Helping Veterinary Students Understand the Business Side of Practice

Cummings School alum and students host conference for veterinary students Sept. 26 on how to start a practice and take control of their careers
A cat looks up at a veterinarian, holding a stethoscope. Cumming School alum and students host conference on how to start a practice and take control of their careers
“Many veterinarians are small-business owners—and 100 percent of them are going to work for a business at some point,” said Katherine Olson. “So it makes a lot of sense to educate yourself on the business side of things.” Photo: iStock
September 23, 2020

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When you think of a veterinarian, what comes to mind? A doctor who cares for creatures great and small? Someone with a great bedside manner who is as compassionate toward people as their pets?

But how about a business owner who can manage a pharmacy and inventory of foods—or calculate how adding another staff member is going to help or hurt a veterinary practice’s ability to operate long term? Or someone skilled at negotiating a contract so to allow for the flexibility to enjoy life outside work?

All these skills can affect a veterinarian’s financial security, stress level, and mental health. However, as in many professional programs, these soft skills aren’t typically part of the veterinary curriculum.

“Business training is not something that’s in veterinary schools’ wheelhouse,” said Glenn Kalick, V95, who teaches veterinarians how to better manage their practices. “They historically have never really thought about trying to teach veterinarians how to be entrepreneurs.”

Kalick is on a mission to share that knowledge with Cummings School students.

Last year, he worked with Katherine Olson, V21, and Kendall Leet-Otley, V22, from the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA) to offer a veterinary business symposium on campus. This year, in light of COVID-19, the trio is taking the event virtual—hosting a free national Vet Student Leadership Summit on Sept. 26.

A Student-Driven Culture Change

Olson knew that exposure to the business side of practice would be crucial back when she was first considering which veterinary schools to apply to.

“My father has been a small-business owner since before I was born. He owned a hardware store and now owns a project management firm. So I think an appreciation for the work ethic and drive needed to sustain a small business has been has been ingrained in me,” she said.

The organizers chat, clockwise from top left, Kendall Leet-Otley, V22; Glenn Kalick, V95; and Katherine Olson, V21.Olson chose Cummings School in part because it had a chapter of the VBMA. As the student club’s secretary and later president, she set about working with her fellow officers to make the Tufts VBMA active and engaging.

“Many veterinarians are small-business owners—and 100 percent of them are going to work for a business at some point. So it makes a lot of sense to educate yourself on the business side of things, whether or not you want to own a practice,” Olson said.

“If you can walk into a small practice with an owner who started it from the ground up and say, ‘I understand where you’re coming from and this is the value I can bring to your practice’ or ‘This is why I think this service would be a smart investment to make sure that the practice sustains itself,’ it just makes you a stronger associate.”

In October 2019, with the support of school administration, Olson and Kendall Leet-Otley, V22, enlisted Kalick to host the first Tufts Veterinary Business Symposium.

Sixty-plus students attended the one-day event, as five speakers discussed different career paths and issues in veterinary medicine.

Dr. Katie Holmes, the current president of our Alumni Association, spoke about how you can be a full-time veterinarian, but also fulfill that need for travel through philanthropic missions and other international work,” said Leet-Otley. “Christopher Hackney, an SBA expert, talked about small-business loans and how to finance a practice—and everyone kept begging him to stay up on stage to answer just one more question.”

Students also heard from Kalick, former American Veterinary Medical Association president John de Jong, A78, V85, and veterinary dentist William Rosenblad, V95.

After the formal presentations, eight local practice owners held rounds of networking using the speed-dating format. Veterinary students had ten minutes with each veterinarian to discuss summer hiring and externship opportunities, get a feel for mentorship possibilities, or simply pick the business owners’ brains about how they got their start.

Adjusting for COVID-19

Social-distancing precautions related to COVID-19 made it impossible for the team to host a similarly sized business symposium on campus this year. However, Kalick said the team used it as an opportunity to go bigger—and to benefit veterinary students everywhere during the pandemic.

“Typically, during your four-year veterinary career at a university, you will go to a conference, have speakers come to your school, or attend a dinner meeting,” said Kalick. “However, it’s very possible that this year—between COVID-19 and the financial crisis’s effects on traveling, students won’t be able to travel and speakers may not be able to come to a school. So we have created a way to connect veterinary students digitally with 14 leading national speakers, who are all speaking for free.”

Olson and Leet-Otley will emcee the event on Zoom, introducing each speaker’s 25-minute TED-style talk and moderating five minutes of questions and answers with the audience. The experts will address what to expect in the first year out of veterinary school, how to figure out your worth and stand out in a saturated market, entrepreneurship, alternative career paths, and how to own a practice even with student debt, including loan options for buying a practice.

Almost 1,700 veterinary students have registered so far. If they find the day beneficial, Kalick says the team hope to continue hosting virtual business talks on a quarterly basis.

Although he grew up only 20 miles from Tufts’ Grafton campus, Kalick chose to move to Florida—a hot bed of job opportunities—and built his own small-animal practice in Florida only four years out of veterinary school. 

Over nineteen years, he employed more than 400 people, cared for tens of thousands of pets, and built numerous community connections in Coral Springs. His proudest yet most difficult moment as a business owner was rallying to support employees and clients in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, which occurred one block from the practice. “Every employee had a relationship to the school whether they attended, their kids attended, or they were currently going to school there,” he said.

In 2017, Kalick sold his practice because of its high valuation. “My financial success has changed the financial trajectory of my family forever. My practice provided a financial nest egg that will provide security for my family for generations.”

“I want to pay that forward,” continued Kalick. “My hope is that if we can help veterinary students start taking control of their financial lives, they’ll see how the investment they’ve made in their education can help them build the life they want—whether that’s owning a business, working fewer days a week, or negotiating extra time off for travel.” 

The education Kalick received from Cummings School gave “gave me the keys to the car,” he said.  “Being a veterinarian is a fantastic job with great responsibilities. I tell students that the type of car they buy, where they choose to drive it, and how fast they drive it are up to them. That is their journey. The motto of the Vet Student Leadership Summit is to “Lead your pack”; I want the students to be in control of their careers.”

Veterinary students can register to attend the national Vet Student Leadership Summit live on Sept. 26 at https://psivet.com/student-summit. Registration is free, and the event will be recorded and archived so students can revisit the talks.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.