This week, we welcome Sofina Ahmed. Things kick off with a conversation about how her father’s unconventional approach to business has informed her own entrepreneurial mindset.
And what a mindset! Sofia talks about the highs and lows of expanding a single practice into a nationwide chain with a rapidity that would make most of us wince.
Sofia also lets us in on why night time is the perfect time to practice, and how the idea became the cornerstone of her successful Night Dental brand.
“The kind of dentistry I’ve done and the kind of business I’ve done is one that has actually helped our community and helped people, and I have made that kind of difference.” – Sofina Ahmed
In This Episode
01.19 – Back story
11.30 – Night Dental concept
14.28 – Ethics, growth, positioning
20.50 – On management
29.13 – Covid & dynamism
35.05 – Ideas & execution
44.04 – Entrepreneurship, family & gender
48.44 – Highs and lows
55.51 – A day in the life
01.04.04 – Advice to young dentists & mental health
01.25.31 – Legacy
About Sofina Ahmed
Sofina graduated from Birmingham University in 2006 and quickly realised she wanted her own practice.
She went on to set up the Night Dentist providing out-of-hours treatment in Birmingham. The concept proved extremely popular and the chain now has a presence across much of the UK.
Sofina: We’re so busy with our lives sometimes that we don’t sit there and take some time out and think okay, that person needs them, but I haven’t got time to deal with that. It’s like, no, what is the point in being successful and being where you are if you can’t even do that as a human, like, take some time out for someone else?
Voiceover: This is Dental Leaders, the podcast where you get to go one-on-one with emerging leaders in dentistry. Your hosts, Payman Langroudi and Prav Solanki.
Payman: It’s a real pleasure to have Sofina Ahmed on the podcast. Hi, Sofina. How you doing?
Sofina: Hi. Hi. How are you doing, guys? Hi, Payman. Hi, Prav.
Prav: Hey, Sofina.
Payman: So, Sofina, we met, what was it, three years ago?
Sofina: Yeah. So-
Payman: Something like that.
Sofina: I met you just when I opened the first clinic that I’d set up.
Sofina: So you were one of the first people to come to the clinic, I think. So-
Payman: And a very cool clinic it was too, but very interesting clinic and it was a nighttime only practise at the time.
Payman: And then fast forward three years, I see you on one of the dental groups talking about your four practises in Yorkshire.
Payman: And I was like, “What? I thought you were in Birmingham.” And then it became 12 practises, so it’s a lovely story. And really willing to get into your background, first of all. Where did you grow up? When did you become a dentist? Where did you become a dentist? That sort of thing.
Sofina: Yeah. Yeah. So yeah, I mean, I became a dentist in Birmingham, so I qualified in Birmingham, went to university in Birmingham, was born in Birmingham, lived in Birmingham my whole life. So that part is probably very standard, but obviously what I’ve done is very out of the box and out of the norm and I think that comes a lot from my parents’ past and where I’ve come from, where they’ve come from. And I think that probably is more to do with where I am now is more to do with that backstory than my own backstory as such, and I think that is a big part of where I am right now, my parents’ journeys and where they’ve come from.
Payman: Well, tell us about that.
Sofina: Yeah. So it was my grandad actually who came to England, so he came to England in the 1950s and ’60s. And he was a West Midlands bus driver, so he was a bus driver, he started off as a bus driver. And he was in the country to, as immigrants did back in the day, they’d come in without a family, work, send money back home and try and forge a path and a way for their family. And I think in those days, it was a lot of young boys were sent to different countries to set up and set their roots and that’s kind of what happened with my grandad. From there, it was basically my dad who … He went back to Pakistan, got married and then they had my dad. And this part of the story, I think, is a little bit sad and a bit confusing for me and especially us with our modern heads, we don’t understand this part.
Sofina: But when my dad was born, he was born in Pakistan and then he was, at the age of four, put into a boarding school for until he was about seven, while my grandad was still in England. And he was in a boarding school in Pakistan and he didn’t really have much. He was kind of left there, if you like. And my grandma came to England as well, so my dad was kind of left there for quite a few years. And then when he did eventually come to England, he was seven years old. He was there in England and he was here for a number of years and he was very much … He was the eldest in the family in terms of the brothers and he was kind of left a lot. So my grandad would go back to Pakistan and my dad was left here a lot. And when he was about 15, 16, went to school here and didn’t do very well and he was just trying … And he got left by himself again at the age of 15 as … Again, alone, here in the country while my grandma, my grandad and all the kids went back to Pakistan.
Sofina: So he was left and he had to fend for himself, so he had to fend for himself. So the way he did it was he used to … He was going to college and school and during the week, he had a briefcase, he used to go around, door to door sales, and he used to sell door to door. And when I speak to my dad now, he goes that’s where he learnt the most skills was those door to door sales, those early years when he was a teenager. And during the weekend, he used to wash dishes in restaurants. And when he was left, one of the things that he did have was a Greek family that really took him in and they were like his extended family, and those are still his closest friends now, he’s still very much in touch with that family. And they had a fish and chip shop and he really learnt a lot of business skills from them. So, my dad really forged himself and forged his own path. And he didn’t do well at school, he didn’t study and he didn’t do well and obviously had a lot going on.
Sofina: But he learnt those life skills, he learnt negotiating sales and all those business skills himself and he forged his own path. And I, being, basically, my dad’s daughter, picked up a lot of my dad’s business skills and I think that’s where I’ve kind of got to where I am. I mean, he used to do things like, even when he was 12, 13, he was … Where they lived was near Birmingham City football ground and he’d go and you had the fans and they’d come and drop their cars and they’ll say, “We’ll look after your cars. Pay us.” And so they’d pay him money and he’d … So he’d have all these little entrepreneurial business skills that he used to do and he used to … He really made himself. He worked himself as a postman and he just had that drive that he wanted to do more, and the big break for him was video shops.
Sofina: So he saw an advert for a video shop … Sorry, a shop to let and he was like, “Yeah, I’m going to take this out.” So he went up to the landlord and he said, “I want to take this agreement.” And they were like, “Well, what are you going to turn it into?” And he had no idea at the time, he was just like, “Oh, I don’t really know.” He liked to rent out VHS’s, so he said, “I’ll turn it into a video shop,” and that was his big break. And he took £500 loan from the bank, set up this shop and stocked it up and it took off and that was really where he took off from. He ended up growing that business and having a chain of video shops and really went from there. I mean, my dad was Del Boy, so I’m literally Del Boy’s daughter. He was such a wheeler dealer.
Sofina: And it’s really funny because we’re massive fans of Only Fools and Horses and we literally … There are scenes in Only Fools and Horses that are literally our lives, they’re literally … I watch it, I’m like, “Oh, my god, dad, you used to do that.” At the time, he didn’t really acknowledge it when we were growing up and sniggering about it, but now my dad’s older, he’ll go, “You know what? I used to do that. I used to have a council flat full of a café that had closed down and all the bits from there, and LPs, and all those things,” and think he’d sell them. Our house was always full of those kind of things and he really … Rags to riches kind of story and he really learnt. There’s a place of it’s quite sad that he was left, et cetera, and this and that, but when we do discuss it, when I talk to my dad, I’m like, “That’s life skills that you learnt and because of you learning those skills, you passed them onto me.” And it shaped who he was and, as a consequence, it shaped who I was.
Sofina: So, I was always really into business and I always really wanted to do something and wanted to do something different. So when I wanted to set up, it had to be different, it had to be. And I was working as an associate for quite a while before I decided you know what? I want to go down, I want to try, give it a go, but I knew it had to be different.
Prav: Sofina, growing up, a lot of those stories resonate with me, my dad and what we went through. So I grew up in a corner shop, my dad was driving taxis. On the weekend, I’d be cleaning the taxis, et cetera, et cetera. Were you engrossed in the video shops? Were you heavily exposed to all of that? Were you sort of working for him-
Sofina: Yeah, absolutely.
Prav: Whilst you were growing up?
Sofina: Definitely, much more than my siblings. I used to work a lot with my dad. So in the summer holidays, I’d spend the three months with my dad at his shop and I’d be there going, “Dad, you could do this so much better. Why don’t you do this? And why don’t you do that?” And I’d give him so many … Try and push those ideas out there and I’d want to grow my dad’s business, and there was so many ideas I’d want to bring to the table, I’d be like, “Oh, Dad …” And he’s an ideas man anyway, so he had loads of his own ideas. And there were so many things, like, “Oh, we could make this so much better, Dad.” And I loved that and I really had a buzz and out of all the siblings, I was really into that. I always said that I would go into some form of business, so I always had that business mind-
Payman: Was the business still around when digital took over and messed it up?
Sofina: See, this is the thing, this is where I think my dad is kind of like a genius in business. What he does do is gets out of the right things at the right time, and I think that is really clever thing to do. It’s not just being there on the up, but knowing okay, this ship’s about to sink, so we need to jump. So I think it was before, even in the ’80s, I think he started selling when he realised okay, things are dipping. And my dad puts it like the water will just kind of start coming, seeping in before he jumps ship, so he knew when to cut. And I think that is a really good business skill, to know when to cut your losses and to know when to cut out because I think that was really what he did, that was really key to him staying successful was the fact that when the video shop started going down, he knew okay, moving on. There was no clinging on or anything like that, he’d just cut and jump and went onto the next thing and I think that’s really important to do.
