Men of Vancouver is an editorial series featuring stylish and professional men in Vancouver. MofV producer and stylist, Jason Sarai of Style by Sarai, recently interviewed Dr. Harbir Sian, an optometrist and entrepreneur.
What do you do for work?
By profession, I am an optometrist. I spend most days looking into the beautiful depths of my patients’ eyes. Through my profession, however, I have had the wonderful fortune of becoming a business owner, an entrepreneur, and even an amateur actor. I am the co-owner, along with Dr. Harleen Takhar, of Highstreet Eyecare in Abbotsford and Clarity Eyecare in Surrey.
I’m also the creator of AboutMyEyes.com, which is an online resource where I try to mix education with entertainment in my written and video blogs; and I am in the midst of a new creative project named Kingsley.
What made you choose this career?
As much as I would love to share a dramatic story of how some life-changing event caused me to pursue a life dedicated to helping people see more clearly, the story of how I chose optometry is not quite that exciting. I always knew I wanted to do something in the medical field but I was never specifically attracted to a certain profession. Ultimately, the decision to pursue optometry was one based on the information I obtained over a matter of months, if not years, through work experience, speaking to various professionals, and advice from mentors. While that may not be an awe-inspiring story, I can genuinely say I am truly happy with the decision I made over a decade ago and I thoroughly enjoy the work I do.
What do you enjoy most about your career and company?
On a day to day basis, I think an obvious answer for someone who works in the medical field is that, first and foremost, I love to help my patients. But, to be more specific, I love interacting with my patients. When I’m in the exam room with a patient, I want to know as much as I can about the person sitting in front of me. Not just about their eyes, but their overall health, and their life in general. Optometrists like to say that we are not just treating eyes, we are also treating the person behind the eyes. It’s amazing how much you can learn in a few minutes of conversation with a person and I have the great pleasure of having many conversations with many different people on a daily basis.
In the greater picture, I am very fortunate to be in a profession that has allowed me to grow in so many ways; to start a business, to educate creatively through AboutMyEyes.com, and even to help those in different parts of the world who do not have access to care like we do.
Where do you get your inspiration and ideas when building a new company and brand like Kingsley?
I’ve found that inspiration can come from anywhere at any time, often at times when you’re not even looking for it. However, if you are looking for it, my suggestion would be to read an autobiography or two. In the case of Kingsley, I happened to be on a flight home after a vacation and reading Richard Branson’s autobiography. Learning about how someone can create an über-successful business from nothing more than an idea and a lot of hard work is excellent inspiration for an aspiring entrepreneur. Oh, and travelling to new places doesn’t hurt either!
Is there a story behind the name Kingsley?
Something about this project kept taking me back to my youth. Creating something from scratch, building it from the ground up, made me think about my roots and where I started. I was born in London, England and I lived there until I was 11. Although I’ve lived in Canada for over 20 years, I still have some very deep roots there and very fond memories of the early days. For those 11 years I lived on Kingsley Road. I hope to carry the youthful enthusiasm, grit, and energy of that kid growing up in Hounslow into Kingsley.
Where do you see your career and business in five and 10 years?
While I do have specific targets for business growth, my main hope is simply that I continue to grow in all directions. My greatest fears are stagnation and complacency. It seems that many people become comfortable with where they are and thus prevent themselves from reaching their full potential. In the long term, I hope to be able to oversee multiple optometry practices, while continuing to participate in our association (BC Doctors of Optometry) and giving back to the community and those in need. Who knows, maybe I’ll still be shooting educational videos about eyes with my sidekick Dr. Eyenstein.
What has been your greatest business challenge to date?
The year I graduated and began practicing as an optometrist, the entire profession was dealt a big blow in the form of deregulation of online glasses and contact lens sales. In 2010, the BC Health Minister dictated that it was in the public’s best interest to be able to purchase contact lenses and glasses online without a valid prescription from any eye care professional. Needless to say, there were multiple consequences to this decision and its tough to say any of them were particularly in the public’s best interest. We were seeing a lot of patients order contact lenses that were the wrong prescription, that fit poorly, or were made of poor quality material. As a result, a number of patients came in with ocular complications that easily could have been avoided by simply consulting an eye care professional beforehand.
