Clothes Minded

Dr. Ilyas provides skin cancer screenings for 150 patients a week, diagnosing and treating thousands of precancers and skin cancers a year. This high level of new diagnoses made her realize that something about the sunscreen message wasn’t working. UPF clothing seemed like a natural solution to enhance UV protection, but most clothes were designed for athletics. “I’m always telling people skin cancers happen on the left side of your face, on the left arm, because of the car window. But I took it a step further and asked, ‘What do I do with that information?’” The answer was a line of sun protective clothing for professional and everyday wear. There’s an educational aspect to the endeavor. “Even if they don’t buy it, consumers get the idea behind understanding that standard clothing doesn’t protect you. Maybe they’ll start to understand that you need sunscreen and UV avoidance every day of the year, you really need to always think about some element of sun safety.”

Born into a family of physicians, Erum Ilyas, MD was always interested in medicine. She gravitated to dermatology because, “It really was the only field that literally combined the best of everything, every aspect of medicine.” Ten years since she founded her practice in suburban Philadelphia, Dr. Ilyas recently hired additional dermatologists and opened new satellite offices. She has also launched a successful UPF clothing line and retail space, called AmberNoon. She says she didn’t think of herself as an entrepreneur when she started her practice: “I think I was a little naive in that I basically rented office space and bought supplies. I didn’t research or do all the things that some people do. I just decided I’m going to start this and see what happens.” But she has since adopted the principles of entrepreneurship to both her retail business and her medical/aesthetic practice.

How did you become an entrepreneur?

Erum Ilyas, MD: I didn’t say, “I’m going to become an entrepreneur and I’m going to leave my practice.” In fact, I have no desire to leave my practice. I love my patients. I totally understand my patients. But starting a clothing line was completely out of my wheelhouse, so I had to learn a lot. There are probably a lot of things I could be doing better, and I probably could have pulled the company even farther faster if it were my full-time job. What I really had to learn is to recognize that there are some things I know and some things I don’t, and I have to surround myself with people that know what they’re doing and reach out for help.

There’s a whole world not only of the retail industry that I’m learning about, but also this entrepreneur world; there are a lot of resources out there where people really want to drive innovation and change.

I’m really thankful I stumbled across the Tory Burch Fellowship and was accepted for it. We had a five-day workshop series—kind of a mini MBA—essentially on the basics of being an entrepreneur. I can’t tell you how helpful it was just to find a framework of thinking of those principles that were not taught in medical school.

How do you balance medical practice, a business, and a family?

Dr. Ilyas: For me, family always comes first. From day one, I planned my workday around my children. I see patients while my kids are in school, and I balance AmberNoon responsibilities on specific days and times of the week.

The biggest key for me has been understanding that sometimes I have to hire the right people to be at my practice or at my AmberNoon store that are reliable; they’re dedicated. I can assign tasks, and I know that they’re always taking care of them. I don’t take on too much on my own. I try to make sure that I always balance things and delegate whenever I can.

What’s the best advice you got from a mentor? What’s your advice to young dermatologists?

Dr. Ilyas: I was advised to make my own schedule that works for me. And I’ve found that autonomy over the times that you work is the most important key to job satisfaction. When I hire new physicians, I tell them to make their schedule the way they need to so that they can be truly present whenever they’re working; you don’t want to have your mind elsewhere. It makes a difference for staff, because they feel like you’re happy when you’re at work. It makes a difference to patients that you are fully focused.

My advice to young doctors is to think about starting your own practice. We’re sometimes discouraged by so much regulation and so many hurdles, but I argue that there are so many resources these days for physicians starting out. They will derive so much satisfaction from providing the care that they want and building patient relationships on their own terms. It’s worth it if they feel the drive, if they feel the desire to do it, just to pursue it. Don’t get hung up on all the little nuts and bolts, because there’s always going to be someone you can ask or reach out to or some resource that you’ll find that can help you through each and every aspect of what you do. And that goes for starting a business, too.