Sofina: And I think when I see other people who have made mistakes in business, I think a lot it I see is people not letting go at the right time or throwing good money after bad money. When things are going wrong, they just throw more money at something and it is literally throwing good money after bad money, and those kind of things that I’ve learnt. And when I did set up, it was a massive risk and a lot of people did say to me, “This is not going to work. This is not going to work.” And instead of going right, yeah, in my head, it’s going to work, that’s it, I was very risk-averse, I was like okay, yeah, there is a chance this can’t work, I might be completely clouded in my judgement and in my idea that I might not see the risk.
Sofina: So I planned for, I had contingencies there for it to not work and I had it fully planned for it to not work. And there was a lot I put in place for it to not work. So I set it up as a three surgery, but I didn’t get out the three surgeries. The wiring was there, the plumbing was there, but it was like right, I’m not going to put any of the extra equipment or materials in there until the first one’s made enough money for the second chair-
Payman: Sofina, go through the idea. Go through the idea because people may not know or understand the idea and why was it that it was nighttime?
Sofina: So it was a couple of different factors. I mean, one of the key factors at the time was the fact I had … This was quite … I was into my career and me and my husband were both working nine to five, nine to six and I had a young daughter at the time. And we literally were putting her in nursery all day and she was only just less than two and it was heartbreaking, it was heartbreaking that she was in nursery, we’re working full day, we’ll come back at six o’clock and I was just thinking there must be a better way. And the thing with business is you can control things a lot more, so I was just like, there must be a better way. So I wanted to do something that suits me. I’m extremely nocturnal, I’m so nocturnal anyway, my brain is so much sharper at nighttime, I don’t know why, but it must be an innate thing. But I’m very nocturnal, I’m sharper at nighttime. I just thought it works out so much better.
Sofina: And there was loads of other factors, like the fact that this is a property that was actually my dad’s property. But I was obviously going to rent it out and I could’ve rented it out off someone else, but I thought if I’m going to invest £200,000 of our savings, our life savings into a business, I don’t want to invest into a property that I’m renting and then it flops and then that money’s gone, at least I’m investing in my dad’s property. And it was a warehouse that I had to turn around, so it was a complete squat. So I had that property and that property has no parking during the day, so I thought okay, there’s an issue there. I’m such a problem-solver, I love solving problems, so I was like right, that’s an issue, there’s nowhere to park. We work during the day, I’ve got a kid, at least this way, he works … We can tag-team, he works during the day, I’m at home with the kid, he comes home from work, and then I go off to work. It just worked out very good for us and our personal circumstances. And there was all the other things of that, like it’s a niche market, not many people do it, it suits us, got the parking issue sorted and it was just like a multiple-
Payman: What time were you opening?
Sofina: Tick, tick, tick, that this is … So it was 6:00PM to 12:00AM, so it was full on evening. So it was literally like okay, so you’re going to come home and then I’m going to go off to work. And that way, it really did suit us and it was great. Thing is, we were talking about this the other day, that I don’t actually do that much clinical, but I love clinical. I really love clinical. I do love clinical dentistry. I do love my job actually. And it is something that I really enjoyed working there myself as well, so it is really good. And like I said, it suits me because I’m so nocturnal, so it fitted in really well with all that. But yeah, no, it went really well and it did take off for us and, obviously, there was a few things that I did to help that and-
Payman: What did you do?
Sofina: So it was marketing, SEO, advertising, word of mouth. And one of the key things that I do, which is probably different to others, is I don’t really … I know I could charge more for the fact that it’s in the evening and there’s no-one else open, but for me, I have a very ethical side to what I do and it’s very important for me to be an ethical businesswoman. And that’s one thing I really want to promote, the fact that you don’t have to … When you do business, you don’t have to screw people over or cheat people, you can do it in a very ethical … And that’s something I definitely learnt from my dad.
Sofina: My dad was so ethical, he never ever cheated anyone and he did business in a way that was very honest and that was very important to me as well. And a big factor for why I did what I did was because there was very little provision for people out of hours, there was very little provision for people out of hours. And by skyrocketing prices and I could’ve seen less people and made more money from less people, it was very important for me to see more people and charge less. And that was-
Payman: Sofina, I hear you, I hear you, but that’s not a question of ethics. I understand what you’re saying, but the price you charge is the price you charge for your service-
Sofina: No, but if-
Payman: That’s positioning.
Sofina: Yeah, but my drive is accessibility and having more access and-
Payman: But that’s not an ethical question, that’s a positioning-
Sofina: Yeah, no, it’s not … Yeah, absolutely. And thing is, this is what it is, it’s like-
Payman: But I get it. I get it. I get it. There’s some profiteering when someone’s in pain at night, you could, you could charge a hell of a lot more.
Sofina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Payman: I do get that.
Sofina: But yeah, no, it’s not to say anyone who doesn’t do that is unethical, absolutely not. There’s a whole package involved. But that was the way I did it. And that was, I think, a good success factor because I would get a lot of repeat customers because of that and I would get people coming back and that was … Whereas there were dentists that I had who worked for me who were like, “Oh, we can charge so much more,” and it was like yeah, but then you won’t get people coming back to you. They’ll come and they’ll-
Payman: And I think what really interested me was you used to blow their socks at 11:00PM with customer service knowing that then they would come back eventually and be real patients-
Payman: Rather than just emergency patients.
Payman: A really interesting-
Sofina: Yeah, that’s what it is. I mean, I sit there and I’m chatting … And I had a consultation room. The way I’ve set it up is there’s a consultation room and before you’ve even gone into the dentist chair, you sit there and you chat to the patient for half an hour and that is really important to me. You sit there, you create that, forge that relationship and then patients … They completely … And there’s nothing like helping patients in pain. I mean, I used to do a lot of Invisalign, I started Invisalign back in 2008 and I went down the cosmetic route and I love that side of dentistry as well.
Sofina: But the reward you get from taking someone out of dental pain is just so satisfying and the patients were so grateful. Taking people out of pain is such a satisfying thing to do and I really love that. I really love that about urgent care and I really love about emergency dentistry, the satisfaction that you get from taking people out … Getting the gratitude that they have for you to do that is just … It’s really satisfying and that is a big factor, you have to feel good about what you do, I think.
Prav: And was that the main emphasis of what you opened up for? Was it mainly to treat emergency patients-
Prav: Or was it more cosmetic and emergency? What was the idea?
Sofina: It definitely was more emergency care and then building our client list, but what is really important for me is because we do have people referring to us, but I’m not … We are very much … We take people’s patients and we look after their patients and we try and do our best at looking after someone’s patients and returning them back to them. So it’s not about competing as much and it’s not about trying to be better than others, but there is an element of taking on someone’s patients and looking after them, making sure that they’re looked after and return back, and we do encourage patients to go back to their clinics. And especially when the other clinics open and they are urgent care and we don’t actually take on any follow-ups, so they are … We literally do look after other people’s patients and they do go back.
Prav: As a patient walking into your practise, I’m in pain, I walk in, is Invisalign on the menu? Is cosmetic dentistry on the menu? Is there any point of sales literature for me to access that type of private cosmetic, or are you there to serve as a function to get people out of pain and send them back to their own dentists?
Sofina: See, now I don’t have just the one clinic, I have, like, 13 clinics now and they all do completely different things.
Sofina: So, many of them are actually NHS urgent cares and we absolutely don’t do any private in them at all, so it depends on the clinic and it depends on the service and it depends on the dentists as well. So some dentists and some clinics, they take on patients and some, they don’t and it is that tailoring to that clinic and that need and it isn’t just one situation now anymore. Yeah, I mean, there are clinics that do Invisalign, there are clinics that do whitening and there are clinics that don’t offer any private or cosmetic dentistry at all.
Payman: I mean, the one I came to in Birmingham, is that still your flagship?
Sofina: That’s my baby because that was my first one, but yeah, that is-
Payman: Beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful practise.
Sofina: Yeah. So that one is more the private and they do do other stuff there as well, so they’ve got dentists that do Invisalign and aesthetics and-
Payman: So is that one open all day now?
Sofina: That is open during the day as well now, so that does do multiple hours and that has grown as well. And that was the other thing as well, we opened up a select amount number of hours and then when we do have sufficient business, we can open up those daytime. We’ve got a client list we can open up during the day and that’s what that one operated on-
Payman: So it’s open from when to when now?
Sofina: It’s open till 12 still and opens at eight, 9:00 AM. But it is-
Sofina: Varied on days. But yeah, it’s pretty much full days. And like I said, with the other clinics, we’ve got services all over Bradford, Leeds, Huddersfield, Hull, East Anglia, Cambridge, Peterborough, King’s Lynn and they’ve got all different operating hours. We’ve got services open 8:00AM to 8:00PM, seven days a week in many sites, so it is … Yeah.
Prav: How do you manage recruitment for that beast? Because especially when you’re asking people to work, let’s say, typically unsociable hours, maybe people are similar to you where they want that work/life balance where they want more time at home during the day, but then finding lots of people like that? I mean, in my own practises, I struggle to get the right people in, what we consider to be, normal working hours. How do you deal with that? Have you got a great HR manager or is it something that you are involved in?
