Small business pioneer encourages women to pursue their dream careers
As the first woman to open a dental office in Tempe, Dr. Nancy Robinson knows what it’s like to be a pioneer in her field. When she launched her practice 30 years ago, she was one of only a few female dentists practicing in the Valley. Now, she mentors and encourages women striving to achieve their career goals.
“Girls can do anything they want to do in life. It’s a different time than when I grew up, but I try to encourage girls and young women who I come across to prepare themselves with education so they can support themselves and their kids,” says the 63-year-old mother of two. “I’ve had a few female patients go on to become physicians, so I know I really impacted the direction they took.”
Growing up in Tempe, Robinson always dreamed of being in dentistry. In middle school, she was determined to become a dental hygienist. After high school, she applied to Phoenix College and upon speaking with the dean of admission, discovered that with the right amount of education, she could become a dentist.
“I asked myself why should I go to dental school for two years to clean teeth when I could go for four years and be the boss?” she says.
Robinson enrolled in a program at the Washington University School of Dental Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. She graduated and moved to Champaign, Illinois, where she practiced dentistry for three years and found few women were in the field of dentistry.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, I would go to meetings and male dentists assumed I was a hygienist because, at that point in time, there were just so few women,” Robinson recalls. “Now, there’s a huge percentage of women getting out of dental school, close to 40 to 50 percent.”
These days, Robinson has five full-time employees and a successful business that is well-established in the community. Looking back to when she launched her career, she says she had to start small. But through perseverance and the right business strategy, she grew her practice to what it is today.
“When I opened my own practice, it was a little scary because I had borrowed $50,000 and I spent $30,000 of it buying equipment. I took pictures off of my wall at home and my mom and I painted the whole office. It was on a shoestring,” Robinson says. “I started out really small just working out of two rooms with my mom as my receptionist.”
Despite her high level of education and years of taking care of patients, Robinson remembers how she felt when she first walked into a bank to discuss loan options.
“I was really nervous and self-doubting about going into a bank and talking about different loans and forms of assistance that I could get because I didn’t have any confidence about my financial savvy,” she says.
Fortunately, she received the guidance she needed to get started and now encourages women to feel financially empowered.
“I tell women, ‘Don’t underestimate yourself financially. Have the guts to walk into a bank—even if you feel like you don’t have anything—and talk to them about your options. There are so many financial products in the ways of small business loans you can get when you’re starting a business or are in the middle of it and need to regroup.”
For Erin Mendenhall, growing up with Robinson as her older sister and mentor significantly boosted her confidence level when it came to pursuing her career goals. A member of the Salt Lake City Council, she cites Robinson’s guidance over the years as a major factor in her career success.
“Nancy is the person in our family who showed me I can go get whatever I want to do in this world and make it happen,” says the mother of two. “She knows how to make things happen. For a woman starting a business on her own, she forged out into a man’s world and made a life that is beautiful and purposeful.”
Mendenhall especially appreciates Robinson’s honesty when offering guidance over the years.
“There’s something really valuable about someone you look up to who’s willing to speak truth to the choices you make in your life and the things you consider,” Mendenhall says. “Someone in a role model position might not want to jeopardize their image to people they mentor by challenging them, but Nancy has never been afraid to be honest.”
Having recently been re-elected as a council member in her city, Mendenhall is proud to have Robinson as her sister and role model.
“I grew up watching Nancy build a business and succeed, provide for her family, and have a community support her,” Mendenhall says. “She is built into the core of how I see a woman’s ability to take on the world.”
Story by Leigh Farr
Photography by Mark Lipczynski