Five years ago today I put in my two-week notice at work, and launched my nutrition private practice and communications business. I literally just had to do the math twice because I couldn’t believe it’s been five years! I wish I could say starting my business was some well-thought out and intentional plan, but frankly, it was my 30th birthday and I was exhausted with a toxic work environment where I felt like I wasn’t able to help my patients in the way that I wanted to and knew that I could. I couldn’t imagine going into my next decade doing the same work I had been doing, so I decided to quit my job and build a business that I felt proud of.
From almost the first month I started my business, I’ve gotten multiple emails every week from dietitians who are interested in starting their own business. I wish I had the time to hop on the phone and chat with each and every one of you because I truly believe the way to grow and expand our field is with more private practice RDs. Unfortunately, our education and training does very little to prepare dietitians for entrepreneurship. Much of what I learned was from the RDs who were kind enough to share advice and support along my journey.
So in that light, every year on my birthday/private practice-aversary, I share a post with advice for dietitians who want to open their own business. Check out the other posts in this series:
This year I wanted to focus on tips for female small business owners. Last week I was on a panel for local female entrepreneurs, and I left feeling so inspired hearing about the stories of local women I admire! Reflecting on the event, I realized that getting over all the gendered crap I had picked up from society was probably the biggest barrier in starting and growing my practice. Before I started my practice, I thought of business owners as powerful, commanding, and assertive go-getters, which was definitely NOT how I thought of myself. I also thought of business owners as male, because let’s face it, that’s mainly what I had seen. My initial career goal as a dietitian was to get a well paying job working for someone else, doing something I enjoyed…and I guess I would just do that until I retired because I didn’t imagine myself moving into a supervisory role. So when I landed a job as an outpatient dietitian at the VA, essentially I had reached the peak of my career aspirations before I was 30…and I was absolutely miserable.
Dietetics is a bit unusual in discussing the role of gender in the workplace because it’s a female-dominated profession. That makes it really hard for dietitians to be taken seriously, especially coupled with the fact that everyone who has watched an episode of Dr. Oz thinks they’re an expert on food and nutrition. For the amount of schooling we do, we’re vastly underpaid and undervalued compared to other health professionals. When I talk to aspiring private practice dietitians in my mentoring sessions, lack of confidence is one of the main things that comes up, which makes a lot of sense when you think about the typical RD experience. We work our a** off in college getting near perfect grades in a science heavy courseload (hello biology, anatomy & physiology, chemistry, microbiology, organic chemistry, food and dairy microbiology, experimental statistics, human nutrition and metabolism, medical nutrition therapy and whatever that god-awful food science class was where you had to learn the formulas for pasteurizing different canned foods that I swear was harder than all the other science classes combined). We compete to become one of the less than 50% of students who match to a dietetics internship and complete a masters degree, throughout which we’re indoctrinated with this idea that you have to work in clinical upon graduation. Once in clinical, we’re underpaid and often treated pretty poorly by other health professionals, who often don’t understand the depth of the work we do, all while watching hot, thin “nutritionists” and celebrity doctors get fame and fortune selling ridiculous fad diets. Phew - can you tell I have some feelings about this? No wonder we struggle we confidence! Most of the aspiring private practice RDs I work with are feeling pretty beat down by the profession by the time they decide to step out on their own.
I truly believe that a key to improving our profession is getting more dietitians in private practice and communications, where we are more visible, and have the time and space to empower the people we work with. For many of us, doing that means working through a lot of gendered crap that’s holding us back. Here’s some of my best advice for female small business owners running a nutrition private practice:
Command what you’re worth.
Selling my services was the scariest thing for me when I started my business, whether it was signing up a new client or sending a quote to a brand that was interested in collaborating. I know I’m not alone in this - it’s the biggest fear I hear from the aspiring private practice RDs I’ve mentored through the years. The idea of a woman knowing her worth and commanding that was a completely foreign concept to me. Plus, I was also absolutely petrified of rejection, so it felt easier to lowball fees for work. At the women’s panel I was on, every single one of us talked about how we felt internal and external pressure to give things away for free or at a discount!
As women, we’re often raised to put other people’s needs first. While this can be helpful to some degree in business for keeping your customers happy, it also means getting walked all over. And getting walked all over means feeling exhausted and under-valued. And when you’re feeling exhausted and under-valued, you’re probably not going to be bringing your A-game. Boundaries are good y’all! And one of those boundaries is being clear with how much your time is worth.
Whether it was freelance writing, nutrition counseling, or brand partnerships, part of gaining confidence in commanding my worth came with building my skills and experience, which is normal. But I had a big a-ha when I realized that no matter what, my time is valuable. As dietitians, we are healthcare providers - no one would ever expect their doctor to give them a refund if they didn’t cure them, to charge less than what insurance would reimburse for, or ask for free consultations. But as dietitians, we’re pressured to do these things all the time! I literally had someone call my office yesterday asking for free advice - can you imagine calling a law office and asking for free legal advice??