Sofina: Yeah. You know what it is? This is what you probably find in most people who do business is I do try get involved in-
Sofina: Everything. And that is an issue. But yeah, I do absolutely get involved with the recruitment. We actually are at the point where we can’t take a lot of dent … Or we’re completely fully subscribed in all our Yorkshire clinics, so we have about 20 dentists on waiting lists that want to pick up shifts. A lot of it is word of mouth, so word of mouth is a big factor of people working for us. But we advertise, especially in the early days, we had to advertise through Facebook and Indeed and all those kind of channels, normal marketing. But-
Payman: Sofina, how many people is there overall?
Sofina: So we have over 130 staff. 70 dentists who work for us. So we have-
Payman: And this happened all in three years? So-
Sofina: This happened in three years.
Payman: Tell us the story from when did night dental number one go to number two?
Sofina: Night dental.
Payman: Was it all the urgent care thing that suddenly-
Sofina: It was the urgent care. Basically, I felt like I could offer so much to so many more people and I’ve loved urgent care, like I said. And I am very overly confident, so it was very much like … I’ve got a lot of ambition and I was like right, I can do more, and I did go for a bid on contracts and I had some hits and some falls and I did make some … With Yorkshire, I went for that, but I had so many plans there and I really executed a really intense plan there. And I did so much research and I did so much planning, and I really looked at the area, what the area needed and all that and I did get that and then from those … I mean, it wasn’t even from that, actually, at the same time, I got the East Anglia ones as well. So I think it was my vision-
Payman: It just doesn’t sound like a risk-averse person that you just described yourself as and this sounds the opposite, adrenaline junkie, risk-taker.
Sofina: I’m not a risk-averse person, no. I think-
Payman: A minute ago, you said you were.
Sofina: No, but I try to be as risk-averse, but I’m totally … I’m not risk-averse at all.
Payman: At all.
Sofina: I fully take on risks. No, no, not at all. I’m the complete opposite, but-
Payman: Sorry to use the word, how did you have the balls to do that in a different part of the country?
Sofina: Yeah, absolutely. This is what it is, I’m overly confident. I’m supremely ambitious and I … Yeah, I’m totally a risk-taker. I mean, we put our whole savings into a clinic, but at the end of the time, I try and minimise the risks.
Payman: You calculate it.
Sofina: Yeah, calculator. I minimise the risk, but there’s always risks, you have to jump. Without the jump, there’s just … And that could completely fail, but I completely accept that there’s-
Payman: What’s it done to your work/life balance? Because you told me you’re doing night dental because of your work/life balance, right? What you described before, you were going to look after the kid, now 150 employees, 13 practises-
Sofina: And three kids.
Payman: And three kids now.
Sofina: It was one then.
Payman: I take my hat off. I do take my hat off to you.
Sofina: But you know what it is? As a business person, you can really revolve your business around you. Long before COVID, I was working from home. I worked from home and I have really good managers in place, it’s really important for me to … And I am very heavily involved with the managers that I recruit. I don’t get involved with most of the HR that I recruit, but the managers, I’m very involved with and it’s very important for me to have really good structure and people that see my visions. My managers are amazing, they’re just … My staff are fantastic. My staff are so good. And a lot of it is having a really good support network. I’m going to be at home, I will visit the clinics, I will try and do, but my business has to revolve around my family and that is very important. I have a two year old at the moment and I do a lot revolving around my house. So I’m always working, so I’m constantly got a laptop there, but at the same time, I’m at home and I’m mostly at home and I do a lot from a laptop and a phone and-
Payman: When you’re recruiting a manager, what are you looking for? And by the way, do you have systems that you spoonfeed into each manager? Are they all running exactly the same way or are you leaving it up to them?
Sofina: I do let them have a bit of a … I’m going to let you make that decision. And what I like is them to make their own decisions and I’m like, I don’t care if you make mistakes. I’d rather you make a decision, make a mistake and yeah, I will say no, you shouldn’t have done that, but I’d rather them do that and they know that about me. I look for someone with initiative, someone who can just go right, I’m just going to try this. And yeah, they make mistakes, everybody makes mis … But I’d rather they do that and make mistakes than keep coming to me for things, and that’s really important. And I had an issue where I was saying to them, “Don’t come to me, but here’s a solution.” And I’m a big problem-solver, I love firefighting. And when you’ve got 77 eight to eight clinics, open seven days a week, there’s always issues, there’s always issues.
Sofina: And they would come to me and it’s like … I’m very much a fixer and if there’s an IT problem, I’ll be like well … I like to know how things work and that’s … And even when I set up the first squat. And this is one of the reasons I think I moved from one practise to the other is when I did my squat, I wasn’t just paying people to do it, I was involved in every single aspect of that clinic. The way the plumbing went in, you’re using solvent bonding, you’re not push fitting the plumbing in, you’re doing the first fix at the right time. And I was involved with every single aspect of that set up, like what paint are you using? What tiling are you using? And every little detail, I was involved with. And I needed to know how everything worked, I needed to know how the water goes through and the type air gap and things like that. I needed to understand it.
Sofina: And because I did that is why I was so successful with the bids as well because I really understood. And I wrote every single policy in place, I put them all in place, so I needed to understand all the compliance. And because I do understand my business so well, they do come to me with problems. Like the other day, they called me in Birmingham, “Oh, the software’s saying that they can’t open our Ghost because they can’t open the saving drive and you need to log into the google,” and all this stuff. I like to know how things work. But that is an issue, that is my own vice because then they’ll call me for those issues. But I’ve kind of now done the thing where I’m like, you know what? We’ve got great continuity in place, like this goes wrong, this is who you call. So I’m like, “You have to start not calling me about these things and just figuring it out yourself.” And that’s what it is and that’s one of-
Payman: Have you got a head office now? Are you still running it from your kitchen? Is there a team, like a centralised team?
Sofina: There is a team.
Payman: A centralised team?
Sofina: There’s a localised team, so there’s regional teams and there’s … So it’s more regional, so I think that’s quite important with the size of those clinics and the difference in the clinics and the way they run, they run completely different so we can’t do everything … One size definitely doesn’t fit all. And patient areas are different, patient needs are different, demographics are different and it all affects the service that we provide, so it’s very important for them not to be too centralised either in our service. And the other thing is I do have a lot of flexibility in the service and I love, like I said, problem-solving, which is why what happened with COVID happened and how we responded to it really well was because of our flexibility, our problem-solving and the ability to adapt and change and think of our feet on things. So-
Prav: So, Sofina, what’s the big vision? You’ve gone from zero to hero in three years, what’s the next three, five years going to look like? What’s the big vision that you’ve got for the crew?
Sofina: See, this is the thing, I’m not someone who sits there and does those long-winded business plans and I constantly have people, like accountants and stuff, telling me, “No, you need to plan this out.” And I think one of my successes is the fact that I’m not too rigid on how I’m going to do things and I do go with the flow because that flexibility and that has allowed me to respond to situations. Because if I had all my money tied up into one thing, I wouldn’t be able to be flexible and [inaudible 00:29:40]. But one thing is really important to me is having not all my eggs in one basket, trying to spread against the business and having different security. And this is what it is, I try to be logical and sensible and proactive on things that will help and support my business and me and my career.
Sofina: One of the things that our flexibility really kicked off was during the COVID period, so what happened there for us was we … Because we do urgent care and it’s a really important service, what we do. So we have 111 referring to our clinics, we’re all urgent care in Yorkshire and Humber, and it’s really important that those patients are constantly looked after and there’s no block in service or drop in service and continuity is so important there. Because I’ve got 70 staff, dentists working for me, we get a lot of information coming in, so when the information comes in, and there was a lot of people talking about COVID back in February, March, so I started putting those questions to the NHS, like what are we going to do about this? And there wasn’t much planning. I mean, there was a lot of planning for hot sites, which is where COVID-positive patients go, but I was saying to them, “Look, there are a lot more people that don’t have COVID who have got urgent needs than people with COVID with urgent needs, so there needs to be more attention here.”
Sofina: And, again, I just planned and I thought you know what? I don’t know what’s going on, wasn’t getting directions, so I got all the PPE sorted quite early on in March. And my husband’s a doctor, so he’s … He’s got nothing to do with the business, by the way, he doesn’t get involved, he doesn’t really … The only thing he does do is he does the interviews for the dentists. And I look at every dentist that we recruit, so that’s something that I do get involved with. Every dentist, I do have a governance side to that as well, so I do take a big interest in who we have working for us. What happened with the masks, the FFP3 masks, and my dentists were talking about this in March and they were asking us about it. I didn’t even really know about these things, so I looked into it and then tried to source them and I knew sourcing was a difficulty back in March. My husband had this friend and he’s like, “Oh, look, he’s working as an ITU consultant and he’s had those masks fitted.” And I was like, “Ask him where he got those masks from and who fitted him,” and I got the details off him and got my staff fitted, I think, on the 23rd of March with masks. And they had the masks and they had the PPE.
Sofina: And then when the announcement came out that surgeries have to shut, I called up the clinical leads from the NHS and I was like, “Well, what do you want us to do?” And they were like, “Well, do you have the PPE?” And I said, “Well, we’ve got this, this, this.” And they were like, “Well, then continue your face-to-faces.” At the end of the day, I’m responsible for my staff, so my primary concern was keeping my staff safe. So I was like okay, I’ve got this responsibility to look after my staff, to look after patients, so I had to make some calls there and I was very much like, use your own initiative, use your own clinical judgement on what you want to do. But here’s a PPE, use it and do what feels right to you. And I gave that to the dentists and I gave that control, and they were very grateful that we got them the PPE. And they all stood up to the plate, no-one backed down, everyone wanted to work.
