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The inside scoop on the life of CEO and philanthropist Pooja Phol

by Aiden

Who really is the woman behind the Dr. Sunil International Dental Center?

By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales

Meeting Pooja Phol, the head of the Bangkok charitable giant the PP Foundation; the unsung half of the duo behind the Dr. Sunil International Dental Center; and the self-confessed backbone of the celebrated and larger-than-life Dr. Sunil; caused me, I have to admit, a moment of apprehension. While they say behind every great man is a great woman, Pooja stands out on her own as a CEO, philanthropist, fashion designer, and devoted mother and wife.

However, despite the opulent mansion we were in and her sophisticated elegance, Pooja stands on no ceremony, greeting me with warmth and candid openness. “It’s true, I prefer being in the background,” she confesses with a laugh, “my husband is the bold one!” Despite this, her vision and drive is clear to see, taking the reins as CEO of both the Dr. Sunil International Dental Center and the PP Foundation. “I tell my husband, I have to make sure the backbone of this home, this business, is strong,” she continues. “To all the ladies out there, remember that even if you’re not working, you’re the backbone as the lady of the house. When men are stressed, who takes over? Us women.”

Originally hailing from Delhi, Pooja graduated with a BSc (Hons.) in Mathematics at Jesus and Mary College (JMC) in Delhi, which she credits with a lot of her success. “It’s helped me control the financial part of my dental centre, as well as make logical decisions,” she says. However, before the clinic and her foundation, Pooja came from unassuming beginnings. “Both Dr. Sunil’s and my backgrounds are more or less the same – my dad is a businessman, and my husband started as a dentist in a hospital. Our main difference came from living in different countries, and he was the reason I moved to Thailand over 20 years ago.”

The move here, however, wasn’t easy. Pooja confesses the language barrier was difficult, as well as not knowing anyone in the Thai-Indian society, but it was the impetus she needed to build her own identity here. “I gave myself six months to learn Thai,” Pooja says. “And I started designing clothes. I launched Oberoy’s Collection, a formalwear design brand which was very successful during its time. People still know me for that even now.”

I ask her if that’s the real Pooja Phol, the artist and fashion designer, and she laughs. “Actually, if I had to define myself, I am firstly a homemaker, and secondly a businesswoman. I’m very spiritual, and that’s the face no one knows.” So, who is she behind the glitz and glam? Pooja sat down with me and told me her story: the initial struggle, the rumours, and the face behind it all.

Where did it all begin?
I guess the story of this phase of my life began when I was 18 or 19. I had just finished high school and I was working on my Mathematics Honours degree when I met Dr. Sunil at a wedding in Delhi. He immediately proposed marriage to me!

I was shocked. I told him, “I’m not getting married, I want to finish my studies,” and he said, “I’ll wait.” I thought to myself, this guy from Bangkok will wait for years? It seems too good to be true. But he absolutely did. It was a pure love marriage, and that’s how our journey started.

It sounds like quite the romance!
Our love story was very intense. We went through a big tug-of-war – it was like one of those dramatic Bollywood movies, where parents don’t agree to marry their daughter to someone overseas. We went through a lot to make it happen.

When I look back, however, I know that everything was worth it. Neither of us inherited anything; we started off fresh, from scratch. It was literally a one-man show. The only reason it could work out was our love and understanding – without each other’s support, I don’t think either of us could have made it.

And we did struggle at first. When we both got married, Dr. Sunil was working in the hospital. We had a very simple life, where he’d go to the hospital, and I’d wait at home, and it was all very cute. He was more well-known in the Thai society, and I had to build up my social circle.

You said you built up your social circle through your fashion design. Tell us about that. Do you miss it?
I had to borrow money, I did my homework, created my collection, and chose to do an exhibition in my own house. I knew if it was good enough, people would come to me. And they did! The whole town was there. I sold my complete collection – not only what I’d already made, but I got orders upon orders. They all went crazy over it – that’s how they found out who Pooja Phol was, this girl from nowhere whose clothes everyone now wants to wear. From there, my collection took off. I went to fashion shows in Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, and Jakarta. Through it all, Dr. Sunil was my biggest supporter. He gave me two staff to travel everywhere for my shows, and when I was away, he’d take care of our son. Even when I was pregnant for the second time, he encouraged me to keep going.

