ND Founders Profile #64: Divine Intervention: This FouNDer Got a Kickstart from Her Notre Dame Professor

Author: Melanie Lux

Facebook Web Nd Founders Sarah Varney


Company Founded: DSO Hygiene Excellence Year Graduated: 2021 (expected)
Title: Co-Founder and CEO Degree: EMBA Candidate, Mendoza College of Business
Location: Aurora, IL Residence Hall: Off Campus

When the CEO of her company, a dental services organization (DSO) that manages more than 30 dental practices, approached her about developing a hygiene initiative for the entire organization, Sarah Varney was taken aback. Although she had been a dental hygienist for almost 30 years, she had no experience creating, let alone leading such a significant corporate initiative.

“I became a dental hygienist because I wanted to bring health into people’s lives one patient at a time. Now I was being asked to develop and run a hygiene program for my entire organization. There was a big gap in my skillset,” Varney says.

That was in June 2018. A year before, she had visited the University of Notre Dame and was impressed by the warm welcome. When faced with a need to go back to school for an Executive Master of Business Administration degree, there was no question where she would attend.

“Notre Dame is a beacon of excellence,” Varney says. “I was impressed by the academic rigor, but what really attracted me was the ethical leadership component and using business to serve the greater good. That was very much in line with what my CEO wanted me to do with the dental hygiene program. In my mind, no other school could compete with Notre Dame’s Executive MBA program, so I enrolled.”

In January 2020, Varney took a class called Marketing of the Firm taught by Professor Joe Urbany. The course requires each student to have a project, which they work on throughout the semester. Varney’s was her corporate dental hygiene initiative.

The entire flavor of her project changed when COVID-19 hit in March. The need for excellence in the hygiene departments of dental practices took on a whole new dimension of urgency. The entire dental industry, particularly at the caregiver level, needed to be reimagined.

“COVID-19 had an immediate impact on dental practices, much of it driven by fear. I read so many posts on social media that showed just how afraid people were,” recalls Varney. “Patients quit making appointments, and more frightening than that, 20 percent of hygienists walked away from the profession. At the same time, dental practices were under enormous stress and financial pressure to survive with lower patient volumes and additional tasks related to COVID-19. I had to do something.”

So Varney started her own outreach program. She posted photos on social media of her dental practice and team wearing PPE. She explained the steps they were taking to protect the patient’s and staff’s health. Varney also began calling patients on her own time to encourage them to come back to the dentist. In particular, she targeted patients with diabetes and periodontal disease who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Back in Dr. Urbany’s class, Varney continued to work on her corporate dental hygiene initiative with a new urgency because of COVID-19. At the end of the semester, Dr. Urbany stressed to his now-former students that he would always be a resource for them.  Little did Varney know how literal this statement was.

“That summer, I got a call from Dr. Urbany out of the blue. He had been thinking about my project and called to tell me I had an opportunity to impact hygienists on a much larger scale by pivoting my corporate program to a national program. It was not just an opportunity; I had a responsibility to bring my program to all hygienists. And, he had people in the dental space who could help me,” Varney says.

With Dr. Urbany’s encouragement and support, Varney agreed to pivot and ultimately found a company, DSO Hygiene Excellence, with the goal of redefining and elevating the dental hygiene profession in dental offices across the nation. “I realized that the skills I was learning at Notre Dame—leadership, analytical business practices—were skillsets desperately needed by hygienists, particularly at this point in time, but are not taught in traditional dental hygienist programs. At the core of DSO Hygiene Excellence is a national certification process that turns hygienists into clinician-leaders,” Varney explains.

Encouraged to dream big, Varney had to address everything a typical startup faces: business plan, legal and marketing, product-market fit. As a starting point, she conducted an intense survey of potential customers, ultimately interviewing 100 dental hygienists and 50 C-suite executives from the dental service organization industry. The feedback was extremely positive and helped finetune the company’s mission.

Throughout the Fall of 2020, Dr. Urbany continued to mentor Varney on how best to launch a company with little or no money, stressing the power of relationships. Her EMBA classmates offered expertise in law, finance and marketing. Varney was honored by the support and grateful that her classmates truly are each other’s “board of directors for life.”

“Everyone believed in what I was doing and just stepped in and said, ‘I’ll help you with that.’ They continue to be there for me,” she says.

DSO Hygiene Excellence launched a free membership drive on January 1, 2021. With no paid advertising, it quickly amassed more than 1,200 members. The hard launch is set for June 1, 2021, when DSO Hygiene Excellence begins offering its first Diplomat Certification program for dental hygienists. The curriculum consists of five courses centered on five pillars: leadership, teamwork and diplomacy, medical-dental synergy, clinical excellence, and business excellence which includes KPIs for dental hygienists. The courses will be offered online and on-demand, making them accessible and easy to complete for working professionals. 

Dental hygienists who successfully complete the program become DSO Hygiene Excellence Diplomates and receive a digital badge as a symbol of professional excellence to display on a resume, web bio, LinkedIn, or other professional profile.

Varney says the biggest challenge has been launching an entirely new hygiene organization concept in the midst of a global pandemic with no money. To counter that, she has taken Dr. Urbany’s advice and tapped into the Notre Dame alumni network, strategic dental partners, and other professional contacts to get the word out. This led to one of the biggest wins to date, a four-part series about DSO Hygiene Excellence in the leading dental hygiene professional journal, RDH Magazine.

“This has been truly amazing,” Varney says. “RDH Magazine is literally taking their readers through each of the pillars of the Diplomat Certification program. The publicity is invaluable.”

Varney herself has become an accomplished marketer. On April 16, she did a TedTalk titled Dentistry’s Got Leadership that focused on hygienists’ circles of influence and centered around how to LEAD: listen, empathize, ask how you can support, and deliver. Her talk aired internationally and garnered over 100,000 viewers.

The outreach has generated tremendous interest from the dental service organization industry and others who want to get involved. “I get so many emails and texts. There’s no shortage of people who want to collaborate with us, and we feel so honored,” she says.

One collaboration is with onDiem, a national dental hygienist temporary and permanent placement agency that wants to work directly with DSO Hygiene Excellence to certify their candidates. “They want to put our Diplomate seal on their candidates’ bios as a symbol of excellence,” she explains. A number of dental service organizations have also reached out to Varney with an interest in making the DSO Hygiene Excellence certification program part of their formal onboarding process for dental hygienists.

Varney, who still works as a full-time dental hygienist herself, is awestruck by what has been accomplished already, even though it is only the tip of the iceberg. “The idea that I am advancing my profession and elevating patient care for people that I have never even physically touched is unfathomable. This would not have happened without Notre Dame. This is God’s work.”

Varney offers this advice to others who may never have considered starting a company, organization, or movement based on excellence. “Dream the impossible. Do not see barriers. Find your why and run with it. And if you are at Notre Dame, tap into all of the resources—the faculty, fellow students, alumni, the IDEA Center—all of it. As Dr. Urbany says, relationships matter.”