An Unconventional Journey Through Optometry

Dec 11, 2018
12 min read

A Conversation with Dr. Millicent Knight

The name Millicent originates in an old Germanic word for strength. So it comes as no surprise that Dr. Millicent Knight, OD, FAAO, FAARM, the new Senior VP of Essilor’s Customer Development Group, has always been the kind of person who does everything in her power to achieve her goals. NewGradOptometry had the chance to sit down with her at Vision Expo West and talk about all the things she’s learned and done on her path to her current position, and what advice she has for young optometrists.

How did you get into optometry?

“According to my father, when I was in second grade, the teacher sent a note home saying that she thought I had a vision problem,” so Dr. Knight’s father started taking her to vision therapy at the Illinois College of Optometry. Every Saturday they would make the long drive to her appointment. “One day he was picking me up from vision therapy, and I looked at him and I said, ‘Dad, I’m going to be an eye doctor.’” She laughs. “And he smiled, and said, ‘That’s great,’ but he had the bubble in his head going, you’re 8.” Ironically, Dr. Knight skipped a grade (2nd-4th) after completing vision therapy.

But that dream persisted, even when the pre-optometry advisor in college told her he would not provide a recommendation, because he did not believe she could be an optometrist. He indicated there was no way she was going to get into optometry school without it. She got into all three she applied to.

“I’ve had a lot of adversity,” says Dr. Knight. “I started optometry school thirty years ago, when there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me either because I was a woman, African American, or both. And a lot of people that didn’t think I should be there. So every step of the way I had to keep myself motivated, and I had to give myself positive affirmations. My family was also a very strong support system.  My mother and sisters all have at least one master’s degree, and my mother (who was passionate about addressing mental health) retired at age 75 as the CEO of a mental health agency.  So, not succeeding was not an option.  Today, my husband, Harvey Echols, MD and I are a team. We support each other’s careers, laying a strong foundation for our son.”

Envisioning the future of optometry

In order to achieve all the things she’s done in her career — from hospital based optometry-ophthalmology co-management, private practice ownership to a corporate executive role not to mention a plethora of other endeavors — she’s had to be methodical about going after her goals. A large part of that involves strategic self-reflection.

On December 31st of every year (her birthday is January 1st), Dr. Knight sits down — “With a nice glass of Cabernet,” she laughs — and works on vision boards. Over the year, she accumulates cutouts that resonate with her in one way or another, and she puts them together into vision boards. “Often I’ll put it aside and I might not look back at that board until the next year, but when I look back at that board the next year, half of the things on the board I’ve done.”

“They’re a blueprint, if you will, of what’s in your subconscious,” she says. And tapping into that, even to clear out your mind, is one way of clearly defining your goals, no matter how long-term or short-term they are.

“We get so busy in our lives that we don’t carve out the time to continue to grow as individuals,” says Dr. Knight. “And when you’re not growing, you’re [receding].” She takes every chance she can to learn new things, whether through books — she’s a voracious reader — or through continuing education. She encourages doctors to take CE courses even if they don’t get credit, since education is a valuable lifelong process.

“A lot of my journey has been putting in the work, doing a lot of reading, making sure I continue to be disciplined and continue to motivate and be open to critique,” says Dr. Knight. “When I wanted to broaden our practice offerings into complementary (holistic) care, my associates and I studied to become certified health coaches, and I completed a fellowship in anti-aging regenerative medicine (FAARM).  Most of the doctors in my class were internal medicine physicians. We all had a common interest in pursuing the fellowship . . . wanting to provide more than a bandage to the growing chronic inflammatory diseases our patients were presenting with.”

“You have to do the work. There’s no way around that.”

Changes in the profession

“I picked optometry because I was interested in eyecare and I was also interested in business,” Dr. Knight says. It’s often difficult for optometrists to bridge the gap between medical practice and the business of their work. “I think we can be very myopic, if you will,” says Dr. Knight. This is particularly true when it comes to hiring and managing a practice.

It’s important to consider the flexibility of value. ODs — whether they’re new grads or experienced professionals — want to give to their practice and create value, but not necessarily in terms of forty plus hours in office. Many young ODs want to do marketing, research, and brand development on their own time, from home or in the evenings, and not concentrate forty physical hours at location, and that may be an efficient way of growing the practice, especially to a particular cohort of patients.

“So think about that,” Dr. Knight says. “If you’ve got a practice setting that doesn’t allow for the fact that some of your best and brightest minds are going to need to operate in that manner, and you don’t have a network or a setup that’s going to support them in doing that, then obviously the business is going to suffer.” Just hold them accountable for results.