We were both so busy, and we were also in the midst of opening Dr. Sunil’s private clinic. The big twist is that at the peak of my success, I realised that if I joined him in that venture, I couldn’t carry on with my work because we had kids as well. That’s when I made the decision to stop designing. He never asked me to, but I told him, “when I followed my dream, you were behind me the whole time, and now I’m going to be behind you. I’ve done well, the whole town knows me now.” I have no regrets. I created my own identity, and I knew it was time to move on and support Dr. Sunil the same way he did me.

So you were there at the very conception of the Dr. Sunil International Dental Center.
Oh yes! I even chose the name. I told him, “I don’t go to hospitals because I like the hospital, but because I like a doctor there; I’m comfortable with them. So the clinic should be named after you.” He thought I was crazy at first, but I told him that people knew him by his name, not where he was working, and he realised I was right. That’s how I started managing the marketing for the clinic.

Since then, the dental centre has become an international success. Many have admired your family for having struck gold and living what many of us would call ‘the dream.’ What’s your secret?
I’m a very spiritual person, so I’d first give credit to my God, and my guru, who has taught me to believe in yourself. Secondly, I credit the support I get from my husband.

Aside from that, I would say that being at the forefront of medical tourism led to a big jump for us. In 2005, when we created the Dr. Sunil International Dental Center, Thailand was not yet a big hub for medical tourism. When I started diving into the business, I started seeing a lot of opportunities. I said, there’s so much more to this country, so how about we push for medical tourism? We were already doing very well with local expats, and we decided to expand our marketing abroad.

People started flying in all the way here for dental surgeries because they’d compare the technology here, which is top-of-the-line, and the dentists, who were very skilled, with their own countries. Here, they’d also only pay half the price. 2012 onwards was our peak; medical tourism was everywhere, and we were one of the big names bringing people here. The Australian government themselves asked us to go to Australia and promote our business because so many Australians were visiting Thailand for our clinic. Our business further ramped up when we had Bollywood actors come in; celebrities from Mumbai who came to get their smile makeover.

At the end of the day, the credit goes to Dr. Sunil, because it’s his work. He has created his own team, the dream team, but he’s the founder, and he’s got the talent. He’d even sing when doing surgery, which means that he enjoys it, and it’s his passion.

Everybody knows about the clinic and your unprecedented success there, but do you have businesses beyond dentistry that have contributed to your success?
Many people ask me this question, and I wish I could say yes, but we don’t. I’m still looking for our hidden business! [Laughs] Up till now people still tell me it’s not possible to achieve the success we have, but those people haven’t seen that journey that Dr. Sunil and I went through. It wasn’t simply an overnight success. I had to dive in and study the market, and I worked 14-hour days back then.

Naturally when someone is ultra-successful in a short period of time, the rumour mill starts spinning. What are the craziest rumours you’ve heard about yourself and your family, and how have you dealt with that?
Oh my God, there are plenty! So many people think that Dr. Sunil is a don and I ask them, “Are you crazy? Can you imagine? From a doctor, to a rock star, to a pop star, to a don?” They don’t see the struggle that we’ve gone through and they come up with such names.

How do we deal with it? We just laugh. When people see us in social media, we can’t expect everybody to love us, but haters will make you learn more. I actually love my haters; I would never remove them from my social media! I have a different approach to life – let the haters see what we do. There will come a day when they will understand our journey and acknowledge our good work.

Many of their eyes have been opened now post-COVID, with the ways our foundation stepped up. Some still think we’re putting on a show, but it doesn’t matter. Through our foundation’s work during these hard times, more people who didn’t believe in us changed their minds and in turn, helped others.

Can you tell us more about the charitable work your foundation has done over the years, and the ways you’ve used your privilege for good? 
My husband came up with the idea – he’s been working with his dental surgery for 25 years, and he thought we should formally start a foundation to give back to society, although we’ve been giving charitable donations for years. That appealed to my spiritual side, and I agreed.

