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From deportation to entrepreneurship

Opportunity, innovation and conviction pay off for Dr. Hitesh Tolani ’04.

Hitesh Tolani ’04 and Virtudent won gold and $50,000 in MassChallenge Boston, the flagship program of the world’s largest start-up accelerator. Tolani designed Virtudent to increase access, lower costs and change the landscape of oral health delivery in the United States through teledentistry.

As a result, his story—from immigrant and first-generation college student to dentist, professor and entrepreneur—is attracting lots of attention.

“The night of the Republican presidential debate, the debate was trending one and MassChallenge was trending two,” says Tolani. “MassChallenge asked me to share my story. They pushed it out on their blog, and FWD.us, an organization started by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates to promote immigration reform, picked it up and will soon be meeting with me about Virtudent.”

According to Tolani, who is in private dental practice in Boston, Mass., and lectures at both Harvard and Tufts universities, “My company is targeted toward lowering the barriers to dental care. We set up pop-up dental clinics with a hygienist and Virtudent technology, which connects a dentist to the patient through the internet.”

The dental care delivery model has not changed in over 200 years, says Tolani, and Virtudent’s innovative approach is changing that. Tolani now has briefed Senate committees and met with governmental and corporate representatives across the country.

More than 2,500 start-ups from around the world competed in the MassChallenge competition. A few years before, Tolani and Virtudent placed second from among 135 teams in the Harvard President’s Challenge, which calls for solutions from the Harvard community for some of the world’s most pressing issues. Virtudent was also a winner in the Tufts 100K New Ventures Competition in 2014.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without Wofford College. Even when I first started Virtudent, I reached out to Wofford alumni on the board of trustees, who spent time mentoring me and answering my questions,” says Tolani.

Wofford College accepted Tolani for admission and gave him a scholarship even though his immigration status was in question. 

“I still remember Lisa Yebuah ’99 (who was an admission counselor at the time) calling and telling me that the Wofford Board of Trustees wanted to make sure that college happened for me,” says Tolani. “That one opportunity has carried me so far, and I know this may sound corny, but I will always be indebted to Wofford.”

When Tolani met the Hon. Dennis Shedd ’75 at a scholarship dinner, Tolani asked, “What can I do to thank Wofford?” Shedd told Tolani his own personal story of how President Joe Lesesne found the money for him to go to law school.

Shedd, who later helped Tolani resolve his immigration issues, encouraged him to look for opportunities to pay it forward. The dean of the college at the time, Dr. Dan Maultsby ’61, did the same.

“My junior year I decided that I was no longer going into computer science. I wanted to be a doctor instead, so I loaded up on classes. Dean Maultsby called me into his office and told me I was taking too many courses. He suggested I take some over the summer. I said, ‘Dean Maultsby, I can’t afford summer school.’ He said, ‘Hitesh, since when have we made you pay for classes?’ When I moved into my room at the start of summer school, there was my organic chemistry book with a note that said, ‘Good luck. Do well. Dean Maultsby.’ How do I ever say thank you enough?” says Tolani.

Wofford folks who remember Tolani also know that there is so much more to the story, some of which he shares in “Deportation to Innovation: How Life’s Unchosen Paths Prepared CEO Hitesh Tolani for a Life of Entrepreneurship,” on the MassChallenge website.

To learn more about Virtudent, visit myvirtudent.com.

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89