At 33, Jennifer Chambers never expected to be among the senior leadership team of the regional multimillion-dollar complete dentistry provider My Dentist, so soon after graduating from the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry. Then again, she didn't expect the swift and premature death of its company founder, Pat Steffen, either.
Her Uncle Pat, who Chambers and most everyone simply called “Steffen,” died in late August, only two months after being diagnosed with cancer. He was 60.
Chambers said she was among the first family members Steffen told of his illness, and among those at his bedside when he died.
“I and my younger brother are like the children he never had,” she said.
Chambers doubled as his protege and planned successor, joining his five-state My Dentist provider team upon her 2005 graduation. When she stepped into the job of chief dental officer last fall, she wasn't completely new to administration. She'd served as a new doctor advocate and helped the company open seven new offices including in Shawnee, where she and her husband lived and practiced before moving back to Oklahoma City to assume her new responsibilities. Those include continuing education, practice management and clinical assistance to doctors areawide.
Founded in 1983, My Dentist has 46 locations throughout Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Texas.
The company, which has about $65 million in annual revenues, employs about 800, including nearly 100 dentists. Some offices have specialists in orthodontics, oral surgery and dental prosthetics, according to the company website.
Chambers sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about her personal and professional life. This is an edited transcript:
Q. What's your nationality/heritage?
A. I'm asked that a lot. People guess Native American, Hawaiian, Japanese or part-black. My father is 100 percent German and mother, 100 percent Korean. So I joke that I'm Gerean. My dad served as a translator for the Army for four years after the Korean War in Seoul, Korea, where he met and dated my mom. Upon his departure, he left her a one-way ticket to join him in California. She did and they married in March 1978. I didn't meet my grandmother until 17 years later, when I was 16. My mom's family disowned her because she married an American soldier. But my mom and grandmother's relationship was restored upon the death of my great-grandmother. My grandmother now visits here every six months.
Q. Do you speak Korean?
A. Not much today, but when I started prekindergarten, I wouldn't speak any English. So my parents switched to speaking English only at home. My mom became an American citizen when I was in fourth grade. I helped her study for the exam.
Q. Tell me about your dad's side of the family. It sounds like they're tight.
A. They are. My dad is one of nine kids, whose mother died when they were ages 2 to 17; Dad was 12 and Steffen, 13. His widowed father couldn't handle parenting them all, so the kids were split up among various relatives. My Uncle Pat, Dad and their sister closest in age were raised by the same aunt and uncle in Crofton, Neb., so those three remained particularly close, though they all are. Steffen was stationed at Tinker as a dentist in the Air Force. When he opened his private practice, he convinced my dad to move from outside Boise, Idaho, where I was born, here to be his accountant.
Q. When did you decide to become a dentist?
A. Around age 16. I was working as an assistant to the assistant in my uncle's practice and there was a cute little Asian lady who cried during the procedure to restore her whole mouth. The next day — so happy to smile and chew again — she showed up with a plate full of egg rolls as a thank-you. I'd been working with my uncle since the summer of my 13th birthday. I started out sterilizing instruments and moved to answering phones, filing charts, scheduling appointments, working in the lab and assisting aides.
Q. Your husband, also a dentist, joined your company six years ago. How'd you meet?
A. We met after my sophomore year in college in an eight-week Kaplan course to study for the dental school admission test, but didn't start dating until two years later. He sat behind me in the course and, honestly, I didn't notice the guy. He tapped me on the shoulder one day and asked about joining the pre-dental association at OU. I was the club's president. I later learned he was trying to ask me out, but then I took him at face value and gave him the Web page. Two years later, I — not long after breaking up with a long-term boyfriend — met him again at a college party where he was set up with a friend of mine. She wasn't into him. I was.
Q. What do you like best about your work?
A. I love the tedious precision involved in a root canal or blank slate of a full-mouth rehab. We put crowns and veneers on a woman who for years put others, and other things, first and neglected her teeth, which had broken down and deteriorated. ... Treatment gives many patients a newfound self-confidence that has helped some land promotions; others find boyfriends.