We launched our foundation in 2010. We knew it would be a big commitment, so we started by donating three vans – the concept was to help unprivileged people in this area who couldn’t reach the hospital or a cremation centre when something happened to a family member. We also started a mobile dental van, which can reach any slum area or village, where our doctors and nurses can go and provide dental treatment.

We built the foundation right here in the slum area because for people to travel from here elsewhere, it wasn’t practical. We also started food donations, and an Eye Camp, where we’d give people free eye check-ups and glasses on the same day – we had 80-year-olds in wheelchairs come to get new glasses! Our aim was to make everything accessible to underprivileged people here.

Your foundation was also very heavily involved in COVID-19 relief during this difficult time, which you’ve mentioned. Can you tell us about the projects you’ve undertaken?
Many were jobless at that time, so we donated food on a weekly basis. We gave them rice, oil, and sugar, because these were their basic needs. The pandemic helped us realise how blessed we were that we already had this foundation, because we could use it to help.

People would line up and they would wait for hours to get food. Seeing those needy people, I wanted to cry. We stood in the sun with everyone for hours because the lines went on for miles. The best thing was, however, that it wasn’t just us; others would send sacks of rice, oil, sugar, and Mama noodles. It made us realise that people wanted to give and that we could be at the front lines because we’re so privileged. Till now, we have people who are donating on an everyday basis!

I have to give credit to my entire team who stood with us. It took a lot of organisation and hard work, but it was also an opportunity to show the Thai people how much the Indian community is giving back to society. People trust us more now.

Are they finally seeing the real Pooja Phol and Dr. Sunil; who you are behind their assumptions?
There are still faces people don’t see. I know how to draw the line between being at home, and being at work. At work I’m a completely different Pooja altogether! As I mentioned, I’m very spiritual. I fast regularly, and people will laugh at me. They’ll say I’m fasting for detox purposes, but no, this is who I am. I haven’t left my roots. I’ve created my own boundaries, because Dr. Sunil has never stopped me from day one. He trusts that I will not misuse anything.

As for my husband, most people don’t know the hidden Dr. Sunil at all. They think he’s a show-off and snobbish, but in his real life he’s so different. What I see up there in social media, I have to laugh. People can be really fooled! At the end of the day, he’s a very good husband, son, and father. He cares about people’s feelings and takes note of what they need. For example, his mother is 90 years old. He talks to her every day, and with one call, he’ll be back in her town immediately. This reflection of his father you can see in my son – he calls me every single day from Switzerland.

He’s also a big romantic! When we were going around, he used to come to Delhi every two months to see me – even though my parents didn’t know! He does little things – when I first came here, the room was designed in such a way that the moment I entered, I was faced with a big framed photo of myself. He told me that he’d had it there for three years, and it would be the first thing he’d ask his sisters to help him clean when they came around.

He’s got an eye for design as well. For example, after we got married, our bedroom had everything a woman could possibly want, including separate blocks for all my rings.

So was he the one who designed your house? It’s magnificent!
Yes, everything, except for the temple, which I designed. For example, he carved one of the pillars himself, and told the architect to copy the design. Of course, we had a very good designer, and we are very lucky to have him. He implemented everything Dr. Sunil wanted – from the carving of the tooth at the entrance, to the imprint of my right foot and his left foot at the doorstep for good luck. Who would think of that? This is called creativity.

The house is so distinct that it was even used to film Bollywood films. After these Bollywood stars came to get their smile makeovers, they’d eat here and they were so impressed with the house that they suggested it be used as a set. Main Tera Hero (2014), for example, was fully shot here.

What was that like?
We were living with all the stars for a good 15 days. Imagine the scene – I’d come down to breakfast in the morning and open the door and Anupham Kher is there and he says, “good morning, Pooja!” Then Nargis Fakri and Varun Dhawan would come and join us for breakfast. The best part was when they asked Dr. Sunil if he’d like to be part of the movie, which he did!

In the future, where do you see yourself both personally and professionally?
The foundation definitely needs to be sustained. I’d like my kids and their kids to continue it; it’s my legacy. But it’s their decision. If they do join us, we want to have a couple of branches, where we take it from here to overseas. Later, we might decide to become a listed company as well. Hopefully, with God’s grace, everything goes according to plan. 

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