Sofina: We had some vulnerable shielding staff that we obviously protected and looked after and that was really important to me because at the end of the day, I wanted to be able to sleep at night, I want to know my staff are safe and they’re looked after. And it was like no, I don’t want you compromising yourselves at any point, so if you don’t feel safe at any point, don’t work. And if anyone wanted a break from COVID, I was like, “Have a break.” There was no pressure for anyone to work and I think they really appreciated that. And they all stepped up, they all picked up extra shifts and the NHS were just like, “Can you do more? Can you do more?” And they kept asking us to do more of the service and we got to the limit where it was like okay, that’s all our surgery spaces used up and all our hours are used up because they’re doing extended hours. And then they were like, “Well, the 111 service is being completely overrun, what can you do to support that?”
Sofina: So at that point, I thought right, what can we do? We’ve got enough clinics, but all our clinics are used up. I know what we can do, we can get some triages. So I recruited for triaging dentists, got about six, seven dentists across the country, because I thought there’s loads of dentists out there who have got nothing to do. Gave them the option, if you want some extra money from home, set them up with rental laptops, phones, did a training presentation with them all within a week and they were ready to go within a week, seven days. And then we had a team of triaging that will help the 111 service and our triaging will do more AAA for patients. So I think having flexibility and having those kind of quick problem-solving tactics have helped me be successful in ways, in the services and the urgent care and being successful in my business as well and I think that’s really important for me. And that is constantly what I’m doing, I’m constantly thinking okay, let’s figure out … There’s a problem, how can we solve it?
Payman: Extraordinary. Extraordinary.
Payman: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So okay, you’re saying you haven’t got an exact plan of where you want to go, but are we talking Empire Building? Are we talking exit? Are we talking-
Payman: What are we talking?
Payman: Sorry, sorry, sorry. No, before you go, how did you raise money?
Sofina: It was completely our savings. As an associate, my husband’s a GP, it was literally our own money. I didn’t take a loan out. One thing I don’t do in business is risk other people’s money. I’m a bit uncomfortable with people risking other people’s money and taking investments. And investments are good and especially if they’ve got … But I’ve seen so many people take other people’s money and risk it and then lose it. For me, it was really important that I had to put my money where my mouth is and put our own money at risk. And no-one had faith in me, by the way. My own dad, who’s an avid businessman and my husband and they were like … They kind of just go, “Yeah, yeah, just do it. Do what you want.” But my husband wrote off the money, he really thought okay, you know what? Whatever.
Payman: Let me tell you something. Let me tell you something. You know that classic cliché about every time you want to start a business, everyone tells you not to do it kind of thing?
Payman: And it necessarily has to be that way, yeah? Because if I say hey, Sofina, I’ve got this great idea for a business, it does X, Y, Z, and then you and Prav both say, “Oh, that’s an amazing idea, do it,” there’ll be enough other people saying that and it’ll be enough of an idea, but there’ll be so many competitors. Yeah? Whereas when you have a business and everyone says don’t do it, then you end up being one of the only ones doing that business because of the barriers to entry. So if everyone says-
Sofina: Yeah, and that’s exactly-
Payman: Do it, it’s actually a bad sign.
Sofina: Absolutely. And that’s the thing with my dad, he was saying, “No-one’s doing it, so there must be a reason,” and that was my dad’s-
Payman: There is.
Sofina: There must be a reason why no-one’s doing it. And I said, “Maybe there is. Maybe I’ll find out the hard way,” but if I don’t get this out of my system, I’m going to … I was Del Boy’s daughter, I had to get it out my system. I had to give it a go and give it a shot. And there was a risk that I could’ve lost all the money, all our savings. But the advantage with us compared to other people who do this is I’m a dentist, my husband’s a doctor, we could just pick it up and just do extra shifts and work the rest of our lives and we have that security that other people don’t have. Whereas my dad, when he put everything into it, he would’ve been in debt and he would’ve been in a massive situation. So it was our own money, but at the same time, I’m very privileged, I feel really-
Prav: Did you-
Prav: Did you leverage one practise to buy the next to buy the next to buy the-
Sofina: Absolutely. I’m very good with money. I’m very, very sensible with money. I’m the kind of person who, if I have £10, I’ll spend £5. So there was a lot of financial planning to plan everything and everything was very much … This is where I am risk-averse, I’m very good with money, I’m very sensible with money. And the numbers were really important to me and I was really logging out the numbers and looking at the numbers and how it’s going to work. And obviously, with those contracts, they are funded in a way. I mean, they were leased properties, those properties that I took out, so they were leased. I had three months to set up four clinics, by the way. I had three months to set up four clinics. And because I’d set up the one from scratch-
Sofina: I knew I could do this, I could do this all right. And, again, I was like right, I’ve got three months, I have to use D1 properties, I have … And I did my first planning permission myself as well, so I really knew the ins and outs of planning as well. So I had to set up four clinics within three months, but because I knew every single aspect of it, it was just the same thing on speed. And it was a challenge, but then, again, the sensible things, like taking out the equipment on a 12 month lease or it was a 24 month lease programme and things like that. So where I can, rent where I can and doing those sensible things to save that capital investment as much as possible. And I’m someone that … If it’s not profitable, then it’s not viable.
Prav: Cut the losses.
Sofina: Yeah, cut the losses. And that’s what it is, don’t throw good money after bad money. If it’s not working, if an idea isn’t working, try and change it up. If that changing up isn’t working, then you just have to cut your losses and move on.
Prav: Any other practises failures that haven’t worked or you felt that do you know what-
Sofina: So far, it’s good and I think I’m still in early days, things will go wrong, I’m sure they will, but they, for me, are learning curves. So I take all criticism, all failures as okay-
Prav: How can you grow?
Sofina: Yeah, how can I grow? And we’re always learning. And with my dentists, one of the things what happened with COVID was … I take a backseat with my dentists normally and they all wanted to hear from me. They all wanted to hear, so at first, I put out a memo and the managers went, “No, they literally want to hear from you.” So what I started doing was weekly webinars with my dentists, which they really appreciated. So every week now, I talk to the dentists and I speak to them directly and they really love that. And I tell them the clinical basis, because I was talking to Health Education England, Public Health England and quite high up people in those departments about right, what are we going to do? How are we going to do it? The urgent care. What’s the latest guidance? I had people that had seen guidelines a couple of weeks before they were published, so I was asking them about what’s going to be in there so I could plan for that, and then I would inform my dentists and give the evidence base.
Sofina: And the other thing I would say, the things I would want to see, is clinical staff and clinical people should be definitely involved more within business. And I don’t think in undergrad, we’re taught enough business at all. And I think it’s really important we have so much more business because everyone’s in a business when they come out. And when I go to some of those meetings, the amount of bureaucracy behind it, the amount of people who have got no clinical experience or background making decisions and it’s such a shame, and I think so many more people need to be involved in the business side of dentistry as well. And there’s something that we can bring to the table that definitely others can’t, with our clinical background and our evidence base and our understanding and our ethical.
Sofina: I mean, dentists in the UK, we are some of the most ethical in the UK, in the world and we can bring that ethics to the business of dentistry that I think other people don’t lack when they [inaudible] or when they’ve got no healthcare background and they work in healthcare, make judgments on healthcare. You can see the difference, you can really see the difference between someone’s opinion who’d been in health than someone who hasn’t been in healthcare. And that patient comes first attitude that we have, everything has to revolve around the patients and I think from that, everything else organically grows. So for me, the two things that I would say are the key to my success are that patient first attitude and staff.
Sofina: So one of my things that I was thinking was why didn’t I go into business sooner? And that was a big question mark. I could’ve done this sooner, why didn’t I do it sooner? And that was thinking what if I did it sooner? But what sitting back did was allowed to observe and watch other practise owners and business and learn from them. And I think one of the key things I learnt from watching other people, other dental clinics and the tips that I learnt, one of the key things was the way they treat the staff and the staff ethos and staff mentality. I watched how a staff in a happy environment, how they were willing to work extra hours and they weren’t clock-watching and they were doing beyond their normal … What they’re contracted to do and they’ll do it for the business and they care about the business. And then I worked in practises where there wasn’t … People watch the clock, it’s five o’clock, that’s it, I’m off, I’m signing off. And it made such a difference in the success of the business.
Sofina: And also, when patients go in and they see a smiley, happy dentist and staff and it makes such a difference to their experience. And they go into a clinic and the people are miserable, they’re on their phone, they have that … It reflects their mentality. I mean, we had CQC inspection in Leeds and one of the things that really came back, and even the CQC inspectors were like, “Your staff are so happy.” And it is really important for me to create happy environments for my staff and I really care about my staff, I genuinely care about my staff. And they just go above and beyond and they’re just so amazing, my staff are so amazing and that is definitely a key part of the success of the business. And I don’t have to be there as much because my staff are there. And-
Payman: Sofina, have you studied entrepreneurship, leadership, any of that? Do you read books or is this-
Sofina: No, I don’t read any.
Payman: Are you just purebred?
Sofina: I’m more streetwise-
Payman: Because you are definitely a purebred entrepreneur, you’re 100% entrepreneur. It’s so in your blood.
