Elizabeth Christopherson works through a nonprofit called Smiles Change Lives to offer pro-bono work for about five to 10 patients per year. Photo by Michael Buck
Elizabeth Christopherson is a third-generation dental care provider.
Her grandfather was a dentist in Kalamazoo, and her father owned Caldwell Orthodontics in Grand Rapids.
Christopherson bought her father’s business in 2011, renamed it Christopherson Orthodontics and has been continuing the legacy ever since.
Christopherson knew she wanted to do something in science, so she pursued a microbiology undergrad degree from Miami University in Ohio. She explored careers in dentistry, medicine and law but was influenced by the success of her father and grandfather to ultimately join the dental health field.
After undergrad, she attended dentistry school at the University of Michigan for four years and then stayed an additional three for her orthodontics residency and master’s degree.
“As soon as I knew I was going to practice orthodontics, I had set my sights on coming back and working with my dad,” Christopherson said. “It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
When she graduated in 2007, she moved back to Grand Rapids and was hired by her father as an associate for a year.
She then bought half of the practice and worked with her father for three years. Afterward, she bought the remaining half of the practice and was her father’s employer until he retired.
“It was a really ideal situation. We had a really good time working together,” Christopherson said.
She said they had set a five-year transition plan, but he worked nearly 10 years before retiring because the dynamic was so strong.
“A family business doesn't work for everybody, but it worked perfectly for us,” Christopherson said.
Her father, Charles Caldwell, had locations on Burton Street and in Hastings. Once Christopherson took charge, she opened a satellite location in Gaslight Village in East Grand Rapids, near her home and where her children attend school.
With nine employees, the business is fully women-owned and women-run, including two receptionists, a treatment coordinator to intake new patients, a financial coordinator and five clinical assistants.
Christopherson was named the Business Journal’s 2019 Top Women Owned Business in the $500,000 to $1.499 million category.
She said she typically has between 850 and 1,000 patients at any given time. Most patients are adolescents, but about 25 percent of clients are adults, some in their 70s.
She said she enjoys watching the younger patients get through that difficult part of life, knowing her office — full of moms — is a safe place to help them through it.
“One of the most rewarding things is at the end when we take them off,” she said because she and the patients can see how much they have grown and changed over time.
She said the parents she meets want what’s best for their children, whether for health reasons or aesthetics.
“If someone doesn't have a lot of confidence, providing them the care just to simply align their teeth can be a major game changer for some of these kids,” Christopherson said.
Some patients even stay in contact, and she said three young women in the last year have told her they’re attending college to hopefully become orthodontists.
Christopherson works through a nonprofit called Smiles Change Lives to offer pro-bono work for about five to 10 patients per year who could not otherwise afford orthodontia.
Some of them drive from hours away, and they often arrive with homemade gifts and handwritten notes.
“There’s a pretty long waiting list to get into the program, and there's not a lot of participating orthodontists in this area, so if I see them and they’re in need, I accept them into my practice,” she said.
While her orthodontics patients spend 18-24 months receiving regular services, she doesn’t really have the chance locally to assist people with their immediate pain. Her five self-funded trips donating dental services abroad have allowed her to do that.
While at dental school, she and her father were invited to join a pediatrician and some medical students on a weeklong mission trip to Guatemala. There had never been a dentist included in the trip, and the two thought it would be a good experience.
The remote mountain village of Guatemala had no electricity, no running water and no dental chairs. Many of the people did not have the means for dental care in nearby cities.
Christopherson and her father set up a temporary clinic in the town. Their role was to help ease people’s dental pain by just pulling teeth with some local anesthesia.
The villagers knew the medical providers would be there and were lined up and waiting each day they drove in from the city.
“The villagers there were so warm and welcoming and receptive and grateful,” she said.
To break the language barrier, she made a sheet of basic dental phrases in Spanish and taped it to the wall behind the chairs. That’s how they communicated about what needed they needed and what instructions to follow after the dentists left.
She and her father have traveled abroad every couple of years since, three times to Guatemala and twice to the Dominican Republic.
It’s never through an organization, just with other providers in their network who are also going.
She and her work team do a lot of volunteering locally, as well.
“Our days get pretty busy, and it's nice for us to be able to go out in the community to reconnect with each other while doing some good right here in Grand Rapids,” she said.
They have volunteered at Kids’ Food Basket, run the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, housed the Salvation Army’s Angel Trees each holiday season and sent hundreds of pounds of Halloween candy from its candy buyback program to active military.
She is running again in the Amway River Bank Run, this time for the i Understand charity partner team.
As a business owner, Christopherson said she knows the job never ends.
The role means she’s always thinking about the business, even waking up in the middle of the night remembering one more task that needs to be completed. “Maybe not necessarily related to braces, but it's still important to the success of the practice.”
Some businesses have office managers, but she does not. That means she not only is an orthodontist and business owner but also the HR department, the advertising department and if they need a new sign, that's on her, too.
“Especially as a business owner, when it's your baby, you wear a lot of hats,” she said. “You can't be afraid of hard work.”
Christopherson seems to have had that work ethic from a young age.
Though her parents didn’t require her to have a job while she lived with them, she started scooping ice cream at Jersey Junction during high school. She also worked for a banquet center and spent one summer as a cleaning lady.
“I think those jobs really define for you that life is hard work in general, whether you're going to work hard at being a cleaning lady or work hard at being a student so you can get into grad school,” Christopherson said.
“In my family, we had a wonderful upbringing, but you were expected to be responsible citizens and work hard at whatever we chose.”
To other women entering the professional world, she advised them to understand the worth of their voices and not be afraid of advocating for themselves.
“I think people can miss out on some opportunities if they feel like they don't have the confidence to show up or sign up or to speak up,” Christopherson said.