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Leaders Needed

This story originally appeared in our June 2011 issue.

By Priti Patel, OD

When I was in optometry school at NOVA Southeastern, doing my residency at Pennsylvania College of Optometry, or even in my first professional position at a busy multidisciplinary practice in Delaware, I had no idea that my career arc would lead me to a leadership position in corporate optometry. I didn’t know it existed as an option.

But after 18 months of practicing, I was offered a position as director of professional affairs at Walmart Stores, Inc. There I oversaw the relationship with more than 3,000 optometrists across the U.S. That role taught me so much about the business of
optometry. I saw connections and correlations in how we as ODs can help our patients, not only through the eye exams we perform, but through the business side. I learned different facets of the optical industry, from merchandising to operations, as well as understanding the supply chain and how eyewear products ultimately are distributed to the consumer.

Last year, I moved to California to become the vice president of operations and professional affairs at Firstsight Vision, a California-based vision care plan and subsidiary of National Vision, Inc. As such, I interact with all the offices in our plan, analyzing profit and loss statements, reviewing operations and performance, and assist with setting standards, processes and marketing. My goal
is to make different business initiatives operate smoothly and effectively. That includes helping the clinics to run more efficiently and provide quality care for patients.

It’s an interesting mix of the clinical and the business perspectives, but an essential one. The greater the business success, the more that business can invest. That’s true of large organizations, and it’s true of small practices.

The perspective I’ve gained in my relatively short seven-year career is one that isn’t generally taught. I sought it out on my own years ago. Now new graduates come to me, wondering if they can and should pursue a similar business-oriented career path.

I’m happy to mentor them, as mentors have played a significant role in my career. No matter what you want to do with your career,
look for someone who has been in a similar position or has a skill set you strive for. Perhaps you’re trying to achieve some time to be with your children or you’re looking to work only a few days a week. Your mentor doesn’t have to be an optometrist. Within or outside of
your profession are people who have worked through some of the issues you may be working through now.

I hope some of the women ODs whom I’ve met will choose to follow me—or even take over my role some day. Not right now, though. I still have more to do! But larger and smaller corporations could use more women leaders. The profession of optometry is
evolving. There are an increasing number of women ODs and Asian ODs. The face of optometry is beginning to resemble the face of the community more.

However, the leadership positions in corporate optometry and organized optometry don’t reflect quite that level of diversity yet. It will come, and those days may arrive more rapidly now as more women have arrived at higher levels of leadership. The American Optometric Association welcomes its first woman president this month—and it is likely that others will follow in the not-too-distant future.

Best of all, women can step into those leadership positions without compromise. Elected or appointed, today’s women leaders are in the role because they deserve to be. They have the credentials, experience and enthusiasm to do what’s needed. They have a proven performance record, a circle of mentors and trusted advisors who have encouraged them and a commitment to the profession and patients they serve. They weren’t chosen because they were women but because their skills filled a need. That’s the kind of equality and leadership an evolving profession needs.

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