As is so often the case, a great challenge can become a great opportunity. The deregulation we faced in 2010 was a significant driving force behind me creating AboutMyEyes.com. I took the frustration I had for the system that had created this issue and directed it toward something more productive. I decided that educating the public was the only real way to improve the outlook for both patients and optometrists.
What has been your greatest business accomplishment to date?
Opening Highstreet Eyecare in 2013 was something I felt very proud of. From day one, it had been a primary objective of mine to own a clinic. To reach that goal after just three years of practicing was very fulfilling.
What’s your advice to people wanting to pursue a path in your profession?
Its hard to know whether or not a certain profession is right for you. Oftentimes people will simply end up in a career because they thought it would pay well or due to family or social pressure. No matter which profession you choose, my advice is to take some time to speak to people in the industry, spend time volunteering or working with these people, and ask some hard questions; that doesn’t just mean questions about salary, but more about happiness, fulfilment, and overall satisfaction. People are your best resource, so see if you can find a mentor or two who can help guide you. Mentors don’t have to be officially designated as such, they are just people you trust that you can turn to from time to time.
I think this is particularly important for people looking to go into professions that require a large time and financial commitment upfront. For example, if you’re studying to become a medical doctor, it would be worthwhile doing a lot of research to decide if that’s what you really want to do before you spend six-plus years in training.
I have been very fortunate to have some amazing mentors throughout my life, from family to friends to professionals who were kind enough to give up some of their time to help me. For this reason, I feel compelled myself to help as many aspiring professionals as I can in any way I can. It’s something that I’ve found very rewarding and I hope I can continue to do throughout my career.
What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
In my eyes, an entrepreneur is someone who has the vision to build something out of little or nothing. Someone who is willing take risks to bring their passion and dreams to life.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?
I’d like to steal a famous line from a company that one of my favourite entrepreneurs, Phil Knight, built: Just Do It. If you have an idea, even a vague one, start looking into it right away. Don’t dwell on it, don’t hesitate, just do it. Dig up whatever information you can about it and any surrounding concepts. At the same time, start cold calling people in the industry or start knocking on some doors. It won’t take long before you find someone who can help you. Before you know it, you’ll have made more progress than you could have imagined.
Describe a typical work day.
With my work schedule (and personality), I function more efficiently when I build flexibility into my day and week. There are some days when I’m at the office by 9:30 am and other days where my first patient isn’t until 1:30 pm. Some weeks I’m working seven days straight and in other weeks I might be lucky to have a couple of odd days off.
There are some very important constants, however. The first thing after waking up is to head over to the coffee machine if I’m in a rush or my coveted espresso machine if I have a few extra minutes. Next is perhaps the most important part of my day. Every morning, I take 20 to 30 minutes for a combination of some light reading, usually something spiritual and/or motivational, and some time for contemplation. After this I’ll either get ready to head to work or I’ll get in front of my computer to work on anything from clinic-related tasks to Kingsley to AboutMyEyes.com.
Exercise and sports are an important part of my week as well. I will usually carry my gym gear with me so I’m able to sneak in a workout when I can. Most often that will be after work, but I’ve found workouts at lunch time to be very efficient as well. In the evening, I always look forward to coming home for dinner and some quality time with my family before spending a little time reading before bed.
How do you manage your personal and professional life?
The key for me is to try to be flexible with the management of both professional and personal aspects of my life. I am the type of person that would rather work weekends if it means I can take more vacations with my family. I’m also very fortunate to have a very understanding family. So, in the cases that I do have work seven days a week or miss an event, we are all on the same page. It’s also nice that optometry tends to allow for some flexibility. The hours are very reasonable, the work is not physically demanding, and overall its pretty predictable. So I find myself able to work a lot and still enjoy many of the things I like to in my personal time.
What are your favourite hobbies?
Books, movies, sports, and eating. I like to carry a book with me just about everywhere I go, so when I have some free time I will usually crack it open and read a few pages. I’m a movie buff, so if I find myself with enough time, I will try to head to the movie theatre to catch whatever new release is playing. Or at worst, find something on Netflix that I haven’t seen.
I’ve played soccer for my entire life. I may be older and slower, but there are still very few things that I enjoy more than playing and competing at any level I can.
