I believe that everyone needs a mentor. It's not always easy to find your feet in the working world straight out of university
Becoming a dentist was never her plan, but Sheryl Smithies has proved that just because your life doesn't go exactly to plan, it doesn't mean you can't make a success of it. Sheryl overcame her disappointment when she didn't get into medical school, and found a new path. She grabbed her opportunities, found a mentor to guide in her early career, and once she'd earned the experience she needed, launched her own dental practice. She's grown the business to three chairs, and gained a reputation for cutting-edge technology that helps clients look and feel their best.
Sheryl had always planned to study medicine and it was huge blow when she wasn't accepted into medical school. Distraught and confused about her next move, she took the advice of a family friend who suggested she submit a late application for dentistry. He pointed out that sometimes students who were accepted, decide not to take up their offer. So at the last minute, Sheryl was offered a place at the University of Pretoria and grabbed it with both hands. "Originally I planned to try for a transfer to medicine after my first year, but once I was in dentistry, I realised I loved it."
Describing herself as blessed in many ways, Sheryl notes that while many parents still prioritised education for boys, hers were 100% behind her - and were both willing and able to support her through university. "Dental school is a challenge for anyone," she says, "it's not just the academics, but the other challenges like limited access to dental labs and conflicting schedules." Sheryl remembers that some of her classmates had other responsibilities too, like jobs and children, while she was lucky to be able to focus all her energies on her studies. "I take my hat off to them," she says. "Not that everything was handed to me on plate," she points out. "I was always made aware that it was up to me to work for what I wanted, but it was certainly easier for me since I didn't have to worry about holding down a job while I studied."
Skills and ethics are a sound basis for success
Straight out of university, she joined a dental practice where she slotted straight in. "I believe that everyone needs a mentor. It's not always easy to find your feet in the working world straight out of university and I was lucky enough to find a boss and mentor who had strong ethics as well as great dental skills. I learnt so much from him and it was a great foundation for opening my own practice."
Sheryl launched the Smile Emporium, eight years ago. "This was my dream, and I can't believe it's been eight years. It has gone in a blink. They say you need 10 000 hours before you're really proficient at what you do," she laughs. "I have more than 20 000 now, so I'm confident in my skills." Sheryl has a particular interest in aesthetics. Her number one focus is cosmetic dentistry which includes teeth alignment, whitening and digital smile design, and dental rehabilitation such as crowns, bridges and implants. But while she was perfecting her dental skills, Sheryl also studied some aesthetic medicine and offers non-invasive facial aesthetic treatments too.
"It's makes perfect sense," says Sheryl. "No one knows facial structure quite like a dentist, and whether it's peels, Botox, fillers, thread-lifts or micro-needling, we have a sound foundation in the science behind every treatment we offer." Sheryl is continually inspired by businesswomen around her. "I belong to a networking group and I've met some amazing women. Some of them have really had to fight a lot harder to forge their path. I've worked really hard too, but perhaps I've had it easier by comparison. Just being part of a profession is a big help in earning respect."
A firm believer that women don't have to take a different approach to business, Sheryl suggests that they just do. "Women tend to lead from the heart. We want to build people up and support them, especially other women, and not just use them to reach our goals or climb the ladder."
Sheryl is justifiably proud of her achievements, her practice, and the quality of their work. And she confesses she's driven and a bit of a workaholic. "I struggle to find a work-life balance, and that's something I still aspire to," she says. "But growing a business is hugely demanding."
Looking to the future
Pointing out that dental technology is making enormous strides, Sheryl hopes to use this to make a greater contribution in community outreach. "If you have dental problems, the government will take out problem teeth - but that's as far as the help goes. You won't get dentures." It's not easy to do dental work in the communities as there's a host of essential dental equipment that simply isn't transportable. But Sheryl is looking forward to harnessing new technology as soon as it's within reach. "With 3D scanning and 3D milling, we'll be able to measure, manufacture and fit dentures while patients wait. And we're nearly there."
Looking back, Sheryl says that if she had to give herself one piece of advice it would be clear: "Don't be so easily led. Trust in yourself and your own judgment too."
Becoming a dentist was never her plan, but Sheryl Smithies has proved that just because your life doesn't go exactly to plan, it doesn't mean you can't make a success of it