Dr. April Patterson, founder of Dr. Patty’s Dental Spa, recalls being one of just two Black women in dental school. Now, she’s elevating her own profile to be a role model to others. (Credit: Dr. Patty's Dental Spa)
Dr. April Patterson, founder of Dr. Patty’s Dental Spa, recalls being one of just two Black women in dental school. Now, she’s elevating her own profile to be a role model to others. (Credit: Dr. Patty’s Dental Spa)

Editor’s Note: This profile is part of a new series, “Her Perspective,” on the experiences of Black women business owners. 

Dr. April Patterson is used to standing out.

Her business certainly does, in the best of ways. Known professionally as “Dr. Patty,” Patterson is the founder of Dr. Patty’s Dental Spa, a Ft. Lauderdale, Florida dental practice that, since 2012, has offered clients a luxury experience for a task most of us dread.

She and her team of 5 full-time and 18 part-time employees treat roughly 2,500 patients a month, each seeking orthodontic and cosmetic services for their teeth. Or, they might just want a massage or facial — her spa offers those, too. Patterson’s unique approach to dentistry has garnered her scores of write-ups in area newspapers and magazines, as well as numerous television appearances, including on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

But as a rare Black woman business in the dental world, she’s also used to standing out in a way that feels isolating and hard to shake. “Whenever you’re the minority, you can’t help but notice that nobody looks like you,” she says.

[Related: 12 Black Women-Run Businesses That Have Inspired Us]

The Dental World’s Disparities

Patterson earned her Bachelor’s degree from Florida State University, then went to Michigan Dental School to complete her residency and earn her doctorate. The whole time, “in my dental classes of over 100 students, there were only two Black females.”

Her experience is representative of a broader reality — just 15.2 percent of applicants to dental schools are minorities, according to the American Dental Education Association. Compared with opportunities for white male graduates to succeed in the dental field, “there’s a disparity with minorities and women furthering their careers,” Patterson says.

Experts point to numerous reasons for the lack of diversity in dental schools, starting with the struggle many families of color face just to access quality K-12 education, let alone the means to pay for higher education for their children. (For more on this, read our related stories about how Black women entrepreneurs like Lisa Love and Angela McIver are trying to address inequities in education through their ventures.) About 85 percent of Black college graduates carry student debt upon undergraduate commencement, as opposed to 69 percent of their white fellow students, making it even more difficult to afford expensive dental graduate programs.

And little changes after dental school. “In general, we are a minority in the industry,” Patterson says. Indeed — just 4.3 percent of American dentists are Black, recent data shows.

In a bid to change that, Patterson says she’s “seeking out more diverse members of my team, including Black doctors.” She’s also actively communicating her identity to the world, in part so she can be a role model to others. She’s involved with several local nonprofits, including Women in Distress of Broward County, the Humane Society of Broward County and the Museum of Discovery and Science. And she mentors other women in the field, so that they feel “okay to talk about being a Black, successful dentist.”

“In the past, my role as a Black woman was muted because I didn’t know how the response would be,” Patterson admits — not actively hidden, but not trumpeted proudly either. (See our related story below about Black female founder Judi Henderson, and the need she felt to hide her identity when launching her business.)

[Related: As a Black Business Owner, She Hid Her Ethnicity. ‘It’s What I Felt I Needed to Do’]

But now, as the nation collectively watches the momentum of  Black Lives Matter and the growth of the “Buy Black” movements, “I’m proud of who I am,” Patterson says. “It feels more comfortable to be out and proud as a successful Black business owner.”

A Blessing and a Curse

When the coronavirus crisis struck in America, Patterson admits that it provided “a nice break to stop and spend time with my family at home — I was able to get a little refresher.”

But even while enjoying some quality time, she says it was also “scary as hell to close a business for over over a month and wonder how much of your savings you will end up spending.” Patterson continues, “The hardest part was being a support system to my team who I had to lay off and then rehire after we got the [Paycheck Protection Program] loan.”

[Related: Small Businesses Nervously Wait for ‘Dollars in Hand’]

With that cash infusion, she was able to reopen her doors in May — once the government gave her permission to do so, that is. Then it became about “finding the right supplies to ensure that we could open and keep our office safe.”

Still, opening up came with its own anxieties. “It’s so scary to not know what the future will hold, not knowing how clientele would respond.” So far, business has been steady, even while she limits the number of people allowed in her practice at a given time to maintain social distancing.

Navigating all of that while also coming into her own as a proud Black woman entrepreneur has been challenging. But she’s encouraged by ongoing demonstrations and the steps they are helping America take toward being a place where people are “treated equal, no matter what they look like.”

More in the “Her Perspective” series

Her PR Firm Has Succeeded By Amplifying Voices That Are ‘Ignored, Dismissed and Muted’
Dreena Whitfield launched WhitPR with a hyperfocus on Black-owned businesses, individuals and organizations.

A Nurse Launches a CBD Startup, Despite the Pandemic and Being a ‘Super-Minority’
Katrina Thompkins opened her e-commerce store, K’dara CBD, just as the coronavirus crisis was starting to take hold in the U.S.