What’s the inspiration behind OTIS Dental?
I graduated from dental school in 2007, and immediately began my career as a registered dental hygienist in private practice. I’ve always had a strong desire to help others, and being a dental hygienist allowed me the opportunity to make a positive impact with regards to one’s oral health.
A year had gone by and I, along with some dental school friends, had volunteered for the AIDS Walk. We ended the event with dinner, and then we all went our separate ways. As I walked toward my parked car, I noticed two bikers parked close by, and now, walking towards me as I approached my car door. They took turns taunting me with racist, anti-LGBTQ remarks, and I tried to ignore them and get in my car. Suddenly, the biker that was behind me had quickly grabbed the back of my shoulders and slammed me onto the ground, knocking the back of my head onto the pavement so hard that I started seeing stars. I tried to shake it off, but the biker immediately punched me right in the face and I could feel the blood welling out of my nose within seconds. Then, the other biker came towards me, straddled over me on his knees, and stabbed me below the sternum with a screwdriver – dragging it down to my navel.
Feeling the severe pain from the back of my head and punch to my face, I guess I didn’t realize what he had done below. All I could feel was something very warm hitting my body, followed by feeling my shirt ripping open and getting wet. Just then, I heard someone yelling out to us and both men rode off, leaving me there on the ground. I think it might have been the shock in my system that allowed this, but I was somehow able to gather the strength and get myself up. I was still unable to see clearly because the punch to my face had caused swelling to my nose and eyes but I started following the voices, which turned out to be a bar bouncer standing outside with some people who were smoking. I was able to get across the street without being hit by on-coming traffic, ran into the wall of the bar, and then collapsed to the ground while fading out to the voices screaming around me.
I woke up in an ambulance, with an EMT hooking me up to the machines and giving oxygen. He kept telling me to stay awake while asking questions regarding emergency contacts and medical insurance. I tried my best to answer his questions, and then closed my eyes and prayed, “God, I don’t know why this happened to me but, if this is how I’m going to go, please don’t let it hurt more than this.” I guess I faded out because, next thing I knew, I woke up in the emergency room at San Francisco General Hospital and was now being prepped for surgery.
After two weeks in the ICU, I was discharged and spent another month under my mother’s care. I went back for follow-up appointments, along with a psychological evaluation. It was then that they diagnosed me with PTSD, which included a severe case of bruxism (i.e. stress-induced bedtime teeth clenching/grinding). As a dental hygienist, I knew that I had to get a custom night guard for my mouth or risk permanent jaw and teeth damage. I reached out to my employer, who was a dentist, and asked if he would make a custom night guard for my bruxism condition. I thought, “this is my boss, a dentist. He knows what I just went through and I’m sure he’ll make me one on the house. I mean, I’m his employee.” Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, he said he’d give me a 50% discount and charged me $250 for something that we both knew only cost him $55 to have outsourced from some dental lab. I tried using many of the over the counter brands, but the quality was terrible and I couldn’t sleep with any of them in my mouth. I ended up buying the custom night guard from my employer and felt completely cheated by the industry that I had so greatly loved working in.
As time went by, I advanced in my career and started working with other dentists, eventually landing a position with the faculty of UCSF’s School of Dentistry. You would think that I’d be over the moon to be at this stage in my career, but it was difficult to enjoy when all I would experience was affirmation after affirmation of dentists overcharging their patients for products and treatments. I knew something had to change. Someone needed to tear down the status quo of over-priced dentistry; to bring transparency to the industry’s over-marketed restorative practices, and foster a culture that empowers the population with preventative oral care tools that minimize their time in the dental chair. After further industry research – and an MBA degree in healthcare and biotechnology – I started OTIS Dental.
What inspired you to make the jump and start your own business?
From a personal perspective, it was what I went through that inspired me to start OTIS Dental. To have experienced the challenges in finding bruxism relief, as a dental provider, is appalling. And if that’s what I experienced, I could only imagine how much more difficult it must be for the general population. From a professional perspective, it was after observing and experiencing the years of stagnant and complacent practices by dentists in this industry. The dental industry isn’t regulated in the same way as the medical and/or pharma industries. Dentists have their own associations to regulate themselves, and this means that many of the unethical practices are pushed under the rug and/or allowed to quietly continue so it sustains healthy profits. I am a strong believer in the Golden Rule, and it tears me apart to know that I am a part of an industry that won’t do anything to change how patients are being overcharged and over-treated. It goes against what it means to be a dental provider and a human being.
You have worked closely with the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. How has working with veterans impacted you?
It was truly an honor and a privilege working with the VA medical center. Countless soldiers are coming home from battle and suffering some form of PTSD. Through our collaborative efforts, we offered Veterans Affairs patients in San Francisco an OTIS custom night guard as an alternative to the traditional dentist-made night guards. As a result, patients reported that the OTIS custom night guards were better in that it was easily accessible, didn’t require any dental office visits, and was affordable. My father is an Army vet, and my older brother served in the Marines, so this was very important to me.
