Photo by G.E. Anderson, Maize House
Many of us dream about work so personally fulfilling that it provides more than a simple paycheck. Dr. Sabiha Bunek has created that for herself.
Passion in our chosen profession changes how we strive for our goals. For Sabiha, professional passion goes beyond her personal goals and extends into her industry. Throughout Sabiha’s story, we hear the reflections of a woman who is so dedicated that she’s transforming standards in dentistry. Read on to find out where such an infectious passion comes from, and how it also carried her through the pain of loss and struggle of rebirth.
My parents taught me at an early age that if you work hard, are honest, and always give 100%, you will be successful at whatever you do. I always knew the type of woman I wanted to be, but didn’t know until college that dentistry would be my platform.
While attending dental school at University of Michigan, I was invited to join a dental practice. Around the same time I joined, I started writing articles for a national dental journal called Dental Advisor. It’s like Consumer Reports for dental products, materials, and equipment. We have our own biomaterials research center on-site here in Ann Arbor.
I began to practice dentistry within this group and fed my curiosity for learning and education through my work at the journal. After nine years, I worked my way up to the CEO at Dental Advisor. My role as CEO is mainly focused on driving the future and growth of what we need as dentists to give the best care to our patients.
For me, the combination of research and clinical practice made dentistry come alive.
Innovations and advancements in the field bring so much more to patient care; as materials and techniques evolve, care improves. Being part of Dental Advisor, I am fortunate to provide research data and clinical insights on products even before they are introduced to the market.
The balancing act between group practice and the journal worked for many years, but as research inspired my personal approach to clinical dentistry, I knew I needed to transition to solo practice. Twelve years later, in 2018, I got started with a small team at Bunek Dental Studio.
Over time, the work I did in my own practice and at Dental Advisor allowed me the opportunity to become an opinion leader for dental manufacturers. They would bring me into their factories and offices and say, “Look at all our materials and products; what do we need to do to make them better, what do our dentists need to provide better care for patients, how can we stay competitive?” It has been an honor and a privilege to serve our industry in this way.
I am not compensated by manufacturers—that means I’m able to provide an unbiased opinion of the best products and techniques on the market. I do this through lecturing to other dentists, writing articles, and being an opinion leader for dental manufacturers. I practice what I preach, so you will find my office filled with the best technologies and materials, allowing my practice to be on the cutting edge of dentistry.
Sometimes people ask me, “How do you run a family, dental practice, and a journal?” The truth is, I’m super busy, and there is no way I could do this alone. I have an amazingly supportive husband, Julius, who happens to be a periodontist at Michigan Implants & Periodontics in Ann Arbor. He supports my career and crazy ideas in every way. I also have two of the best teams in town at Bunek Dental Studio and Dental Advisor, who have become an extension of my family.
My first business, my first believer
It all started when I was nine years old and my dad bought me pet rabbits. Little did we know the rabbits would breed and I would turn them into a business. I couldn’t keep all the rabbits and wanted others to be as happy as I was, so I brought them back to the pet store. Both my dad and I were surprised when they paid me for the rabbits.
My dad and I would take the baby bunnies to the pet store three to four times each year and sell them back. He sat down with me and put together a business plan. This might be funny to others who don’t know my dad, but everything to him was an opportunity for a learning experience, even for a nine-year-old.
He wrote down the initial costs of the rabbits and their cages and food, and then we figured in the yearly costs. We figured out that with four litters of six per year, we would break even after only one year. This turned out to be one of my favorite bonding and learning experiences with my dad.
But the opportunity to create a learning experience didn’t stop there. My dad had me do research on local charities, and we picked one each year to donate the proceeds. It wasn’t a lot of money, but I remember it meaning so much to me and my dad. I didn’t realize until I was an adult how many hours my dad put into my small business and the valuable life lessons he was sneaking into each learning opportunity. I laugh now when I think about it. It just highlights the importance of surrounding yourself with good people from the start.
I lost my father in my mid-thirties to a hit-and-run accident. That was probably one of the toughest times of my life. He was everything to me. It’s because of him and my mom that I am the woman I am today.
As a girl, when I’d ask him “Dad, how much longer?” the kind of answer he’d give was typically something like “Well, Sabiha, there are ten pieces in a pie and we’ve used up six of those pieces in thirty minutes. You tell me how much longer.” Or if I’d ask “Dad, should I turn left or right at the exit?” he’d say, “Well, Sabiha, you’re heading east on I-94 and you need to head south, so you tell me which direction you should turn.” I’m pretty certain that I was one of the few children who went to amusement parks growing up and learned what g-force is at the age of five. I ended up having a very analytical mind as a result.
My dad was the eldest son of a high court judge in Mumbai, India. He became an engineer and married my mother. In the late ‘60s, there was a shortage of engineers in the US. He hadn’t planned to immigrate, but he was heavily recruited and he made the decision to move. At the time, he worked for a company called Phillips and ultimately settled in Ann Arbor working for a company called Bechtel in the 777 building on State Street. One of the motivating factors to move to Ann Arbor was because he loved the math system used in the public schools.
