Doctor. Wife. Mother—of five. Entrepreneur. Food enthusiast. Event curator. Philanthropist. Lezli Levene Harvell wears so many hats, it’s exhausting just to consider what a typical day in her life must be like. Inevitably, the clichéd phrase “I don’t know how she does it” comes to mind.
On the evening she speaks with The Glow Up, Dr. Levene Harvell has already worked a full day at her pediatric dental practice in Newark, N.J., before hopping a flight to Chicago to prepare for the launch of her 2018 Iconoclast Dinner Experience series the next day. In the interim, she has fit in dinner at one of the many acclaimed Chicago restaurants she’s been dying to try and, after all of that, finally made time to chat with us until well past midnight while personally stuffing hundreds of gift bags for the event.
But, surprisingly, she sounds full of energy when we speak—as if this is just an average day in the life of a multihyphenate like herself. And because she’s managed to check all of the boxes so many contemporary women are aspiring to—all before turning 40 later this month—I can’t resist asking the most obvious question: What is “having it all” really like?
I can’t talk about any other woman, but while people may see me as my own entity, really, I’m the product of a lot of people giving me support. For example, my husband is very, very hands-on—he knows how to do hair [and] everything. So the fact that I have five daughters [ages 5-18] but my husband is very hands-on, that obviously allows me to pursue my passions.
Also, I have an amazing sisterhood. Not just sisters; I just have an amazing group of friends who are very, very supportive. I have people in the food industry—and even outside of the food industry—who’ve become evangelists for the work that I’m doing. And, you know, obviously there’s always more work to be done, but I would not be here without all of these people holding me up.
Levene Harvell, a board-certified pediatric dentist, had already given birth to two of her five children before starting dental school, delivering her first daughter with her husband, Christopher, during Christmas break of her senior year at Spelman College. Eventually, in addition to having three more daughters, the two would also co-create Dental Kidz, a Newark-based private pediatric dental practice, in 2008, in which 80 percent of their young patients are covered by government-subsidized insurance.
It’s a community-conscious business that blends Levene Harvell’s medical acumen with her husband’s experience in the finance sector, and was inspired, in large part, by his childhood experiences receiving the medical care often offered to lower-income children. Says Levene Harvell:
We always knew that we wanted to create a company that had the highest quality of care and state-of-the-art facilities, and we wanted like all children to have access to it—not just the wealthy children, but people who grew up like my husband. ... He doesn’t remember his pediatrician, or even [know] if he had a pediatric dentist.
We both felt that children who grew up like my husband, they should have the same standard of care. And not just standard, but they should be able to come into a facility that’s bright and friendly and child-centered—any child, irrespective of socioeconomic status, whether or not they’re medically compromised—we just wanted everyone to be able to benefit from it.
There’s also the added benefit of reflecting the community she serves, and perhaps even being a role model to children whose only prior exposure to a black female doctor may be Doc McStuffins.
“Just to see the children and the parents react to me in the way that they did, that was also very rewarding, too,” she recalls of starting her practice. “They would be pleasantly surprised when they would see me.”
But when she’s not treating patients, managing her staff, or in mommy-and-wife mode, Levene Harvell is an avid foodie who has channeled her love of high-end culinary experiences into the Iconoclast Dinner Experience, a multicity showcase for some of the most dynamic chefs of color in the country and for the foodie community of color, which is rarely catered to. (Of note: Eduoardo Jordan, the host of her 2018 Chicago event, won two James Beard Awards two days later.) In keeping with the “for us, by us” theme, all proceeds from her events are put into a scholarship fund at Spelman.
But she might not have ever found the time—or the inspiration—if she hadn’t made some space on the “mommy track” for herself. It was a practice that proved challenging for Levene Harvell, who was not only running an active practice but had also been a mother since age 21, still with small children at home.
In fact, she credits her husband with encouraging her to make time for herself; on her birthday one year, she says, he suggested that the ultimate gift might be to make herself a higher priority:
He said to me, “You know, you do so much for our family, for everyone else ... I really want to make sure that you don’t wake up when you’re 50 and look back and resent your family. So I need you to find what you’re passionate about and make time for it.” And not that I needed him to tell me that, but maybe I did, because I thought that I was making time for myself ...
But I think, from my husband’s point of view—and knowing me since I was 20 years old—I think he felt like, “Is she really doing something meaningful for her that is separate and apart from being my wife, or being their mom, or even being Dr. Levene Harvell? You know, what drives Lezli?”
As it turned out, what drove her was her passion for food and culture. She began dedicating each Thursday night to trying a new restaurant, and before long, the Iconoclast Dinner Experience was born, fueled primarily by her own passion for the culinary world. Now the growing success of her events is rivaling that of her practice.
So how does Lezli Levene Harvell do it? By making sure she doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of “having it all”; something she encourages other busy moms to do, too:
The carving of time; that’s an actual real thing that I had to allow myself to become comfortable doing. ... You know, my husband and I, we started out a lot younger than most people. Many of my friends, they may have, like, a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old now, and this is their first child. So, a lot of times, I’ve talked to my friends and other women about feeling OK about carving out that time, because I used to feel guilty about it. [And] it was self-imposed; no one was making me feel guilty.
And so, after that, I just said, “You know what? I need to schedule time for myself. I need to schedule it in the way that I would schedule and manage all these other aspects of my life.”