Sofina: I observe. I observe. I observe and I take everything in and I look at what other people do-
Payman: And you didn’t start late, I mean, how old were you when you started? You were young.
Payman: Yeah, young.
Sofina: I wanted to start when I was 24, what you talking about? But yeah, no … Yeah. Yeah, I guess-
Payman: So go on, what’s your dream come true outcome-
Sofina: I don’t know.
Payman: Going forward-
Payman: Like, three years’ time?
Sofina: I’m not going to-
Payman: Because we saw you did a lot-
Sofina: Yeah. I’m not going to lie, I have sliding door moments where I’m just like, you know what? Instead of just spending £200,000 on a dental practise, I could’ve just sat back. We were making decent money, my husband was making good money and I could’ve just spent his money and been a housewife and bought shoes and handbags and gone to coffee shops with my friends. I do think wouldn’t that have been a better life? I’m not going to lie, I have those moments where I think what is this for? And is it worth it? And-
Payman: For why.
Sofina: There’s nothing … Why, the why. And-
Prav: Go on, carry on.
Sofina: And I’ll be honest, maybe I will have more of an answer in five years’ time, but I do go through those. So I do go through those moments where I’m thinking oh, goodness, what have I done? Why do I do this myself?
Sofina: But I guess … Yeah.
Prav: What do you think you’re trading in for business in your life?
Sofina: Well, you know what? My kids are still at home, I’m with my kids, I don’t have a nanny, I don’t have home support-
Sofina: I do have family support.
Sofina: So I do look after my children myself-
Payman: You don’t have a nanny either?
Payman: What the hell?
Sofina: I breastfeed my children, I’ve been there for my children. That is really important to me.
Payman: You need to herd one more person, you need to get 151 people-
Sofina: But you know what I hired? Do you know what I hired? I hired a personal assistant. So I hired a personal assistant and I thought … You know what she does? She filters my calls. So she filters things like … She’ll say, and she’s very ruthless, so she’ll just say, “No, Sofina doesn’t need to deal with that.” And she’ll just make those decisions for me, which is really good. It’s exactly what I needed and that’s made a big difference to me. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with having a nanny, by the way. I know people who are homemakers and they have nannies and it’s completely fine. It’s what suits me and that suits me and it was really important for me to not … You know what it is? There’s that mom guilt, like I don’t want to feel what I’m doing is compromising my family and my children. I think-
Payman: Do you think it’s harder being a woman-
Sofina: I overcompensate.
Payman: Do you think it’s harder being a woman than a man?
Sofina: Absolutely. No, not woman generally, but maybe a woman in the field that I do. Absolutely. Definitely.
Sofina: Being a woman and business owner is tough.
Payman: Because you’re a mother?
Sofina: Because I’m a mother. And you know what? I have faced so much vitriol. I mean, the things people have said about me and the-
Payman: Yeah, but you don’t look the classic entrepreneur, the young-
Sofina: Exactly. And-
Sofina: And I get so much backlash from … And I did. I mean, I think things have definitely settled down, but especially at the beginning, I had people causing me so … People trying to sabotage me, people badmouthing me, people judging me before I’d even started. And there was a lot of horrible, horrible things being said about me and it was all … And I was trying to figure out where it came from and a lot of it was because people were generally scared, they have a stereotype of a girl. And I’m an Asian girl, Muslim girl, female, wears a headscarf, if someone sees me, they’ll think she’s not capable. They stereotype me into being that placid, timid, can’t think for herself kind of person and she-
Payman: Is that part of your drive, to try and prove that wrong? Is that part of-
Payman: Is it?
Sofina: Definitely. Yeah. I love proving people wrong-
Payman: Maybe that’s the why, that’s the burning ambition-
Sofina: That might be the why. I want to prove that-
Payman: To prove that wrong.
Sofina: Yeah, maybe it is. Maybe it is proving that we’re completely capable and we are completely … We can do this and we’ve got this. And we’re intelligent women, we’re independent, we think for ourselves, we’re not press, we’re not … And I think there is definitely an element of trying to prove people wrong, it does drive me. Because I have 70 dentists and pretty much all my dentists have another job because of the hours we work, and they’ll come back and I hear what’s being said about me and people don’t realise when things are being discussed about me that it does come back to me and it totally drives me. It completely drives me.
Prav: Sofina, what’s been the lowest moment during the last three or four years of this short journey to success, where you’ve been in the bottom of the hole really-
Prav: During all this?
Sofina: It’s not actually that long ago, it was about six, seven months ago, I had a really, really tough time. I had someone who was really abusing their power, really, really abusing their power to put me down. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, it was someone senior to me who was really going through a lot of extent to try and sabotage me. And they caused me so much stress, it caused me so much stress-
Prav: Someone senior to you in the business or are we talking life now in general?
Sofina: Yeah, it was in dentistry.
Sofina: I can’t-
Prav: No, no. Yeah.
Sofina: It went down a legal road and I did come out quite good on the other side of it, but it had to go down that road. And I do have this, I’ve had people writing to MPs, I’ve had people … I had a local dental committee hold a vote to collect negative feedback about my organisation.
Sofina: That actually went to a vote. It wasn’t collect feedback, it was specifically collect negative feedback only, so obscure patient feedback. And thankfully, it was voted against. So this is what I mean by ethical den … Majority of dentists are very ethical, this is a loud minority, probably people with power minority who do abuse that power. I don’t really go to mentors and stuff, but I just thought I need to speak to someone. And I managed to call Eddie Crouch, he’s the lead of the West Midlands LDC and he’s also the-
Payman: [inaudible 00:50:34].
Sofina: Yeah, vice pres. I called him and he was fantastic, he was just like, “Look, I know who you are because I’ve heard about you.” And he goes, “You have to understand, you’ve pissed people off. You’ve pissed people off and they’re not happy for you and this is what they’re going to do.” And he’s like, “You just have to …” And he kind of gave me that drive to fight and to just defend my corner. He goes, “Yeah, I’ll treat you fairly,” but it is what it is and those people are going to be … They’re not going to be happy for me, are they? So he gave me that little bit of a spur and that fire and I thought you know what? I’m just … What really drives me, like you said, it really drives me that I don’t want this happening to someone else and I have to … It’s easier sometimes just to let things go, but then you think if I don’t fight it, someone else will go through this and this change won’t happen that I need. And I think that was really important for me to say right, no, this is unacceptable.
Sofina: And the other thing is, I’m very … People take my niceness and my quietness for weakness and they realise the hard way that I have a fire. No, no, that’s not going to happen. And I think now when people do say stuff, it is like right, defamation, legal letter, da-da-da. I’m a little bit confident. I never got a lawyer previously at all, but now I’m a little bit more confident on that and a little bit more like, right. And I don’t take crap. I don’t-
Payman: What about your happiest day, professionally, in the last three, four years?
Sofina: Oh, there’s so many. I love what I do. And I have to say I was just … You know with this COVID, it’s so sad what’s happened, but I’m so proud of the way my staff came together and the way we did things and I just … I think that was really, for me, something that … Basically, what happened there was the NHS were like, “If you don’t have PPE, you don’t have to,” and I spoke to my staff and I had to reach out to my staff and I said, “Look, we have a duty of care. We have the urgent care contracts, we can’t sit back. And we can sit back and not do anything, but those patients will end up in A&E and we are going to be increasing traffic to A&E, so we’ve got to sit down and think we’ve got a responsibility here. We’ve got the PPE, we can do this,” and they all were raring to go and that was such a proud moment for me, for my staff and having that ethos and everyone had the right attitude, creating that. And I would say that was a real, for me, really buzz moment for me.
Prav: So, Sofina, it seems like during lockdown, the majority of dentists and dental business owners have had a nice holiday and has it been the opposite for you, you’ve been working harder?
Sofina: Literally non-stop. All our clinics have been operating 8:00AM to 8:00PM, seven days a week. It’s been non-stop. I closed the private clinics, I didn’t feel right with those. Again, I understand why people had to and did and I really sympathise with those private owners that really got affected by it. And for me, I just thought you know what? We’ve got the NHS, we’ll cover the NHS, I’m not going to keep the private open, so we closed until last week was when we open those back up. But we closed the private side of things, but other than that, we’ve been operating and providing that service.
Sofina: And what happened was in around about mid-April, we … And I did, quite early on, I said okay, once we had it under wrap, I said to the NHS, “Look …” The commissioners, “Look, we can offer more.” So what we can do is where you’ve got A&Es, if they have patients in urgent needs, they can refer to us and they said, “No, no, we don’t want to overwhelm you.” And then the other thing they did suggest was would you … Well, the clinical lead suggested, “Would you be able to take on referrals from clinics?” And I said, “Yeah, I mean, we could do that.” And then the commissioners were like, “No, no. Again, we don’t want to overwhelm you.” But then what happened was there was a communication that came out and it said that we were the referral for all dental practise in Yorkshire and Humber for … Or for West Yorkshire and Hull, sorry, for urgent needs. So if they had a patient that needed face-to-face, to refer to us. But we weren’t even informed about this. One day, we’re working and my manager’s calling me, like, “We’re getting hundreds and hundreds of referrals from dental clinics,” and she was like, “What’s going on?”
