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Dr Cigdem Kipel was born with fire in her belly. But having reached the heights of her profession, she has now turned her sights on the non-clinical side of dentistry in the hope others can benefit from all she has learnt. By Tracey Porter
Dr Cigdem Kipel is used to a certain level of irritation.
Born in Malatya, a small town in central Turkey that is famous for its apricots, her daily discomfort begins with the correct pronunciation of the name given to her at birth.
“The name Cigdem is a pain. It’s common in Turkey but tricky in English—it’s actually spelled Çiğdem with Turkish characters, giving it the pronunciation Chi-dem.”
She was just six years old when her parents landed on Australian shores determined to build a better life for themselves as well as their two children.
With just two suitcases of belongings in tow, the Kipels landed in the Sydney suburb of Lane Cove where Dr Kipel soon discovered her new home was in a suburb with very few other migrants.
It proved just another hurdle for the idealistic pre-teen to conquer.
“Being the first-born child of immigrant parents, I always had a high sense of responsibility; to translate for my parents, help them with their day-to-day affairs [and] to look after my younger brother. We lived in a tiny unit and received donated books, clothes and toys from the Salvation Army. I knew I had further to climb with fewer advantages but I was determined. I wanted the successful life they dreamed of for me,” she says.
Dr Kipel set her sights on a career in dentistry early after being inspired both by her mother’s work as a midwife and by a female prosthodontist treating her TMD as a teenager.
Graduating from the School of Dentistry at Griffith University in 2009 with numerous awards, including the University Award for Academic Excellence in consecutive years; she was later named principal dentist at North Sydney Dental Practice, a seven-surgery strong facility.
Today, in addition to her clinical work her resume includes the roles of podcast host and business consultant, together with founder and CEO of a burgeoning tech start-up.
What fuels her drive
Dr Kipel says detail-oriented tasks have always held a form of fascination for her.
Yet while she considers herself fortunate to have landed a great first job soon after graduating with the highest GPA of her bachelor’s degree, her early years in the field proved tougher than she expected.
“I loved dentistry, but the first few years were hard. Even though I’d won top university awards, I felt like I didn’t really know anything (and I was right). I also felt that patients could sense my inexperience (I was right about that too). But thinking back, it was completely natural to feel that way because quite simply, we all graduate with a fraction of the skill, knowledge and experience to perform dentistry competently and confidently. We have no choice but to endure that temporary period of inadequacy while trying to outgrow it through rapid learning.”
To help grow her experience clinically, she strove for professional self-improvement, undertaking numerous training courses in implantology, digital CAD-CAM technology, orthodontic clear aligner therapy and aesthetic dentistry.
While her learning curve proved extraordinarily steep, Dr Kipel says she adjusted to her new environment by seeking out mentors and “wearing them down until they let me spend time in their practice”.
Eventually she discovered the non-clinical side of dentistry was where her real passion lay.
“It started with communication, then quickly led to leadership, management, business, marketing, operations, systems and growth. Books, seminars, workshops and private coaching—I did it all.”
Her position as principal dentist gave her the ideal opportunity to exercise her leadership and management skills. While it was a corporate practice, she and her team were given full autonomy to independently manage the business. Putting into action all she had learnt, Dr Kipel helped expand the business from two chairs to seven chairs, in the process expanding its core staff from one to 25.
However, with success came new challenges, particularly when it came to the issues of maintaining growth and success at scale, she says.
“More people equals more problems. I didn’t always get it right. Over the years I mismanaged situations and people but learned quickly from my mistakes and had the support and buy-in from my team.”
The turning point
Over time Dr Kipel became obsessed with helping to grow the business. However, she felt any opportunity to expand the brand was being stymied by out-of-date technology, which offered little in the way of accountability and only limited options in the event the business scaled.
Eventually she began speaking openly about her challenges with her partner Shaun, a talented software engineer.
Together the pair identified that while courses, books and coaching seminars taught dental professionals what things they should be doing, they neglected to teach practice owners how this knowledge could be applied at a practical level.
Having already recognised the importance of human-centred design and the impact of artificial intelligence in emerging technologies, Dr Kipel felt strongly that technology had a massive role to play in “unlocking greater case acceptance, utilising more of the dental team in a patient’s treatment journey and generating opportunities to provide convenience and ‘wow-factors’” to the patient at each step.
“We’re already used to cloud-based technology enhancing every aspect of our lives. The way we connect, consume, commute, pay and share has never been so optimised… but our dental practice management software has been left behind.”
It was then the pair recognised they were perfectly positioned to start a software company to resolve these issues.
“We set up shop in our spare bedrooms and got to work,” she says.
The way forward
In 2017 the pair launched a practice management software product called Principle and a second practice systemisation software product called Level-Up.
The former offers its users seamless interconnectivity between patients, appointments, staff, tasks, notes, meetings and labs while the latter works as an online platform that allows clinics to build their own training manual or library of systems and training content.
Both products have been designed to resemble a social media platform with notifications, hashtags and @mentions to help ensure their interfaces can be used intuitively.
For the first few years Dr Kipel juggled working in North Sydney fulltime during the day with her role as CEO and founder of the start-up at night and on the weekends. This continued until late 2021 when her contract ended and she opted to go fulltime with the new business.
In the year ahead, she also intends setting up a brand new practice in cosmetic dentistry where she hopes to practise what she preaches about combining clinical, technology, leadership, management and business acumen to reach her full potential.
In reflecting on the best part of her professional pivot, Dr Kipel is adamant that her greatest satisfaction has come from being forced out of her comfort zone.
While it has proved equal parts stimulating and challenging, she has also found since launching the start-up that she finally feels like she is achieving the professional balance she has long been searching for.
“I absolutely love teaching and sharing what I’ve learned—and equally I love learning,” she says.
“I’m now one of the hosts of the Dental Head Start podcast and am frequently invited to speak in various platforms on a number of subjects both clinical and non-clinical. I frequently have dentists observe my practice and am honoured to contribute to their growth in any way.
“My approach is always practical and I never claim to know it all—but I am dedicated to figuring it out.”