyle, [balancing a] family, and the compensation. You want to make sure you’re being compensated [enough] in order to pay back [student] loans and to live.
Look into all realms of medicine from veterinarian to eye and ear. Go where there is a need for African American women to serve their communities. There’s a need for care and for more of us in our communities.