Sofina: So I phoned the NHS and I was like, “What’s going on?” And they were like, “Yeah, that kind of communicate came out, can you do it?” And I said, “A heads up would’ve been nice, but we got it. We got this.” So then we had to restructure everything and figure out how we were going to do it and get those extra patients in, and then we became the hub for all referrals for urgent care in West Yorkshire. And so all dental clinics referred to us and we tried our best. And, again, we’re looking after the people’s patients. Before we took on 111 patients … Commonly, patients that can’t access … They don’t have a dental clinic and they don’t have access to a dental clinic, so we now were looking after other people’s patients, there’s a massive responsibility with that and it was really important for us to do, again, look after those people’s patients. And that responsibility that we can do it, so we should step up to the plate and try and help where we can, and hopefully we did make a difference. It was very tough.
Payman: Sofina, talk us through a day. What time do you wake up? What do you do with your kids? And then when do the calls start, the emails? And then what time do you go to bed?
Sofina: So the thing with me is I get the most work done at night, I’m still nocturnal. And managers will get emails at 3:00AM and this and that and people will commonly get majority of the emails when I really get that sit down time, when my kids have gone to bed and I can concentrate. The real things where I have to think happen when the kids are asleep because you just can’t … But the other thing is, one thing I think that’s happened from COVID which is a positive from a really, obviously, a dark time for us is this whole working with kids in the background. I always work with kids in the background, my managers know. I have serious conversations with a two year old jumping on me and everyone has to accept that I have a family and that’s my reality. So, all my managers know, all my staff know that.
Sofina: And even when sometimes when I do my webinars with my dentists, there’ll be kids and they’ll come in and they’ll talk and they’ll … I’m very unashamedly a mom. I don’t have to be ashamed about being a mom and having my kids out there. I don’t hide that and I do really … I take my babies to clinics and I remember having a serious meeting with one of the builders and had my two year old with me, and those are my realities and I will comp … I’m not ashamed or embarrassed and I don’t feel that women should be embarrassed, even dads, should be embarrassed about things like that. So I think that is really important to me as well.
Payman: How much sleep are you getting? What time do you go to bed and what time do you wake up?
Sofina: I don’t sleep. I’ve not slept for months, honestly. I go to bed late and then my two year old’s wide awake and dive bombs on me and that’s it, I have to wake up. And I nap when I can and yeah, that’s-
Sofina: It really. Yeah, so-
Prav: Going back to my question about trading in for business, certainly one of the things that I find is that, with me working from home quite a bit, more so obviously over the last 10, 12 weeks, there’s certain moments in time where my head is in the workspace and my three year old just wants her daddy. And so she’s having a conversation with me, I’m kind of having a conversation with her, I’m sort of trying to keep my head in work and there’s that being in the room with one or the other. Do you ever-
Prav: Struggle with that?
Sofina: Absolutely. Definitely. I mean, you know what my two year old does? He picks the laptop and takes it off me, and then your heart just sinks-
Payman: Yeah, but you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Look, look, look, look what you learnt from your dad. Yeah?
Payman: And look when that three year old becomes a 23 year old, he’s going to say, “I sat there and my mom looked after me while she built this empire.” And what he’s learning by looking at you doing what you’re doing is amazing itself. It doesn’t have to be either/or, you know?
Payman: My kids know more about Enlighten that-
Prav: Than my kids.
Payman: Than your kids. But I get it. Of course, I understand the thing you guys are discussing, but you’re teaching your kids something by creating-
Prav: Yeah, but it’s-
Payman: Something huge while they’re there.
Prav: You know what? I think I can resonate with you, Sofina, in the sense that my daughter hasn’t taken my laptop off me, but she grabs my phone and says, “Put your phone away, daddy.”
Prav: Yeah? And snatches it out of my hand because she wants-
Sofina: And then your heart just-
Prav: Just goes, right?
Sofina: Sinks, right?
Prav: Just goes.
Prav: And at the moment, what we’ve done is I’ve taken dedicated time out of my work day now, so I’m locked away in my office now, but between three and four o’clock, it’s just me and the girls and my phone’s nowhere near me, right? And then we have slots throughout the day. It’s still nowhere near enough time-
Payman: It’s your brain, it’s not the phone, bud. It’s your brain. Yeah?
Sofina: Yeah. But that’s also what my personal assistant’s done for me. So she’s like, “Right, I’m scheduling time.” Because I have to be a teacher, by the way. My kids are at home, so I have a seven year old, a four year old and a two year old, and I have to, all of a sudden, be a teacher to those kids as well, which is just impossible. And I find that much tougher than running the empire-
Prav: What they doing now, sat quietly behind you?
Sofina: No, my husband’s home, thankfully, and he’s very flexible. He’s totally the opposite of me, he’s got no-
Payman: What kind of doctor is he?
Sofina: He’s a GP. His dad is from Kenya and they’ve got a very different background from me. They’ve worked hard. They were sent to different countries, again, as young boys and they were … One was sent to Kenya by themself, in Nairobi, and the other one was … Two of them were sent there, one was sent in England and working in factories as a 13, 14 year old. Really young boys sent by themselves and they carved the way. But Fiza’s family are very … They don’t have that business mind. They stay in the dark job, they want stability, they like to be organised, they like having everything …
Sofina: And Fiza’s dad, bless him, is 86 years old and he’s just only retired, like, three, four years from his job that he worked. I mean, my in-laws are so lovely. And I have to say, having an extended supportive family is just massive important to what I’m doing. My mom helps me out, my sister-in-laws help me out, my father-in-law’s just amazing. And he’s so worried about me all the time, he’s just like, “Are you okay?” And they don’t get what I’m doing and they don’t understand the drive behind it and they worry about me and I totally get that.
Payman: It feeds you, doesn’t it? That’s the thing, it feeds you.
Payman: I’m 100% sure, if we come back to this interview in another three years time, I’m 100% sure it’s going to be a much, much bigger empire. How much to walk away? I’m not talking about a financial figure here, but that’s something that you need to look at. Is it a business you want-
Sofina: Think it’s-
Payman: To exit or do you love it so much-
Sofina: This is what it is. I realise I do it for the buzz and the drive. And I look at my dad and I just think my dad makes a lot of good money, but he just doesn’t stop. It’s the whole Del Boy thing, honestly, it’s like the Del Boy thing and it’s the buzz and the drive and he’s not stopping and you’re like, “Dad, you don’t have to anymore.” And it’s like yeah, but he couldn’t cope with not doing things, and I don’t know if I’m going to be like that or if I’d go back to clinical and just do some clinical and take some time. I don’t know, I can’t … I think I’m too much still up that hill to know what I’m going to do in five times, but I know the answer will be probably a little bit more different.
Prav: If you weren’t doing dentistry, what would you be doing?
Sofina: That’s a very good question.
Prav: You’d be in business, right?
Sofina: I’d be in business. 100%, I’d be in business. I’d definitely be in some kind of business. So yeah, definitely some kind of business if it wasn’t den … And actually, the first business ideas I had weren’t even dentistry, they were completely different, they were internet, website. I love graphic design and I don’t know if you saw … One of the things that we were getting all this information and guidelines during COVID, so what I did was I tried to … And I have to try and direct my staff as well, so I have to say, “Look, use the Scottish Clinic Effectiveness Programme for your guidelines, for urgent care and got a great toolkit.”
Sofina: And I know they weren’t doing it, so I thought the way to get them to do it is by having a place where they can just get all the information for. So I created that portal for them and just went on Webflow, put it together and tried to collate all the information to one portal for them. And that was, I think, really good for them, but it is something that hopefully collects all the information. But it is … I forgot even what my train of thought was there.
Prav: Imagine there’s, obviously, some younger dentists listening to this and they want to get into business or open their own practises or have got ideas, et cetera, et cetera. Obviously, you’ve got in your blood and a lot of it comes from that and your upbringing. What advice would you give to them?
Sofina: I mean, there’s so many tips and there’s so many things that I would advise, but it’d be try and not throw all your eggs in one basket and listen to … You have to listen to the people that are telling you you can’t do it, you have to listen to some of the things that they’re saying and the reasons they’re saying it. And you have to plan for those … They’re all people that care about me, so the people that said it’s not going to work, people that care about me and they were worried about me. And some of the advice that they were saying, I was like right, so I’m going to plan for that. You’re saying this might happen, so let’s plan for the fact that there might be no patients through the door and things like that. So, I think plan, try and plan for the risks and try and think about … Don’t get too blindsided by your idea and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t put everything you’ve got, remortgage your house all for one thing. Try and think about what if things don’t work out and do plan that and have a plan B. Always have a plan B. So I think that’s really important.
Sofina: I know I’m not really the best place … And this is something that I’m going to talk about my webinar tomorrow with my dentists is I know I’m not the best person to be discussing these and there probably are so many people that are better place to be discussing, one thing that really concerns me, especially … I did listen to some of your podcasts, is the mental health and the wellbeing of some of the people, the young dentists. And I don’t know if you watch Bollywood or if you’re aware of this guy that, unfortunately, has taken his life in the last … And that’s really affected me. And what I do really worry about is young dentists and young, male dentists feeling … I see him and I just think he was a successful Bollywood actor who had everything going for him and at 34, what made him go to that head space where he felt that he had to take his own life?
Payman: A dentist committed suicide yesterday in London.
Payman: Do you hear about?
Sofina: I mean, that’s just heartbreaking.
Payman: It is.