No social activity is more enjoyable to me than sitting around a table with friends and family while chowing down on some good food. Some of the best conversations you’ll ever have will be over dinner. If you have the right ambiance, the right people, and good food, you are guaranteed to have a great time.
What book are you currently reading?
Ray Kroc’s biography called “Grinding It Out: The Making Of McDonald’s.”
What three books would you recommend everyone to read when it comes to business and lifestyle?
I’m really big into autobiographies. They provide such deep insight into a person’s life, it’s almost like you’re having a conversation with the author. Being able to “speak” to entrepreneurs or humanitarians or other great people in history and learn about their struggle can been extraordinarily inspiring.
Three autobiographies I would highly recommend:
- “Losing My Virginity” by Richard Branson
- “Long Walk To Freedom” by Nelson Mandela
- “Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight
What charitable organizations/programs do you work with?
How did you get involved with these?
They are both very well established organizations in the optometric community. Both have excellent track records for following through with their mandates: to provide services to people in developing parts of the world who do not have access to some of the most basics types of care. I was fortunate enough to travel to South America to help provide these services in a small coastal town in Colombia. Seeing firsthand how much an eye exam and a basic pair of glasses can change a person’s life really gave me a greater appreciation for what I do as an eye care professional but also made me more grateful for what we have here at home.
Why is giving back important to you?
Winston Churchill said “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” We often get caught up in making money, having things, and being comfortable. Giving back, especially when donating your personal time and effort, allows you to reconnect with your humanity and it makes you more grateful for the things you have.
What does a typical weekend look like for you?
Unfortunately, every day of the week is just about the same for me. But if I do have a day off, I try to plan something like a nice Sunday brunch with my beautiful wife. As I mentioned, eating is one of our favourite things to do. And nothing beats a good brunch on a relaxing Sunday!
What your favourite places to eat at in Vancouver?
There are a lot of great places, depending on the vibe we’re looking for and the type of evening it is.
For dinner, Glowbal is a great go-to for my wife and I. AnnaLena is also one of our dinner favourites. If we’re aiming for lunch or brunch then we’re usually trying to get into Catch 122 or Café Medina. Both have amazing food and a fantastic vibe. I am also a huge fan of oysters and Rodney’s in Yaletown is so much fun to grab a couple of drinks and some oysters.
What do you recommend someone to try when at Glowbal?
If you’re like me and you enjoy oysters, then I recommend share a dozen of the chef’s selection to start things off. The queso fundido is amazing. Just about every main dish is good, but the truffle spaghetti and meatballs is on another level.
What do you recommend someone to try when at Catch 22?
Catch 122 is easily one of the best places in Vancouver for brunch. The chorizo hash is phenomenal!
What are you favourite cafes and coffee shops in Vancouver?
If I have the time, one of my favourite things to do is grab a book and a nice cup of coffee and just relax at a coffee shop. 49th Parallel on Main and 13th is definitely one of my top picks. I also really like Roots Café on Main and 49th, which is a bit of a hidden gem. If you like poutine, you have to pop in to Roots and try the butter chicken poutine. Trust me, it is much much better than it sounds.
What’s your drink of choice?
My taste in caffinated beverages is pretty simple. I like a smooth americano with a little steamed milk. As for alcoholic drinks, my choices vary depending on the setting. The more relaxed the setting, the more likely I am to be sipping on a beer. If I’m out for a nice dinner, then I’ll usually have a vodka martini with olives (shaken, not stirred, of course). And if I’m really trying to be sophisticated, I will happily take a nice Scotch on the rocks.
How do you think people would describe your style?
I would like to think that people see my style as sharp and clean. I prefer to make an impression through good fit and well assembled combinations versus trying to make a statement with bright colours or bold patterns.
How do glasses impact one’s style?
Glasses have become an important staple in style and fashion. With all the amazing styles and colour available, a pair of glasses can take an ensemble from good to great.
What does style mean to you?
For a business person or entrepreneur, your personal style is part of your brand. Your brand is your reputation. And as we all know, our reputation will often precede us when we are building important relationships. Making the right impression with your style – not only in the way you dress, but also your behaviour – can be the factor that elevates your brand and you enterprise to greater heights.
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