Jana Denzel speaks to Dr Amira Ogunleye about the importance of mentorship, struggles in her career, playing the balancing game as a career mum and practising dentistry in such a racially and politically divided climate.
Dr Amira Ogunleye is an award-winning cosmetic dentist, mentor, and women’s empowerment advocate. She is the co-owner of Beautiful Smiles, located in south Florida, USA.
She treats several celebrities and professional athletes from Lebron James, Gabrielle Union, and Dwyane Wade to singer Michelle Williams (formerly of girl group Destiny’s Child).
Please give us your background and how you got into dentistry
Amira Ogunleye: I was born in Egypt and I immigrated to America with my father who at the time was a single father travelling with three children. We came to America for a better life, which is a common thread to many immigrant stories.
I grew up in a very strict academic household. When you come from countries where the struggle is so immense and have the chance for a better life, education is really pushed. My father is a huge part of where my philosophy on work ethic and success comes from.
Pretty similar to a lot of cultures, my options were to be a doctor, dentist or an attorney. Those were the only options my father presented me.
When I was younger I had crooked teeth and it really played on my confidence. So when I got braces it really did make the world of difference. From this I went on to dental school. It wasn’t the dream I just luckily ended up loving it!
How was your university experience?
Amira Ogunleye: I went to Howard University, which is a historically black college.
It was really strict but it instills in you a sense of pride. Growing up as a woman of colour in America you are often taught that who you are isn’t enough.
So going to a school like Howard and why I wear it with such pride is because Howard brought me much closer to who I really am. It gave me so much confidence in myself as a woman. The school enabled me to walk into a room of whatever races, sexes, and let me just sit in my greatness.
That was something that wasn’t always easy for me (being an immigrant, woman of colour, different hair). Howard let me feel like it’s not only ok, but that is what makes me so great.
This is why I forever love Howard and why I scream it to the rooftops every chance I get!
What has been your favourite smile makeover to date?
Amira Ogunleye: A case where my patient was missing her lateral incisors and they were really against implants.
We decided to do two bridges. To make anterior bridges like the teeth are coming out of the gums is very difficult! However her before and after were really dramatic.
The patient has come back to the clinic for recalls and check ups. I can sense her whole energy, her vibe is much more positive and that for me is my favourite one.
How do you manage to fit being a mum, practising dentistry, mentoring and all else that you do in your time?
Amira Ogunleye: I prioritise, dividing things up and I do things with purpose. I really try my best to listen to my soul.
There are times that my soul tells me to rest for a minute. But I naturally have always had a high work ethic.
Mostly, when you do things with purpose, thats the difference. People get so exhausted physically and emotionally when there is no purpose. But when you have purpose behind what you’re doing, then that drives you and when you finish you are not tired.
What has been your biggest challenge of your career?
Amira Ogunleye: The biggest challenge in my career, was when I completed dental school and went to go on to purchase a practice!
I felt so welcomed and loved from my university, which was so diverse and uplifting and eager to get out into the working world. I researched well and looked into the clinic I bought – how many new patients do they see, how much do they make, etc.
However, I didn’t look at the demographic of the area – who lives around the practice, what age, what race etc.
A white male previously owned the practice. But here I go, really young and naive and purchase the practice. Once I took the leap I started rapidly losing patients and couldn’t understand why.
Then one day, the front desk got a phone call from someone asking if the dentist who purchased the practice is black. Then it hit me.
That day I walked out of the office and cried. I just cried. I know racism exists but to experience it like that, especially in the arena that I worked so hard to finally make it was tough.
To feel less what you are because of the colour of your skin was very hard for me to understand.
The hardest part for me was not even experiencing it, but telling myself how dare you allow that to affect you. Don’t you know how great you are? Don’t you know the skills you have? And don’t you know how compassionate you are to your patients and how much you care?
It took me time to build up this level of confidence again.
Now, anything that has ever made me feel marginalised or different or less than – those are the exact things that make me feel like this is why I’m a commodity, this is why I stand out!
I stop trying to squeeze in a seat at that table. I realised I have my own lane, which is so bright and so much to it. This took me some time to realise, and the experience was a very hard time for me.
What is the importance of having a mentor? Especially for young dentists who are in the early stages of their career?
Amira Ogunleye: What having a mentor does is it allows for someone who has been through everything you are experiencing to help you along the way. You don’t only learn from making mistakes, you have someone there who is guiding and encouraging you.
Having a mentor along the way can also act as a mirror. For example I am a mirror to a lot of young women that I mentor, showing them the possibilities.
It almost gives these young dentists the push to keep going. It’s hard there are a lot of challenges and things that happen in life.
I also think representation is important. If a young child can’t see themselves in a person, how can you aspire to be that?
So for me, if I can even encourage one girl to look at me and say: ‘Wow, if she was an immigrant from Egypt coming to America and can do it, then imagine what I can do’. If I can do it, others can certainly do it.
It’s very important to find individuals who love on you, who care about you. I know we are often in a world where everything feels so competitive. But my philosophy is that there is enough space for all of us to win.
I get asked a lot about my success, and I always felt that my success was not based on the amount of money in my bank account, high profile clients or number of amazing veneer cases. Success to me is – who did you impact? Who did you inspire? Who did you lift up on your way to the top?
To me, that is success. Thats what I want people to remember me for and why mentorship is so important to me.
So, for anyone who is grinding in their career, find someone who you can learn from and lean on and encourage you.
Last year showed us the struggles of being black in America and around the world are still very real. Talk to us about your experience with 2020 and what you’ve learned.
Amira Ogunleye: America fooled me when President Obama was in office. I thought our country might not be racist anymore, I never thought in my life I would see a black president.
But what I realised in 2020 is that not only is racism alive and well, but there were a lot of racist people who have been hiding it.
However, Trump allowed the space for very racist people to become comfortable speaking openly racist. He made it ok to speak hatefully, which isn’t what America is supposed to stand for.
Now, despite him not being in office anymore, there is an uphill fight against racism that will continue on.
Last year put a spotlight on it, which was eye opening. It was especially important for me to do my part and make this world a better place.
Kamala Harris is now the first ever woman (and of colour) vice president. Will this give hope to people of colour and women to see someone in such a high position?
Amira Ogunleye: Kamala Harris’s victory, the day it happened I cried tears. I looked at my little daughter and said: ‘You can be president one day’. That was emotional.
When you live in a country that makes brown and black people feel so beneath, less than and incapable – this victory means everything.
Now, it enables young girls all over the world to look at her and see themselves in her. They can think my vice president is a woman of colour, I could do that.
Who would you have as a dinner guest in the world, dead or alive?
Amira Ogunleye: It would be with my late brother Sheriff. He is a huge reason for my success today.
As an older brother, he often acted as a father figure and yet somehow still as a best friend. He was so insightful, so caring, so brilliant. Most importantly he instilled in me a spirit of always helping others. He never looked down on anyone. He never talked ill of anybody. The purest heart.
He passed away suddenly and unexpectedly and that was a very hard time in my life. I would give anything to have one last dinner with him…
I would like to tell him how much I’ve grown, how much his guidance helps me flourish and how I hope he is proud of the woman I have become. One last time to tell him how much I love him and to tell him thank you!
If you could create any law that everyone in the world has to follow what would it be?
Amira Ogunleye: I think that I would create a law based on requiring those fortunate people to give back.
I believe that no child in this world should go without food or shelter. Therefore, I would love to create a law that everyone who is blessed in life, they have to give back. This way no child would ever have to go hungry or without a roof over their head.
You can find more on Dr Amira Ogunleye on: