My Story is Her Story

By Dr. Miguel Ortiz

Excerpt from Dental Entrepreneur magazine, Fall 2019

I don’t have the same backstory as most of the friends I met in Harvard Dental School. I didn’t have an ivy league legacy to live up to or a trust fund to fall back on. I was never planning to become a dentist, much less an entrepreneur. Yet, here I am, doing both. I run a clinic and an ever-growing online platform that is revolutionizing Dental Education.

I grew up in a very humble neighborhood in Argentina during the turmoil of the 80s and 90s. Throughout High School I was a delivery boy for my families small store. I worked in construction, as a bartender, even became a pizza maker at the age of 17. Yup, I can throw that dough up and spin it around too. When the economy of the country collapsed in 2001 I was forced to leave so I could find a way to help support the family. I was 18 years old.

I arrived in Los Angeles, USA with $34 in my pocket and absolutely no English. I was a Dreamer, in every sense of the word. I had all the cliché big dreams: a successful career, making my mark on the world, building a beautiful family… but I was alone in a strange culture, with no prospects. I was focused on paying the bills and fitting in, not creating my own business opportunities.

I’d always been a dedicated student, but this new life had a steep learning curve. Some of the lessons were painful, some were hilarious. For instance, straight men do not kiss each other in greeting as they do where I come from. Oops. I missed my family and my home, but I was determined to make a new one.

I found teachers along the way. I enrolled in LA City College, then found a job as a Dental Technician while I continued my studies. My professors and employers taught me, challenged me and put up with my tenacious personality. Looking back that personality trait is one that has made all the difference. While my wonderful mentors guided me along the established path, they didn’t teach me how to start a company from nothing, to transform an idea into a sustainable reality, that I had to figure out on my own. I didn’t find my place in this new world. I made it.

Full time work and full-time school is no picnic, add a beautiful wife and a couple babies into the mix and you’d better believe that I had plenty of excuses to coast through life. But’s that’s not my style. I had opportunities that no one in my family had ever had. I was, and am still, determined to honor the sacrifice and support they gave me.

Many people think that what comes next is what made my success possible. After 8 years of working and studying I was accepted into Harvard School of Dental Medicine.  The level of educational excellence was amazing, yet more teachers to build me up - some of the most amazing minds in the field! I learned to embrace DentLit (dental literature) here. The only way we can learn and improve is to rely on rigorous scientific research, staying as up to date as possible. I also learned the meaning of sharing. Harvard has no grades. Yes, tests and classes are not graded! It’s strictly pass-or-fail, and if you fail you take the exam again. This creates an environment with zero competition amongst students. There’s no class ranking, we all share whatever resources we have. Sharing is truly caring – not just for your classmates, but ultimately for your patients.  

It was a brilliant opportunity. But it’s no magic key. While I credit my alma mater with my success and expertise as a dentist, slapping Harvard grad on my resume didn’t open doors as an entrepreneur. That’s a whole different game and I hadn’t learned how to play yet.

With my newly minted D.D.M. I continued to seek improvement, training to become a Prosthodontist. At this point, working, studying, with kids running around the house I realized that the dreams I’d begun having, of sharing dental education all over the world, could only happen as part of a team. Lucky for me, I had the best teammate right next to me all along – my wife Colleen.

There I was, a perpetual student in my 30s, with absolutely no business training or know-how. Colleen (with Masters’ degrees in Ethnomusicology and Education) equally untutored as an entrepreneur, and I decided to do it our own way. How frustrating that our renowned schools provided us with all this knowledge, but little in the way of practical know-how on establishing a business. But, we weren’t going to let that stop us! We started learning and making plans.

As a prosthodontist resident I found a unique outlet for my skills.  Years of experience as a Dental Technician translates into great lab work. A sideline job as a professional photographer results in quality photographs of that work. I started sharing this online and people valued the effort. My following grew into the hundreds of thousands and I started to feel a responsibility towards my colleagues. I talked to Colleen about it and she refused let me off the hook. “If you have a calling to help others,” she said, “not only should you do it, but I’m willing to help.”.

I graduated from the Surgical Prosthodontics program with a booming social media presence, a ton of information to share with my colleagues and a vague idea of what that meant. Colleen and I were thrilled to move  back to Boston with our three boys where I joined Brookline Dental Center, a group practice where Harvard-trained specialists aim to give patients the highest quality treatment.  I love working with patients.

All the while, my social media presence continued to grow. More and more people were contacting me, asking questions, learning from and teaching me at the same time.

I realized that the platform was becoming shallow. Pretty pictures and silly quotes. Making friends. Mocking enemies. I knew It could be a better place. We all know how pathetic FaceBook is nowadays. Hate spills out of every corner. I could’ve gone along. Choosing the easy success of pretty pictures and superficial influence. But I had a dream of Instagram as FaceBook Reinvented.  I took a risk. I decided to share, educate, grow.