Sofina: That is so heartbreaking, and I think we need to do more to sort that and I know I’ve got responsibility because I’ve got so much staff working for me now. And one of the things I do want to bring on the webinar, now you’ve told me that, it’s just things like that really affect me and I think we’ve got a big responsibility to look after those people that are going through those things. I’m worried about the fact that private had to shut up shop for three months and so many people living on the next pay, and they’ve been so badly struck and what is this going to do to people’s mental health and the stress of this? And I think what we need to do is look out for those gateway messages. This guy, the Bollywood actor, he sent a message about his mom had passed away the week before, so I think it’s really important for us to look out for gateway messages, support, listen to people and ask how people are.
Sofina: I’ll see on Facebook, so many of my friends, their fathers have taken their lives and brothers have and people have lost a lot of people to this and so much talent. And we just have to, I think, take some time and look and see what we can do to support, mentor. And I do want to be someone who can support others who do need advice or do need that thing, and what I would say is try to minimise that risk and that pressure. And I see so much pressure, especially in our industry. I mean, dentistry is a high pressure environment and so much stress is involved and I think it is really … And that’s why when someone goes into the business, they have to really evaluate that and their mental health and the consequences of what they do.
Sofina: And like I said, I’ve had some real tough times and people do really attack you and that’s going to happen to some people. And people have to think twice as well when they attack people, I think that’s really important as well, when they attack others. There’s advising and then there’s just being a bully, and I think it’s really important for people to ask and to take some time and call someone up. We’re so busy with our lives sometimes that we don’t sit there and take some time out and think okay, that person needs them, but I haven’t got time to deal with that. It’s like, no, what is the point in being successful and being where you are if you can’t even do that as a human, like, take some time out for someone else?
Prav: And I see it happen a lot in dentistry, online. You see these wars on Facebook between people and openly, face-to-face, they’d never say these things, right? But I’ve also noticed that that’s calmed down a lot over COVID and there’s been a lot more unity and people come together. I don’t know if you’ve seen the same, Payman-
Prav: That people who would-
Prav: Definitely not-
Prav: Talk to each other or there’s been a joining of forces and I hope that really is here to stay.
Payman: I mean, it’s human nature that it goes in both directions, right? But I’m interested in what you’re saying about the gateway signs, Sofina, because every time something like this happens, people say they didn’t see the signs. And I know with bereavement, guilt is a almost intricate part of the bereavement, isn’t it?
Prav: Without question.
Payman: Everyone thinks why didn’t I see it? But …
Sofina: Yeah. I mean, what must the families be going through right now? I mean, they’ll be tormented for years to come about what could they have done? I was asking my husband about some of those gateway signs, because he’s a GP, and he was saying isolating themselves, going through that gateway of sadness, of exhibiting that sadness. And you could see he was in the head space where he was getting sad by putting those posts up about his mother and it’s really important for men to talk, I think. Speak to someone. And that is something that, I think, we definitely do need to do more to support the male dentists as well as …
Payman: We’ve got to realise as well, there’s almost a chemical side to it. You know what I mean? It’s not just about oh, life is getting on top of me.
Sofina: Yeah, sometimes there definitely is a chemical aspect.
Payman: I mean, look at the chemicals in you, you haven’t slept, you’re running at 1000 miles-
Sofina: Absolutely. I think we need to, as a community, pull together and really support each other. And if someone’s already there and then they have a chemical added to it, whether it’s lack of sleep-
Payman: Yeah, no, but what I mean, the chemical is just a biochemical-
Sofina: Yeah, biochemical, lack of sleep or those kind of things and it’s just going to heighten everything. It’s going to absolutely heighten everything. And, Prav, I think you’ve got medical background, so you probably-
Prav: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Sofina: Fully understand all this. And-
Prav: And I think, putting everything to one side, I think everything has a chemical basis. You’re talking about there’s probably a chemical element to it, I think it is the chemical element, whether it’s cortisol flying around your system or adrenaline or whatever these hormones or signalling molecules are that are flying around, endorphins, lack of, that are causing you to feel that way, right?
Prav: Depression is chemically driven.
Sofina: Yeah. Isolation is a big factor as well, so people that are isolating.
Payman: It’s not linear because if you want to think linearly, if you’re like so and so has got X, Y and Z wrong in his life, so he’s going to be sad. But actually, sometimes when things are wrong, that’s when you’re at your very best. And then you’ve got the Bollywood guy, on the surface, looks like he’s got everything-
Sofina: Yeah. And sometimes it’s the-
Payman: But he’s gone and-
Sofina: Drop from that buzz. It’s the drop from the buzz and you just, all of a sudden-
Payman: That’s a chemical thing too.
Sofina: Yeah. And all of a sudden, you’re really famous and everyone wants you and then you drop, and that must really hurt people and upset-
Prav: Must do.
Sofina: People. And that, again, that’s that biochemical aspect to it as well, so we need to just … I think we’ve all got a responsibility there.
Prav: I think he’d have pretty much every film producer pull their contract or something like that with him to say they’ll never feature him in a film, or words to that effect. And then he could only star in low rate movies or something like that. I don’t know the facts behind it, but imagine-
Sofina: It’s bullying.
Prav: Going from the peak-
Sofina: Yeah, it’s bullying.
Prav: The peak of Bollywood stardom to saying hey, you can be in a sitcom now and that’s the best you’re going to get.
Sofina: Yeah. I mean, I used to love Bollywood. Back in the ’90s, I used to watch Bollywood loads and I haven’t watched Bollywood movies in ages, but I watched his film and he was amazing. And I can’t even remember the film that much, but I just remember seeing him and thinking what an amazing actor, he’s got such a talent. And that’s why it’s really saddened me, so sad, he had such a talent.
Payman: You set your own cornerstones to this. So I had a friend, his dad committed suicide and the reason … I mean, who knows what his real reason was? But the reason he committed suicide was he didn’t win the Nobel Prize in whatever field he was in. And, again, on paper, you think well, the guy’s contending for the Nobel Prize for something, he’s amazing, he’s got the best life ever, but he’d set his sights on that. It’s terrible.
Sofina: And I think that’s where … If he’d let it out and spoke to someone, then people could’ve just gone, “Oh, but you’re amazing,” and, I don’t know, positive reinforcement.
Payman: It’s good that people are talking about it now though. This is really-
Payman: It’s like, in the last two, three years, people are talking about mental health much, much more.
Payman: I think that can only be healthy.
Sofina: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s what it is. I think-
Payman: Men definitely.
Sofina: Men have a superhero mentality that they have to be perfect and strong and they can’t show this weakness, and I think that superhero mentality is what sometimes … They don’t talk and they don’t let it out and that’s why they do get hit by this.
Prav: Yeah. I think it’s the old-school mentality that the man’s job is to hunt and gather and protect, right? That instinct. And then there’s this whole bravado and macho thing and whatever comes with it and things happen or things go south or whatever it is, and then men get into this depressive state over whatever it is, whether it’s putting weight on or whether it’s not doing as well at work or then taking a downturn in work and I guess it affects some people more than others.
Payman: By the way, we should point out there is Confidental, which was set up by Lauren Sparkle and Jenny Pinder.
Payman: Call up any dentist, call up Confidental and just chat.
Sofina: I think that needs to be really promoted more. And you know what? I would actually put that out to my dentists and I would love details about that actually. But, Prav, do you have-
Prav: What were you saying, Sofina?
Sofina: Yeah, I was just saying from your healthcare, do you recall the gateway signs? Can you just share some of those?
Prav: I think, whether from my healthcare background or not, it’s … I’ve got a … Well, he’s my wife’s cousin who committed suicide about four years ago and he threatened to do it about three times, but never did. And that was a cry for help and once he got a … He tied a sari around his neck and jumped off the bannister and that was the end of that. And they found him and … I think one of the biggest gateway signs is that conversation, they open up to some people and talk about it. And I think speaking to people now or relatives, it always revolved around the boy who cried wolf, right? He said it three times, if he was going to do it, he would’ve done it by now. And he left a note and he said, “I told you I’d do it.”
Sofina: Oh, god.
Prav: But nobody listened, right? And he was a super good-looking, happy boy. He got engaged a month before, so his fiance had lost him. And then there’s those things … Some of us only have a handful of friends. I, myself, I’ve probably got … I can count all my friends on two hands, that’s it. 10 people. If I had a problem, I’d be speaking to one of those 10 people and opening up to them. But what about that person who-
Sofina: Doesn’t have that.
Prav: Doesn’t, who becomes introverted, who starts withdrawing from life and hiding away, right? And just having that person to ring you up when you’re in that situation.
Sofina: There’s a pers-
Prav: And put you in a positive state.
Sofina: There are people that don’t even have one person. You’ve got 10.
Sofina: It’s not a big number, but there are people that don’t have that one person. And-
Prav: Are single. Yeah.
Sofina: And I think it’d be really good for us to know what to do and if we come across someone who’s in that state, what can be done?
Prav: And I think a lot of the time … It’s hard to generalise if you’ve not been in that position, but I think the people who do it have been thinking about it for a while. It-
Payman: Sometimes. Sometimes, Prav, not always.
Prav: Not always.
Payman: Not always.
Prav: Not always.
Payman: Stories I’ve heard.
Prav: You don’t know. You just don’t know, do you?