Keep in mind, commanding your worth doesn’t mean charging exorbitant fees or never making any special considerations. Personally, I want my services to be as available as possible, especially in a state that doesn’t offer reimbursement for nutrition counseling. But I also know I offer a valuable service and deserve to be compensated fairly.
Know when it’s comparititis - and when there’s room for growth.
One of the questions we got on the panel was how to deal with the comparison trap. This was a biggie for me when I first started my practice, especially in a profession where other people’s success is so visible. Women are often fed this narrative of competition, so seeing someone else’s success felt like a personal failure.
What was helpful for me was learning to distinguish between comparititis, and when I had identified space for growth and professional development. Doing that meant taking the other person’s perceived accomplishments out of the picture, and asking myself if I still felt a sense of deficiency. If so, cool, then I’ve just identified an area for improvement, and I can actually take tangible steps to get better at that thing. But if you’re constantly just finding people who (seemingly) have/do/are more skilled than you, then you’re just constantly striving and never feeling like enough.
Also, if you’re new to private practice, please know the world of nutrition entrepreneurs is amazingly supportive. There’s an understanding that if one of us shines, we all shine, so we’re always willing to help anyone who is new to entrepreneurship. Check out Facebook groups like #INSPIRDtoSEEK for support and real talk about being a small business owner.
Get ready for trolls.
Oh man…the trolls. Being a woman online, and especially working in nutrition, where apparently reading a few pages of Dr. Mercola’s blog is the same as a nutrition degree, trolling is just part of the job. Thankfully, I don’t get it as bad as a lot of my friends, but it still happens on the regular.
The first time I was trolled was really upsetting. I remember it was on an article I wrote about carbs, debunking the idea that carbs were bad for you. I can’t remember what he said, but the comment ended with “welcome to the real world, sweetheart.” My blood was boiling for days!
Now I find trolls to be rather amusing, and I actually kinda enjoy sassing back. I have a lot of snark bottled up inside and engaging with trolls is one way I get some release. I don’t know if it’s the smartest way to handle it - one day when I’m murdered by some dude I pissed off online this post is going to come back and haunt me - but it’s how I choose to fight back.
There’s a difference between criticism, disagreement, and trolling. When you do things online, you’re bound to make mistakes, misstate words, or just get it all wrong. When you get criticism, it’s ok (and actually a good thing) to listen, take it in, and accept responsibility, especially if your mistake caused hurt for another person, even if that hurt was unintentional. That can easily happen in the IE/HAES space where this work intersects with social justice, and there is SO much to learn, especially as someone with a lot of privilege. You might also run across people who disagree with you online - this happens to me all the time working as a HAES dietitian, which shouldn’t be radical, but unfortunately still is in this field. It’s ok to disagree, and actually having productive discourse can help strengthen your practice by understanding other views, and how to debate. Then there’s the trolls. They are just on a power trip, compensating for their own insecurities. Realizing just how small they must feel to engage in trolling keeps me from feeling hurt by anything they say.
Get over the idea that you can have it all.
When I first started my practice, the women I looked up to were ones that seemed to have it all - fulfilling career, awesome personal life, time to travel, meditate, practice yoga, read books, and journal, and a house that never had dirty dishes.
Now I realize if they truly do have it all, it’s only because they have enough money to pay to delegate tasks. Work-life balance is a myth, and I hate that I wasted so much time trying to achieve it.
Now I prescribe to the four burners theory. Think of an oven with four burners. Each burner represents something different - work, family, friends, and health. But you can’t have all four burners going on high at once or you’ll burn the house down. So you have to either keep all the burners running on medium heat, or you pick and choose ones to concentrate on during different seasons of life.
Sometimes there are weeks and months where I’m really wrapped up in work - it’s one of those seasons right now (as I type this in bed at 10:30 at night after prepping for a big presentation at our state dietetics conference on Friday). Other times, I’m able to take some time to concentrate more on relationships or self care or skip town and go on vacation. I used to feel almost suffocated by guilt (and tbh sometimes still do), stressing about what I was missing out on when I was working, or stressing about the work that I could be getting done when I wasn’t working. Now I’m trying to be OK with not having it all, and that in order to do this incredibly fulfilling job that I love, it also means there will frequently be dirty dishes, takeout meals, missed happy hours, and times where I have to be extra aware about setting boundaries at work.
If you’re thinking about going into private practice but feeling scared, know that entrepreneurship will push you so far outside your comfort zone - it’s terrifying at first, but soon the things that make your heart race and trigger all those feelings of inadequacy will be second nature. When I look back at the last five years, I know that starting my business has been such a huge factor in my personal growth, not just my professional growth. If you need additional support, I offer RD mentoring calls, and would be happy to schedule a session with you. Here’s a link with more information about RD coaching - just shoot me an email if you’d like to schedule!