How do you handle risk and competition?
I believe that there is always a level of risk in everything that we try to achieve in life. It’s great if the risk results in reward. But life doesn’t always work like that, and what’s important is how we respond when the risk leads to failure. Do we wallow; or do we get up, learn from what happened, and then keep going until we get it right? With what happened to me after the AIDS Walk in 2008, I learned that we cannot live in fear of risks because at the end of this life, we’ll regret that we didn’t try and always wonder, “what if?”
Competition is like risk: it’ll always be there when you’re trying to achieve something. When I first started OTIS, I participated in pitch competitions, and my biggest fear wasn’t that I would lose; it was the fear that someone with more resources would steal my idea and beat me. This actually happened, when I presented in a pitch competition, and an angel investor approached me after. He told me that he was interested in learning more about what I was doing and that he wanted to invest. I sent him my pitch deck and told him everything.
A few months later, I found out that he had started his own D2C custom night guard company and did it exactly the way I was doing it. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it bothered me. I was livid. But, after a month, I realized that I couldn’t change what happened and that I had to rely on my strengths, industry experience and expertise, drive, patent-pending technology, etc. to beat this person – and anyone else who stood in my way.
Sometimes, it’s beneficial to allow the competition to advance ahead of you because you can learn from their mistakes and be sure not to do the same.
How do you describe your company’s values? Why are these important to you?
As mentioned above, I live by the Golden Rule and try to make that the soul of OTIS Dental: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We are living in a world that is only out for themselves, especially in the business world. The dental industry is proof of this, and no one seems to want to change it. I wake up every morning and remind myself that I’ve been given a second chance in life to do my small part in making this world a little better. When I leave this world, I’ll now be able to say, “I made a difference, and I’m ready to go.”
What’s been the #1 (or two) top challenges you’ve faced while launching your company?
I’m new to the startup culture, so it’s hard trying to fit in. It’s especially difficult if you don’t have a history of other successful startups and/or came out of an Ivy League school.
The second challenge is finding the right marketing team who walks their talk. When I started OTIS Dental in 2017, I was fooled by so many marketers who said one thing and didn’t deliver. It cost me approximately $25K to learn that lesson – a risk that led to failure, but I learned from it and now found a team that walks their talk.
What’s your team culture like?
We’re a team driven by purpose and passion. We care about what we do and what we’re offering because we’ve gone through it ourselves, along with having decades of patients telling us what needs to be changed in the dental industry.
Dental health has long been a somewhat overlooked sector of public health. As more awareness over the importance of dental hygiene grows, what role do you hope OTIS Dental will play?
That is so true, and also why my vision is to make OTIS Dental a brand that cares about:
Education: Be a platform that provides oral health tips, forums, oral care tutorials. This would empower you to make informed decisions when sitting in the dental chair and a dentist is trying to upsell on products and/or treatments.
Products: Oral care products that have been vetted by licensed dentists who haven’t been paid by large over the counter oral care brands. Products that actually do what they say, are easily accessible, cost-efficient and eco-friendly.
Industry Accountability: Once the population is more educated and making informed decisions, the dental industry will be more accountable and transparent with the way they operate. Focusing more on preventative-, rather than pushing restorative care
What is your superpower?
Experience and mindfulness. My parents own a small sandwich shop in one of the worst areas of Oakland. They’ve worked 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week, for almost 40 years now -- making sure that each and every customer is personally greeted by my mom, while my dad is in the back facilitating the orders. Now, in their mid-seventies, they’re still going to the shop and doing the same thing. I’ve asked why they’ve chosen to continue working, rather than retire and travel. They both told me that it gives great joy in hearing from three generations of customers that they continue to patron their business because they see how much parents care about their customers. They’ve been robbed at gunpoint several times, with one occurrence sending my mother to the hospital.
Regardless, they continue doing what they do because they know that it takes experience, like theirs, to produce a quality product and service, and it’s the mindfulness that they put into preparing the food and serving their customers that brings people back. I’ve grown up watching my parents work, like this, and it’s something that I now practice with OTIS customers.
What’s your kryptonite?
Complacency. I try to stay away from anyone who exhibits this.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
I’ll sit in my bed, close my eyes and take 10 long and slow deep breaths, before I sleep. If you’d like something deeper and in the realm of OCD, I wipe down all of the bathroom and kitchen surfaces before I leave that area – even if it’s not dirty. I would do things like that as a child, and I think being a dental hygienist exasperated this habit, which is a good thing because patients would appreciate that they’re being treated in a clean chair/room.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do in your spare time?
I love to cook, and spend time with my niece and nephews as much as I can.
Do you have a(ny) mentor(s)? If so, what have they taught you?
I think everyone I know is a mentor, in one way, or another. Each person that has come and gone into my life has instilled some valuable wisdom and/or guided me towards being a better person. Whether it was delivered in a negative or positive way – I’ll try to be mindful in taking it in, meditate on it and see what comes out of it.