Female leaders are still under-represented in many fields, and dentistry is no exception. This situation inspired Dental Tribune International (DTI) to choose Eva-Maria Meijnen, co-CEO of a growing clear aligner business based in Berlin in Germany, as the fourth candidate for its series highlighting exciting career paths of women in the dental field. In conversation with DTI, she spoke about what drives her professionally, how diversity can benefit a business, the importance of celebrating women’s achievements more and future endeavours for her company.
Ms Meijnen, could you please tell us about your professional background? What did you do before you became co-CEO at PlusDental?
I have always had a passion for technology and innovation—wanting to understand in detail how things work and how I can help make them work even better. This has been reflected in my academic and professional choices. I have a degree in industrial engineering from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. After graduating, I began my professional career at Siemens introducing new manufacturing and supply chain concepts following the lean management approach. I absolutely loved its rather simple but important core principle: always put the customer in the centre and optimise holistically, not at the cost of one party but rather creating a win–win situation. After two years, I joined Porsche Consulting, the expert consultancy on lean management, as a senior consultant in order to gain more experience in different companies and industries. In 2009, I joined engine manufacturer MTU, where I first set up an internal consultancy and then held various management positions.
What sparked your interest in PlusDental?
I believe that technology and digitisation hold immense potential for the healthcare sector in general and for the dental sector in particular—the potential to offer modern and improved treatments at reduced costs to more patients. It was this purpose that I found irresistible and that made me end my corporate career and join a nine-month-old start-up.
I first came across the invisible aligner product through a friend who had returned from working in the US. I immediately noticed that something was different about her. Her demeanour had changed completely; she seemed to have much greater self-confidence and a new charisma. She told me that she had undergone an aligner treatment in the US and that she had felt much more comfortable in her skin ever since. Two things in particular struck me. Firstly, the fact that something as small and barely visible as an aligner can have such an enormous impact on one’s life and, secondly, that this fantastic product was hardly known in Germany and was affordable for even fewer people.
Weeks later, I met Lukas Brosseder, a good friend of mine and a serial entrepreneur. He told me about this new company he was going to found, a company that had the vision to bring the invisible aligner product and a new digital treatment concept to Germany. So, it’s probably no surprise that I wanted to be part of this journey.
You share the leadership position with two other colleagues. What is your specific area of responsibilities within the company?
We are all co-CEOs and, whereas each one of us has his or her own field of responsibility, we take all important and strategic decisions together.
I am responsible for our medical team, our operations, finance, customer relations, sales and human resources. One milestone of which I am particularly proud is the setting up of our own production of aligners and retainers in our Berlin dental laboratory. From our treatment plans to our products, everything is 100% made in Germany.
I care about creating a company that shapes the future of dentistry
You are aiming to reach unicorn status for PlusDental this year, which would make you the first woman in Germany to co-lead a company with such a status. Please tell us more about this endeavour. What drives you?
Change is amazing—this is exactly what drives me personally and PlusDental as a company. Our goal is not only to digitise and modernise dentistry, but also, and above all, to democratise it. We want more people to have access to innovative and affordable dentistry that meets the highest medical standards. I’m really passionate about empowering people to change the things that they are not happy with.
I don’t personally care about the evaluation of my company and even less about unicorn status. I care about creating a company that shapes the future of dentistry. A relevant and large company that has the scale to make a significant difference.
You have been accused of exploiting your role as a female leader for PR purposes. How did you respond to that and how can we move towards a culture where women’s achievements are celebrated more?
Contrary to a LinkedIn comment accusing my leadership claim of being femwashing, I was promoted to the position of co-CEO purely on the basis of my hard work and the results I delivered. Instead of discussing semantics, it is vital to focus on the really important issues, such as supporting as well as empowering more women on their professional journeys.
Fifty percent of the population is female; however, we are heavily under-represented in all areas where important decisions are made and our future is shaped. I believe it is time to change that. We should celebrate every woman who makes it to the top and make sure that many others will follow in the same path.
How do you evaluate the importance of role models?
Role models are both an important source of inspiration and proof of what’s possible. I think it’s very important to have role models that speak to you in different areas of life. It can be someone from your immediate environment, a scientist, an entrepreneur or a fictional character from a book, show or movie. Role models can inspire and empower girls and young women greatly by showing them that the sky’s the limit.
In your opinion, how can gender equality benefit a company or other structures?
I believe that diversity in any form is beneficial for a company. When different backgrounds and perspectives come together, it automatically forces you to look at things from a different point of view and to step outside your comfort zone. This is the best foundation for being truly creative and successful, as in this way you gain new insights and are much more willing to challenge the status quo. Also, you are much less prone to strict group thinking. I have noticed this in my own teams as the best ideas have come from diverse teams.
In addition, there’s another interesting and noticeable side effect. A company that’s genuinely diverse has a strong pull effect as it automatically attracts diverse employees, making it a key factor in the competition for the best talents. Great business ideas can be duplicated to a certain extent, but great teams cannot.
I am proud that we have such a diverse team composed of members coming from more than 50 different nations. Fifty percent of our employees are female, and this is true at all leadership levels.
The future is digital, and I want women not only to participate in the future but also to actively shape it
Based on your own experiences, what do we need to change in society in order to enable more women to reach the top?
It is never just one thing when it comes to changing society. A key aspect for me is education. Already as children we often encounter outdated stereotypes like “technology and maths are only for boys”. Let’s inspire and motivate all children alike to try out new things without any limitations. My parents have always encouraged me and taught me to remain curious, open-minded and brave. They brought me up having the awareness that everything is possible. The future is digital, and I want women not only to participate in the future but also to actively shape it. To this end, they need to believe and be confident that they can do anything they set their minds on.
I also believe that schools play a decisive role. Young girls should be given the chance to try out different things from an early age, and we should use formats that go beyond the classic way of teaching subjects such as maths. Technology-related subjects such as coding, machine learning and environmental technology should be included more often into the regular school schedule. Coding, for instance, is easy to learn, and it fosters analytical thinking in a manner that is playful and low threshold.
In addition to encouraging new approaches in school education, it’s very important to promote entrepreneurship in general and inspire young women to help shape the technology scene and the digital future within their own companies. This is the case with “Makers of Tomorrow”, an initiative of the German Chancellery to encourage and inspire university students to start their own businesses. It’s in an online course format and consists of ten master classes given by different start-up CEOs and their founders. I’m very proud to be part of this project by providing a master class.
Besides education, I have seen many talented women in my generation stepping down when they started a family. They took over the majority of family and care work and reduced their working hours for years, even after their parental leave was over. It is, of course, each person’s personal decision how to combine career and family planning. My husband and I decided that we will share everything 50/50. We both continued working full-time and took care of our home and family together. I would not have been able to follow my career plans without equally sharing all responsibilities with my husband. From my experience, this set-up is still an exception.
What are your ideas and plans for PlusDental and the oral healthcare sector in the future?
The focus for us remains on further digitising high-quality dentistry and making it accessible to even more people. Accordingly, we want to continue to constantly improve our processes without compromising accuracy and quality. We are also considering expanding our current medical services to include new dental areas such as more advanced aligner treatments and adding new products to our portfolio such as whitening, prophylaxis and artificial dentition. Furthermore, we want to strengthen our presence in our current markets and also internationally. No matter where we are, we want to offer modern dentistry that people can afford.