On leadership and ownership

“Some leadership is organic, and some leadership is acquired, either through book knowledge or experiences, and maybe a combination of all of those things. I was fortunate to be awarded a Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship. It was a very competitive three year leadership training and development program. I was also a White House Fellowship Regional Finalist early in my career. I have always been interested in advocacy. My uncle is a US Congressman. Both opportunities really helped me focus and hone my skills and interests. And just because you get to one level of leadership doesn’t mean that you still don’t have an opportunity to grow and learn more,” says Dr. Knight, stressing the importance of “showing up.”

“I have a lot of people ask, how do you get into leadership roles? And I say sometimes you have to be available, you have to make your opinion known, and you have to volunteer. You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem. You can’t always get paid for everything you do, because you get paid in other ways. I’ve also been asked how I predict future changes. I don’t predict, I prepare. I stay open to evolution, and then look for how it can be harnessed for the best use for patients and our profession.”

When Dr. Knight was in her early thirties, she bought a practice from a retiring optometrist (who then stayed as an employee). Once she took over the practice from its former owner, Dr. Knight says, “I moved the practice to a larger building, a multidisciplinary building. It was a huge amount of money at that time, but I did it because the rental revenues covered the expenses, and I thought I’d be practicing for a very long time, and it didn’t make sense to me to pay rent for thirty or forty years. At that early time in my career, I had a lot of responsibility. I was afraid, but I did it anyway.”

“So I bought this building, and wanted to upgrade the facility, and that was challenging because despite having a great credit score, I was asked unusual questions by the bank—questions like, well, are you married? Are you planning on getting married? Are you planning on having children?” Dr. Knight’s exasperation is clear. “What man gets asked that when they go in for a loan?” She eventually did get the loan.

Dr. Knight had a very specific vision for her practice. “I really wanted [my patients] to have a premier experience in the office that was almost concierge-like,” she says. But things at her practice weren’t immediately coming together the way she wanted, and she realized a way to fix it. “It dawned on me, maybe my staff had never be treated that way, and I’m asking them to treat patients in a way that no one’s ever treated them. So I set up a retreat.”

She already did an off-site training and appreciation event with her staff every year. “It was expensive, but a great investment. Unfortunately, I would hear a lot of my colleagues say ‘Why do you do that? That’s kind of expensive. I can’t afford to do that.’  My retort, ‘why wouldn’t you invest back in your business that way? They are the biggest asset you have.’”

For this specific event, she had a limo pick up her staff and associate doctors from the office, who had been told not to wear their scrubs but to come to the office dressed in business attire. “I took them to the nicest five-star restaurant; they had a seven-course meal, and I had pre-arranged with each of the chefs to come out and tell them how they create the experience, because that was the theme — Creating the Experience.”

“They were just floored, but I saw a complete difference in their attitude afterwards, because they really understood what I was trying to do — the way that I wanted the patients to feel and be treated”

Essilor and the future of optometry

When we ask her about her plans at Essilor and what she’s excited about, Dr. Knight laughs. “In corporate, companies walk a fine line in not always showcasing the really good things that they do for the industry, you don’t want to come off as being braggadocios about it, but ECPs want to know who you are, what you are doing to contribute to the industry and how you are partnering with the professionals to augment patient care. Essilor is involved in a lot of really great philanthropic activities. We help a lot of doctors with their philanthropic efforts as well, but many of our customers don’t know about these efforts.  Providing eye care support to our customers and to their patients, ladders up to our mission of improving lives by improving sight. The commitment comes from the top, in that the Leadership Team includes an optometrist (me representing our customer).”

“During my on-boarding, I was struck by the fact that not only are we [Essilor employees] encouraged to have a comprehensive eye exam every year, you’re actually penalized via your benefits if you don’t. So think about this: over 8,000 employees going out to doctors all around.” That’s living into the belief, as a company, that comprehensive eye examinations matter!

Dr. Knight is adamant that good leadership means supporting those who follow you. You have to make sure your employees are given the support they need to live your mission, or you’re not providing the tools they need to succeed, or to make your business successful.

“All in all, optometry has been a blessing to me, first as a patient, and later as a doctor and industry executive.  So many people have helped me along the way, and I hope that I can continue to pay it forward.”

“If nothing else, if people just really get clear about where they feel their passion is, then you can take calculated risks, because you weigh it all out. Once you’ve done the analysis, don’t wait until you’re one hundred percent sure of something: jump and grow your wings on the way down.”

About Eleanor Gold, PhD

Eleanor Gold is the Managing Editor at Eyes On Eyecare. She is passionate about science communication and education (particularly in the field of eyecare!), holds a PhD in English from the University at Buffalo, and in her spare time enjoys …

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