24/12/2015 06:01 GMT | Updated 24/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Women in Business Q&A: Lucia Smigel, President and CEO, Supersmile

Lucia Smigel is the President and CEO of Supersmile.

Her husband, Dr. Irwin Smigel, whose achievements in aesthetic dentistry have been documented in a permanent exhibit unveiled by the National Museum of Dentistry, created the first whitening toothpaste to brighten the smiles of his first generation bonding patients in the mid 1980's. With his patients in mind, Dr. Smigel created the toothpaste as a small gift to keep their smiles white, strong, and healthy between visits. Originally retailing out of Dr. Smigel's Madison Avenue office, patients were lining up three-deep to get some of this miracle toothpaste. One of those patients happened to be an editor at Mademoiselle Magazine, and sure enough the following month the toothpaste received a laudable write-up. The groundbreaking toothpaste took off. Overwhelmed by the response but armed with strong foresight, Lucia saw an opportunity to turn the toothpaste into a viable operation. Way ahead of the tooth whitening boom, Lucia expanded the brand into a twenty SKU product line. Today, under Lucia's leadership, Supersmile has become a celebrated line of complete oral care products retailing in thousands of locations in over a dozen countries, and is a favorite of celebrities worldwide.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

My life/employment experience has made me what I have become. I truly believe if you are a creative person, you can bring that to any job you do. I graduated from NYU with a BS and a double major of communications and languages. However I got married two months after graduation. I had my children within three years. I was biting at the bit to do something, but being a mom 'twas first and foremost. So I started to work alongside my husband in his dental practice. The hours were flexible. I was always home before the children came home from school and I learned dentistry by osmosis!

I worked as an office manager and the found my passion in preventive dentistry! I discovered that if you want to keep your teeth for the rest of your life all you need to do is learn how to correctly brush your teeth with the proper tools, floss your teeth once a day, and correctly, there is a trick to it and once mastered takes 30 seconds. Also clean your tongue which only takes 10 seconds. Voila. In 5 to 6 minutes a day you will have healthy gums, fresh breath and shiny teeth! So I started teaching this to our patients and then to Columbia dental school graduating class so that they could learn how to teach it to their patients.

Once my husband, Irwin, developed the aesthetic bonding technique, dentistry was immediately changed forever. We realized that because the bonding material at that time was porous and difficult to maintain the color as it picked up stains from coffee, tea, tobacco, red wine, anything that would stain a white shirt there was a desperate need for a whitening toothpaste for bonded teeth. When Irwin was on "That's Incredible", we were swamped with requests for appointments and lectures. The results were amazing - spaces, chips, dark teeth could be lightened and the public was clamoring for it. Dentists were clamoring too and for a good toothpaste.

So we decided to make a toothpaste for our patients. Most pastes even today are based on abrasion. They use silica which is a form of sand. Irwin always felt that if we could develop a paste that would be based on calcium peroxide, it would gently dissolve the biofilm that forms on the enamel, and to that plaque bacteria and stain attach, leaving the tooth feeling really smooth clean plaque free. Until that time, calcium peroxide was used in white bread as a conditioner as it is a food grade product and very safe. The problem was that it was very volatile and expanded. It took us four years to encapsulate the calcium peroxide with a very long process. It takes 75 hours continuously to make a batch of Supersmile, while it takes an hour and a half to make a tube of regular toothpaste already packaged. However the results speak for themselves. We have been working with the same chemist for all these years, and all our products are based on our proprietary form of calcium peroxide.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Supersmile?

I started working in my husband's office at the time because I knew I would have flexible hours and we got to spend time together. I worked until 3 pm when our kids came home. That was how I learned osmosis. I also got very heavily into preventive dentistry; teaching how to brush correctly and how to floss. Once you get the hang of it, it is easy and takes literally three minutes to brush and floss, and you need to floss only once a day and brush twice to keep your teeth for the rest of your life and have healthy clean white teeth and fresh breath. This is the only thing you can do that has immediate results. You can see I am obsessed and passionate about this. I was also teaching brushing, flossing and home care to Columbia dental school graduates so that they in turn could teach it to their patients.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Supersmile & Petsmile?

When we finally had the toothpaste stabilized, it became an inside secret among the top models and celebrities who used to carry a tube with them to their photo shoots. We were only making five hundred tubes at a time because of storing. Patients were begging for tubes for their relatives who smoked, had yellow teeth etc. At the time the tubes cost us $8 a tube because of the small quantities, but my tongue couldn't turn and say $8 so I said $4....great margins!