I was the youngest of three and by the time I was born, he was slowing down from previously working a lot. We would spend weekends at Gallup Park, the museums, the petting farm, you name it. If he didn’t know how to do something, he was never afraid to ask. I’ll never forget it—he took me bowling one time and he didn’t know how to bowl. So he asked the guy next to us, “Excuse me, would you mind showing my daughter a couple of moves?” To this day, I use what I learned that day.
He was a beautiful person and always committed to our education. He especially made sure I did well in math and science. In our family, work ethic was always important, in addition to treating people right. He was frugal at home but very giving. It really showed at his memorial how many people came and said he touched their lives; we never knew much about that, he never talked about it.
When I lost him, it was challenging. I was married, working, and had a daughter who was two at the time. I really had to push through a lot of emotions to make it through. I pulled up as much inner strength as I could to meet the challenge. It was tough, but as a family, we worked through it.
On overcoming bullying to build a team
When I look back so far on my life, one of the things I’m most proud of is standing up for what is right, even when it was a hard thing to do. I’m a strong believer in women supporting women, but that doesn’t always happen. People can have jealous and competitive personalities. I was bullied late in my career by a colleague, but my husband, family, and close friends were all aware of my situation and encouraged me to advocate for myself and to do what was right. I knew with their support I could do something about it. I stood up for myself and what I believed, maintained integrity, and through great adversity came out on top. As of now, there is no better moment I can think of than my nine-year-old telling me, “I’m proud of you, Mom!”
My mom had a saying when we were kids: “A flower never thinks to compete with the flowers next to it. It just blooms.” I didn’t really understand what she was saying until later in life and I experienced bullying first-hand. From experience, bullies can be troublesome to others, but are a true detriment to themselves. My advice to those who experience a bully later in life is to stay focused on your path and your vision. Don’t let someone else’s negativity slow you down; keep moving ahead, and grow.
Eventually, I used the experience as a springboard for my practice. My inner commitment to do the right thing attracted the right team and created a business that makes a difference in the community.
The guiding principles of my dental practice
I love the space we’ve built. Being right across the street from the University of Michigan’s football stadium has been a treat. The space is open and bright, with a fantastic view of The Big House. The light-filled design allows the office to always have a sense of comfort and optimism. I wanted a space that allowed movement and flow but didn’t allow everyone to hear every syllable of every conversation. Our space achieves that.
Everything here is the best of the best, chosen meticulously based on sound research, largely contributed by Dental Advisor. The field of dentistry has changed in recent years, with a heavy emphasis put on growing the size and profitability of a practice. This often results in a turn toward quantity and away from quality. I did not want to be a part of this shift in dentistry, as my vision involves personalized care and making sure my patients have the best service and products available.
At Bunek Dental Studio, we don’t cut corners. I don’t use knockoff products from China. Our sterilization protocols surpass industry standards. I don’t take payments from the manufacturers I speak with.
My motto has been ”Dentistry Done Differently” from the start. I didn’t think that improving dentistry was enough. When late 19th-century inventors decided they wanted a better light source, they didn’t improve on the candle or oil lamp—they invented a better and completely different light source, the light bulb.
As a patient of Bunek Dental Studio, you aren’t just a number when you’re in our office;
you are a guest. It’s my commitment that our patients leave wondering, “Why
haven’t I ever experienced something like this before?”
I’m also a strong believer in nurturing and growing my team and including them in something larger than just working in a dental office. I want them all to feel and believe they’re doing something more important—that they’re not just employees, that they are a part of a team that improves people’s lives. It is impossible to get this level of accountability, motivation, and enthusiasm if you’re alone or just providing average dentistry or focusing on profit. Dentistry for me has never been about the money; it has always been about change. I’ve used my success in dentistry as a platform to play an even larger role as an advocate for improved dental care. More than anything, I’m excited to see where the field grows from here.
Sabiha won’t tell you, but her hard work and accomplishments in dentistry have not gone unrecognized. Just to name a few accolades, she has been honored as one of the top ten young educators in the U.S, and one of the top 25 women in dentistry; was presented the Distinguished Service award in Dentistry; was one of Incisal Edge’s 40 Under 40 in 2013; and in 2018, she was honored nationally at the Lucy Hobbs ceremony in California with the Clinical Expertise in Dentistry Award. Most recently, she was voted in as a member of the oldest and most prestigious academy in dentistry, the American Academy of Esthetic Dentistry, which promotes the integration of dental aesthetics into the total spectrum of oral healthcare.
It’s clear within Sabiha’s story how important passion and integrity are, and how they guide every decision for her practice. It’s also exciting to see her commitment to learning and its real-world application. Her work is impacting hundreds of lives within her practice, and thousands by ripple effect within her field. We’re excited to see where such a bright career will go next. Congrats Dr. Bunek!