I wasn’t satisfied to post now and then, collecting likes and followers. I needed to do more for my online community. Although we had no business training and no idea what we were doing in the beginning, we weren’t afraid to try. Both Colleen and I are researchers. I’m the risk taker and she’s the voice of reason.  We had something unique to offer the industry, we just had to figure out how to make it sustainable. My online hobby had evolved into an opportunity to support my colleagues by passing on the same learning that has been given to me. Still dedicated to my private practice, I decided that half of my career time would now be focused on educating others. Colleen set aside her teaching plans and focused on our business

We founded an organization called DentLit – dedicated to mutual learning and a reliance on the latest and best scientific research. I dreamt of new ways to extend dental education to everyone. Where scientific debate trumps opinion; an open-minded and democratic space to fight the allure of dogmatic stagnation. Always learning, correcting ourselves, improving, and ultimately serving patients the quality of care they deserve.

Let it never be said that I think small. I love to be busy and it’s easier to get the results I want when I do it all myself. I wouldn’t call myself a control freak, but others certainly have (ahem… Colleen).

I learned early on that my one-man-show was destined for failure.  I could not build the responsive and interactive community I wanted without help. I needed a structure. I needed a support team. I needed to outsource some of the work, while maintaining control of the content myself.

I designed a hands-on Dental Photography course and began teaching it locally on weekends. Pretty soon I was travelling every other weekend all over the country, then North America, and lately, around the world to run courses. Colleen and I quickly realized how crucial the organization was to success as we delivered 35 Dental Courses in over 25 cities world-wide. There are a million details to consider: booking venues, hotels, flights, and meals, creating a platform for registration and finances, dealing with CE certification and, most importantly, carving out time for me to create the content my dental colleagues deserve. My brilliant and adaptable life partner became my rock as  she took on the business side of our new company, making sure everything runs smoothly and my colleagues are treated respectfully.. I began to collect talented people who had the skills I lacked. Entrepreneur, I’ve learned, is not synonymous with “lone wolf.”

I partnered with my dear friend Dr. Carlos de Carvalho to teaches a two day hands-on course on Adhesive Rehabilitation and Tooth Preparation. These are now sold out a year in advance. I love meeting so many of my fellow professionals, working to make sure they have the best experience at the best venue (with the best food). We all work hard, and new skills make it possible to work smart too. I’m a practicing dentist, so I know how it is.

DentLit has grown many arms over the past few years. Literal arms in the people and partnerships that it’s built on. Figurative arms as well – structures and systems that make it possible to grow. It has become a huge undertaking. We have a central website at the hub of the learning center. We offer some of the products I use and love for sale. We offer new courses every month.

DentLit hosts “Let’s Talk Prosth” a weekly discussion hosted on my IG page then followed up with a free, curated list of relevant academic literature. It’s a quick, organized, and enjoyable way to stay up to date. I draw most of my inspiration from questions and concerns that crop up in my own practice. I’m not a mountain top guru; I’m a fellow learner.

I was also able to publish a book earlier this year. It was a huge project to create this comprehensive guide for visual learners. Lit: The Simple Protocol for Dental Photography in the Age of Social Media blew pre-sale records out of the water for Quintessence U.S.A. That success underlines the importance of relationship and reputation in our new economy. Sight unseen, yet my colleagues knew they could trust me to deliver. What a thrill to see it ship all over the world!

We have just this month added online courses to DentLit. Dental Photography and Impression Techniques are the first of many to come. Online education is a convenient and easy way to learn, especially in places where quality dental education is hard to find. Not to mention, it’s a great way to earn those CE credits from the comfort of your own home.

I’m not a status quo, rest-on-my-laurels kind of guy, so I’ve already got new resources in the making. A new book, new courses to teach, new online content… living is about growth.

Patient care will always be my first love (other than Colleen and my boys of course). I think that being in the trenches with the rest of my colleagues is one of the reasons I’ve been successful. The old saying has got it backwards – those who CAN should teach. We owe it to each other.

Making this dream of mine a reality has been a thrill and SO much hard work, but most of all, it’s been a team effort. Starting with my partner Colleen, who keeps me on track. We stumbled into our roles as entrepreneurs, without even meaning to. If you ask me what it means to be an entrepreneur, the answer is simple. Follow that crazy idea that you just can’t get out of your head, work hard to make it happen, but don’t attempt to do it alone. Find your own team, your own Colleen, and you’ll be alright.

Maybe, someday, you too will be giving a cheesy pep talk in a magazine like this!

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Thank you to Dental Entrepreneur for the fantastic opportunity!