One of our patients' friends was in the waiting room, and heard all the people asking for Supermile and bought a tube. She then WROTE about it in Mademoiselle and didn't warn us. We got sacks of $4 dollar checks and orders, but we only had 123 tubes on hand so we had to send letters saying we were out of stock and would return the checks. They wrote back to hold them and send ASAP, so I had to find a tube manufacturer who would print the tubes and also a contract manufacturer. So then we had 20000 tubes, fulfilled the orders and now it did not cost us $8 a tube anymore, so how should we sell the rest?

I took a tube to the pharmacy on Madison Avenue and 60th street that specialized in makeup. I asked them if they could order me a tube, since this was almost empty, and I had gotten it in California. I ran back to my office to take the call from the pharmacy and I told them minimum order was twelve tubes and that they had to put them on the checkout counter, and that the price was $8 a tube. They laughed. Back then toothpaste was 80 cents a tube. I told them I would take it back in five days if they did not sell. In five hours they called an ordered another two dozen... and off we went. This was a very exciting time because it was on the job training and we knew the product was great. The write ups in Vogue, Bazaar, Elle, and Allure were amazing. It was fun. We were very reactive...we did not hire any sales people it was all word of mouth.

​What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

First and foremost learn all you can about the industry you are interested in and see if you really care about the product. I've met people who tell me they can sell any product and that it doesn't matter if it is any good. I would never work with them. You need passion; find something you really are into and think out of the box. None of Supersmile products are "me too" copycats. If you do something that you believe in it will be easy. I always think of what I would like in a product. I feel that consumers are smart. You can sell something once, but we want loyal consumers, and the only way you get that is give them products that actually work. Be safe and effective...if you promise something you must deliver if you want a long-term consumer.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?

I have learned from harsh experience that you need iron clad contracts. No handshakes...the days of that are long gone.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I have always worked side by side with my husband, and so I had a flexible schedule. When the children were young, three o'clock was the witching hour. I was always home. I'd go into the office in the morning after they went to school and stayed until three. My kids always came first. We never missed school activities and always dinner with the family. Now it is so much easier with computers, printers, laptops, iPads, and iPhones. You can be doing a lot of work from home.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

The biggest issue is when women now have families later in life. By then they already have careers so it is harder to juggle taking time off from a serious career and have children. My daughter, who is my right hand and is executive vice president, is an attorney. Her first son was born while she was in the middle of a serious litigation. She used to messenger pumped milk to feed her son, and it was a very stressful time. She was terribly torn. After she had her third son, she had to give up working full time. Her boys are now grown, and she is working with Supersmile.

The other problem women have is that some men, even today find it hard to take orders from a woman. They feel more comfortable with the boys club. That is the old guard, however with younger men I don't think that is a problem anymore. The pay...that is still somewhat of an issue.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I have had many mentors throughout my career! The one that has been the force propelling me has been Irwin. Without his teaching me dentistry and encouraging me every step of the way there would be no Supersmile. Remember when I started women were supposed to be home cooking dinner taking care of the house and not working! Irwin always encouraged me to grow in whatever endeavor I chose. For a time it was sculpture! He has been my true partner and mentor for over 50 years! So many people encouraged and offered business advice. Dentists from all over the world were always ready to answer any points I was weak in. Be it dental materials periodontics etc. Calvin Klein encouraged me to get sales people to distribute! But my rock has always been and is Irwin. Without his credibility in the field of dentistry it would have been hard to come out with such revolutionary concepts!

I had the opportunity to get advice from some titans in the industry who were patients and who were very helpful, especially in the beginning. I was never afraid to let them know when I didn't know something and needed guided. I was lucky to have access to them.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

Diane von Furstenberg is someone that I truly admire. She has shared her experiences and given me a lot of insight into how to start a business. She shared how she got started and how she would personally bring her iconic dress to the editors and do it herself. She is a mega accomplisher! Today there are so many women who head companies!

What do you want Supersmile/Petsmile to accomplish in the next year?

I need to bring Petsmile out properly. It is an amazing product that came as an extension of Supersmile. So many of our loyal Supersmile customers have asked for it! Our Quikee product, which Petsmile is based on, is something you just apply a drop to your teeth and using your tongue as a brush in seconds' plaque and whatever food and drink stain and odor are swept away. We worked very hard on developing it and testing it and went through hundreds of thousands on clinical studies. We were awarded the first plaque inhibition VOHC seal from the veterinary council! A very big deal! The product is all human grade ingredients and works!