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A heart for dentistry and a mind for business

Businesswoman Dr Thembeka Buleni
Businesswoman with a heart for dentistry

Not only is the founder of Emalahleni based Smilez Dental Surgery a doctor, but she is a consummate businesswoman. She founded her dental practice from passion but has kept it running due to impeccable work ethic.

Dr Thembeka Buleni recalls that when dentistry was still a foreign concept to those around her when she was growing up in the vast township of eSikhawini in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, she already knew that’s what she wanted to pursue. She followed her star and in 2007 graduated in dentistry from the Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa).

Soon after that she decided she wanted to pursue the business route and in 2010, founded her own practice, Smilez Dental Surgery.

“Growing up I always knew that I wanted to be a dentist. Back in the day when no one understood what dentistry was, my soul knew. And I have been consistent in pursuing my dream since.” 

From facing unemployment to becoming a founder 

Never in a million years did she dream of owning a business, her idea of success was being a dentist and working in a hospital environment fixing people’s smiles. So foreign was the idea of running her own business that she admits to hardly paying attention in the practice management lectures. 

“When my contract with the government hospital was not renewed after community service, that was the push to the deep end that I never knew I needed to know and unleash my superpower. From that moment something in me changed.” 

The strategic thinker in her came to life, as she had to come up with ways to survive and take care of her children financially as a single parent.

It dawned on me that no one is immune to unemployment in South Africa, I thought being a doctor or dentist which is a scarce skill that is required by the government I had secured my financial future. I was so wrong,” she admits. 

She was in debt and now an unemployed single parent. The search for a job was earnest and yielded freelance work for her. 

"I was employed as a locum in one of the dental practices where I took a leadership and practice manager role as I was locuming. I realized I had my way of doing this and created and implemented systems within those practices for my workflow to be seamless. It was during those times that I realized my leadership skills, critical thinking and execution skills.” 

She created outreach programmes that would alter and increase the income for the practices where she was freelancing at. 

“During this period in my life, I attended every leadership course, business management course, and property course you can imagine, let alone a dental course for continuing dental development to upskill myself. I was reading “how to get rich books” like I had an exam to write on them. I learned about investments; I was all over the place bettering myself.” 

However the practice came as a result of prayer. 

Dr Buleni recalls how she went on a 40-day fast desperately seeking answers pertaining to her life and future because she did not want to be a freelance dentist forever.  

“My fast bore many fruits of clarity and gave me confidence that I’ve got what it takes. I wanted to have my practice.” 

Focusing on her light 

Her road to success has not been without challenges. While in university Dr Buleni fell pregnant. 

She concedes juggling academic work and pregnancy and children after birth is difficult and may seem like the end of the world for a young woman but she was fortunate to have foresight. 

However, succeeding and doing the impossible is what you must do. At least that’s what I was striving to do. I remember one of the questions from my family members: “will you ever complete your course?

I vividly remember my answer, a bold “YES”, “yes, I will finish my course”. The anger and the rage I felt hearing those questions propelled me to make sure that I completed my course and achieve success in general. 

Believing in yourself is the first step to success 

Over the years, she has been able to develop herself, to coach other dentists in their practices, and mentor them. She is also an international keynote speaker. 

“I have had an opportunity to be nominated the dentist of the year and became a runner up candidate for the Health Excellence Mpumalanga award in both the year 2019 and 2022.” 

She was one of the winners of the Smart Integration Awards 2021 in the innovative infection control & prevention category.  

“Being the only representative in South Africa and Africa at large and being the first to win this category from Africa.  I am also a non-executive member of several boards.” 

Her passion for dentistry and business management skills has enabled her to create a system that makes running a practice manageable and efficient. All these successes were accomplished while a single parent.  

She is also one of the winners of the Smart integration Awards (Dentsply Sirona) 2021, in the innovative infection control and prevention category. Being the only representative in South Africa and Africa at large and being the first to win this category from Africa.   

She is an award winner of Mpumalanga health excellence award, health care professional Mentor of the Year in 2023 and she is a runner up candidate for the Health Excellence Mpumalanga award, most compassionate health care provider of the year in 2023. 

She owns multiple investment properties, both residential and commercial. She is still an avid reader, learning never stops for Dr Buleni. 

Fun fact about Dr Buleni! 

I am straight to the point. 

I love dancing. 

I love making people feel better about themselves and bringing them laughter. 



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Editor's note

American novelist Louisa May Alcott said it best when she said “Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”

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