Prav: You simply don’t know and-
Sofina: I think what we can do as a profession is just be more supportive. And you’re right in the fact that COVID did bring such a comradery and I hope it lasts. And I even, for me, the negativity stopped for the last three, four months and we got a lot of positivity from everyone and everywhere and I just hope that lasts and for all of dentistry and especially young dentists. And when I was listening to some of the podcasts, I could hear young dentists being attacked by their own peers and other young dentists and other … And you just think … I’ve not had that, luckily. I have had it for more senior, but I’m a bit … I’m a positive person, so I always put a positive spin on things and I always kind of thing … But there’s people that would really be affected by that. And if I maybe was of a different personality, then it would’ve really affected me. Everyone’s got a story where they’ve been attacked.
Prav: I do strongly feel that social media has a lot to contribute to a lot of the negativity that people are feeling. And from my perspective, the majority of people that put stuff out there just paint the positivity. So if you look at somebody’s feed, you just see this person is living an amazing life, right? And it’s positivity, positivity, positivity. And then if you were in that zone and comparing yourself, and I do think it’s got a lot to answer for in that sense, but there’s lots of positives-
Payman: What, social media?
Prav: Lots of positives that have come out of there as well, right?
Payman: It’s the whole world.
Prav: Yeah, yeah. But now-
Payman: It’s everything good and bad together.
Prav: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. But if you look at-
Sofina: It’s heightened everything. Yeah.
Sofina: If you put a magnifying glass-
Sofina: On everything, hasn’t it, I guess? And … Yeah.
Payman: Sofina, I don’t know how you were as a clinician, but both me and Prav are no longer clinicians, but when I was a dentist, there wasn’t this GDC nightmare that everyone’s under right now. There wasn’t writing essays in the notes. And certainly, I think, for the mental health of the profession, the number one thing that would improve the mental health of the profession is sorting out that-
Sofina: That threat.
Payman: GDC, DLP, the ambulance chasers-
Sofina: Absolutely. No win, no fee.
Payman: And Dom was writing something about it. Now’s a great time for us to come together and say listen, let’s do something about the GDC.
Payman: Because I think that’s the single thing that would save the mental health of the profession more than anything else.
Sofina: We definitely need someone to rub … A lot of those ambulance chasers, they need to be told for what they are in terms of we need a defence or maybe a defence that actually says no, I’m sorry, no. That’s just what it is. And I think with advice on that … So I have a lot of dentists, obviously, now and when they do have something like that, I say to them, “Look, don’t lose sleep over it. Don’t lose sleep over it. Give it to your defence, they handle it, they do it. This will happen and it will happen and it’s such a part of our, now, lives and it is what it is. Try and document, try and do the best you can and just leave it to your defence. Don’t lose sleep over it. Don’t think about it. Don’t”-
Prav: It’s easy to say that.
Sofina: It is. It really is. I had a dentist who’s quite senior and he’s been a dentist for so many years and he was just so … And he didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t do anything wrong, but he passed to defence, but he just wouldn’t sleep and he was having anxiety attacks from it and panic attacks. And I was just like-
Payman: He would take it personally. Yeah.
Sofina: Yeah, they do and it’s so … Especially when they put their heart out there for a patient and they turn around and they get this, and it’s very heartbreaking for dentists to get this. But I think we can choose how we react to it and I think it’s just making it … I think for our dentists, what I try and say to them is, “Look, learn from it.” You can sit there and say that oh, I didn’t do anything wrong, but there’s probably something that you can learn from it, maybe whether it’s spending longer, talking to that person or explaining things better, and what could you have done to stop that complaint happening? And there is always some kind of learning outcome.
Sofina: And I get some dentists who have literally come out dentist school and they don’t think they need to learn anything and they’re there and they can’t self-criticise, and I’m just like, everyone should be self-criticising and thinking right … And I welcome complaints because I’m just like, a complaint will tell you right, what can we fix? What can we do better? And as a problem-solver, it helps me go right, okay, so this is not working, we need to do this and right, okay. So, using it as a tool to improve or learn and not taking it so personally. I think that’s what I can do sometimes, I can very much-
Payman: That’s not the human nature, Sofina, that’s the thing.
Prav: Mm. I get that call maybe six, seven times a year from a dentist who will say, “I’ve just had a letter from the GDC or Dental Law Partnership or whatever,” and their world is upside down because the first thing they think is it’s an immediate threat to their career being over.
Prav: Irrespective of how rational or irrational that complaint is, that’s what’s going round and buzzing round in their heads. And my role, as somebody who’s guiding them, is just to give them from my experience. Look, I’ve spoken to 30, 40 people in the same situation. From what I’m hearing, and I’m not your legal advisor, I think you’re going to be all right.
Sofina: And that’s what they want to hear and that kind of reassurance that’ll stop them losing sleepless nights up until it does get thrown that. And it’s just a shame, people can spend months stressing over something that’s just going to be thrown out anyway and it’s just-
Payman: The system needs reforming though.
Payman: The system needs reforming. I put something out on Facebook saying, “Why don’t we all pay ARF twice?”
Payman: Pay a second amount and set up an organisation to lobby the government and get lawyers and PR. Didn’t prove very popular, people didn’t fancy paying a second-
Sofina: You involve money-
Payman: But something you’re doing-
Sofina: Yeah, people don’t like paying for things.
Payman: Yeah, but something does need doing is what I’m saying, you know? We’ve complained all day, I would say-
Sofina: Well, you’re better off-
Payman: Put your money where your mouth is.
Sofina: You know how you’re going to get people is if you say it’s a voluntary or you can donate, and then people are like, “Okay”-
Payman: There you go.
Sofina: “There you go.” And that’s it, the attitude changes completely. It’s a donation, it’s a voluntary thing.
Payman: But my view on it was you pay it double for one year if you thought that you were going to get a GDC that’s fit for purpose. Now, of course, we don’t know, even if everyone does pay double for one year, that that’s what’s going to happen, but something needs to happen. You saw Dominic’s post, Prav, obviously-
Payman: And you saw how much support he had, he was absolutely right. There’s four or five institutions that let us down over this last period, completely, and now’s a good time to come together and try and change some of those.
Sofina: And that’s what it is, we need-
Payman: And for me, number one, GDC.
Sofina: Yeah. I mean, that’s what it is, dentists that put all this energy into attacking other dentists, put it into attacking those who attack us. That makes so much more sense. You want to attack someone, use your energy. If that’s the kind of person you are, we could use that as a tool, just use it the other direction. And I think that’s where the vocal people will actually be very good, but we could use them. Turn it around.
Payman: Prav, do you think Sofina’s too young for your final question?
Prav: I think so, mate. Far too young. Still a baby.
Payman: No, I think she’s got an old brain, man. I think she’s got a good wise brain. Sofina, what would you like your … Forget the funeral, but what would you like your legacy to be? What would you like to be remembered for?
Sofina: I don’t know. I think that … What it is is we’re all going to go, okay? So I could go tomorrow, it’s never too young to ask that question because I could go tomorrow. But I would want to think that what I did, and this is what it is, when I’ve done business and what I’ve done is I’ve made a difference to people. So the kind of dentistry I’ve done and the kind of business I’ve done is one that has actually helped our community and helped people, and I have made that kind of difference. And also, your kids. Your kids are the future. We’re going to go, we’re going to go, they’re going to go and the things that does live on is the values we teach them. So I think it’s really important to make sure that my kids are good people and they do good and they pass that on and they learn those good life lessons and keep that going, and I think that it is what is.
Sofina: I mean, what I set up, the money I have is going to go. It’s not about that, is it? But it’s making a difference in the business that I do and making a difference with my children as well. I think those are the kind of things that do live on when you’re gone. And I have to keep coming back to why I do and it is always important to ask why you’re doing what you’re doing, and are you just getting too involved and not actually thinking is there any point to what you’re doing? And I think that always has to come back to people’s minds. You’re never too young to ask that question because we have no guarantee on life or length of life, so we have to think about that all the time, I guess.
Payman: It’s been a wonderful conversation-
Prav: Thank you.
Payman: We’ve gone in lots of different directions. I know you must be busy, Sofina. You must be busy right now.
Sofina: I don’t even want to look at my inbox.
Payman: I’m really, really glad that you [crosstalk 01:27:16].
Sofina: But yeah, we’re good. All right, no problem.
Payman: Thank you so much.
Prav: Sofina, thanks so much for your time.
Sofina: No problems.
Prav: Really appreciate it.
Sofina: No, it’s been a pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed it actually. Absolutely.
Payman: And we should do this again.
Prav: For sure.
Payman: When the empire’s tripled.
Sofina: We’ll see. I might have just wound down instead, I might have gone a complete other direction and taken up that position as the … Yeah.
Payman: Somehow the-
Prav: Having sold everything and driving around in your Lamborghini.
Sofina: Yeah, going for coffees with my friends. I miss that life, I really do miss that life. It’s a good life, and what am I thinking?
Voiceover: This is Dental Leaders, the podcast where you get to go one-on-one with emerging leaders in dentistry. Your hosts, Payman Langroudi and Prav Solanki.
Prav: Thanks for listening, guys. If you got this far, you must’ve listened to the whole thing and just a huge thank you, both from me and Pay, for actually sticking through and listening to what we had to say and what our guest has had to say because I’m assuming you got some value out of it.
Payman: If you did get some value out of it, think about subscribing. And if you would share this with a friend who you think might get some value out of it too. Thank you so, so, so much for listening. Thanks.
Prav: And don’t forget our six star rating.