Hanging with Hafen: Empowering women and Generation Y associates to own


A look at the next generation of veterinary practice owners.

Right now, men constitute 70 percent of the practice owners and women 30 percent. But these numbers only reflect a current snapshot of the veterinary industry. In a survey conducted by

Veterinary Economics

in 2010, 24 percent of female associates versus 48 percent of male associates said they wanted to own their own practice. Just two years later in 2012, the percentage of women associates who wanted to own had doubled. In still another study of women investors conducted recently by

Investment News

, when making financial investments, women are fundamentally more risk averse than men. While no specific quantifiable reasons were given for this, generalizations ranged from the biological (hunter versus gatherer) to conditional (not playing sports). Obviously there are a multitude of reasons why women may not aspire to be practice owners.

Being risk averse is not a bad trait

Ultimately, it means that you have to dial up the documentation. Instead of betting on something, like buying a practice or building a project, you need to drive down the risk by more thoroughly testing your hypothesis. Being risk averse can actually help you make better decisions. The other side of the argument is that you also need to be ready to make decisions and act on the information you have gathered and homework you have done. More often than not, an economic decision has a sweet spot that if you don't move on you lose. In fact maybe the younger veterinarians are risk averse because they are of a different generation, not simply because they are women.

In studies of Generation Y, men and women currently aged 28 to 38, there seems to be a blurring of the line between work and lifestyle, along with a desire for more meaning and engagement in their professional lives. It isn't so much that they are risk averse, but they have different priorities. Bottom line: We are not confined by the past, but we are constrained by our perceptions. Many new veterinarians think that owning a practice means you have to sacrifice your lifestyle, you can't care about animals, or you have to take too much risk. From my point of view, none of these are a given. At its most basic level it seems to come down to priorities and money.

Nobody says that you have to give up what you believe in (caring for animals and your lifestyle) to own a business. Some would say that providing the best possible care for the majority of animals you see is the best thing you can do for the animal world in general. Many young couples are choosing alternative lifestyles where they can strike a balance between work and home by having the guy doing the housework and the childrearing. Maybe it's not easy to strike a balance, but it can be done.

Know and respect your economic constraints

This is key to reducing risks. Do you buy an existing practice? And an existing building? Or do you start from scratch? And what will it cost? Knowing means doing your homework, working with accountants, consultants, your spouse, and your bank to know what you can and want to do from an economic point of view. Respecting means not trying to do too much. If you buy a practice, will you have money left over to upgrade the facility if it needs it? How much? If you're going to start up your own practice, what's the minimum size facility you can live with? It will be impossible to eliminate risk in its entirety because life's like that, but you can keep it to a point where you are not lying awake each night staring up at the ceiling. We're approaching a tipping point.

Until recently the novelty of women practicing in veterinary medicine was rather significant. If you were to go back to the 1970s, the number of female veterinarians was low. So consequently, the number of female practice owners was low, too. As each new female veterinarian becomes an owner, it knocks another hole in the glass ceiling. Instead of it being unique, female veterinarians coming out of school now can realistically aspire to being practice owners. And women will definitely prosper from this change. In the world of veterinary finance, a number of high profile women are making things happen for women and for young veterinarians who have had a hard time getting financing in the past.

The benefit of practice ownership is that you decide how much you work, when you work, what work you do, what's important to you and your practice, and how much you get paid. Right now there is still a rather significant gender gap between what male and female veterinarians earn. Probably the simplest and most direct way to bridge the gap is to be your own boss and give yourself a raise.

How to prioritize lifestyle and reduce risk

Brainstorming how to prioritize lifestyle and reduce risk is a cooperative, inclusive process. Generation Y men and women like to deal with things in a less hierarchical, male-oriented, “fix it” manner and instead utilize a more inclusive, synergistic process. A recent article I read talked about “Oprah moments” or using the process of storytelling to explore the nuances of an issue in a non-linear, non-judgmental manner rather than creating an Excel spreadsheet. If you could build a risk averse and reprioritized veterinary hospital, what would it look like? The first step may be to build a smaller but more effective facility so you drive down your risk. Maybe the plan would be more open and direct, with more rooms open to each other, and with more places for staff and doctors to gather in order to support and foster team interaction.

The plan may include more personal or even quirky spaces that reflect the style of the practice owner. The design would be more welcoming to clients and more conducive to caring for animals in an environment that was less stressful. Possibly if women veterinarians are interested in the scientific study of disease there could be a way to link the practice to a nearby university teaching college and have an interactive intern and research component within the hospital. Together these design components could fundamentally alter the way that a hospital is designed. That is exciting and yet another reason for women and Generation Y's to consider ownership.

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