When Paula Newsome first looked for an optometry job in Charlotte, N.C., more than 20 years ago, she got plenty of interviews. O.D.s obviously knew she was a woman from her impressive resume. What they didnt know on paper was that she was African-American.     

Dr. Paula Newsome moved her Advantage Vision Care practice into a paperless office in December. Photo by John Simmons.
One hopeful interview with a male optometrist didnt last much longer than a handshake and an immediate Sorry, we dont have any suitable positions for you. After that, Dr. Newsome decided she would not let other peoples prejudice keep her down. So, her determination and ambition kicked into overdrive.
I decided this man would be sorry he ever said that to me, and that he would have to come back and face me again some time, she recalls.

Today, Dr. Newsomes accomplishments as an optometrist, businesswoman, educator and humanitarian would make even many on the Whos Who list feel like underachievers. This first installment in our Profiles in Excellence series looks at how Dr. Newsome overcame obstacles, blazed trails for other female optometrists and grew her solo practice from zero to buying an entire $2 million office building last month in downtown Charlotte for her Advantage Vision Care practice.

First of Many Firsts
Dr. Newsome holds several first of many firsts titles. She is the first African-American woman optometrist to open a practice in North Carolina and the first African-American woman to become a fellow in the American Academy of Optometry. Her lengthy resume also includes national spokesperson for Vision Council of America. She was one of the first students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry to receive concurrent masters and optometry degrees, a feat she pulled off in just four years, taking classes in the summer while other students were on break.

As a student at UAB, Dr. Newsome definitely stood out in the crowd. UAB professor Melvin Shipp, O.D., M.P.H, Dr.P.H. says he was keenly aware of Dr. Newsomes personal drive, both in her academic and clinical work. Dr. Shipp describes his former student as a fearless trailblazer who overcame formidable barriers to achieve success.

And, shes not afraid to speak her mind. While studying at UAB, one of her professors made an uncomfortable derogatory racial comment during class. Dr. Newsome went to the dean, and said she was paying tuition like any other student and shouldnt have to be subjected to comments such as that in the classroom. As a result, the professor no longer taught optometry students after that semester.

Instead of going into practice immediately after graduating from UAB, she reinforced her knowledge with a residency at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry. She later taught primary-care courses as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis School of Optometry.

Dr. Newsome opened her first practice, Apogee Vision Care, in 1984. She moved to Charlotte that year at the urging of her college sweetheart, a CPA and an MBA. The relationship didnt work out, and after he left Charlotte, Dr. Newsome realized he took all the business sense in the relationship with him. Dr. Newsome then registered for every business class the local community college offered.

You cant just open a practice, she says. You absolutely need to understand business management. Today, Dr. Newsome is writing a book on investing and money management, and she runs her own real estate firm in Charlotte.
As a woman starting her own practice, Dr. Newsome says she faced skepticism initially. Twenty-five years ago, women were in optometry but mostly as employees, she says.

Reps didnt know how to take me, she remembers. Just getting financing at first was a challenge. When I went to the bank, I was asked when was I going to get married and have children. People wondered if I was doing this for fun, or if I was really determined.

People wondered if I was doing this for fun, or if I was really determined.
Shrewd Moves
When Dr. Newsome found out the rent at her leased space was going up, she got financing, then bought a building in Charlotte to relocate her private practice, Apogee Vision Care.

I reconverted the attic in the building and lived in it. It was tiny, just 800 square feet, she says. I felt like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

She then went from solo practitioner to president of AAA Vision Care in 1997. AAA Vision Care is a fully integrated practice with four optometrists, 15 employees and one ophthalmologist on staff in their four offices.

 She left AAA Vision Care in 2000 to become president of Advantage Vision Care, which consists of three optometrists and five staff members.

Dr. Newsomes latest achievement is the recent $2 million purchase of a building in downtown Charlotte, where she relocated her now paperless practice in December. Her two-story, 8,400-square-foot office includes six patient examination rooms. The office also includes a treatment room, with retinal tomography and a blood flow analyzer for her growing glaucoma patient pool. The practice has approximately 20,000 patients. She sees about 35 of them each day.
I am really excited about this. To own property in downtown Charlotte is a major coup, she says.

A Higher Calling
If running a busy practice wasnt enough, the single-parent of 7-year-old Ayana contributes her time to volunteer work at home and abroad. She is an elementary school tutor, and gives free eye screenings in schools. In addition to promoting healthy eyes, she also encourages children to set goals for themselves, something she says her parents, both educators from Wilmington, N.C., urged her to do at a young age.

Dr. Newsome describes herself as a very spiritual person. She went on her first mission trip to South Africa in 1990 to do free screenings. Apartheid was not yet dismantled, and she had to get her passport stamped temporary white to enter the country. She treated about 1,000 needy people in the South African townships with minimal equipment during the trip.

Since then, she has volunteered for missions to Guyana. She went to Jamaica last August, where she distributed 900 pairs of free glasses.

Despite her many achievements, Dr. Newsome is not one to brag.  With all that she has accomplished, she is very gracious, Dr. Shipp says. She doesnt flaunt it. When asked what she attributes her success to, Dr. Newsome replies, I am very blessed.

With the right attitude, fortitude and hard work, you can go from driving an 8-year-old Toyota to do a $2 million project in downtown Charlotte, she says. 

Vol. No: 140:01Issue: 1/15/03