Innovators and Influencers: Kimberlee Di Fede Sullivan
Leadership, Trident | November 19, 2016

This Founders’ Day we celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit of our founders — women who realized that a Fraternity could fill a great need for young women living away from home and their network of family and friends. Women who saw a need for a group which would be different from the others — “a society that would be kind alike to all and think more of a girl’s inner self and character than of her personal appearance.”

The legacy of Tri Delta’s Founders helped inspire current Fraternity President Kimberlee Di Fede Sullivan on her path to becoming an award-winning business owner building her legacy through hard work, education and devotion to others. For over 11 years, Kimberlee has been the owner of Sullivan Physical Therapy located in Austin, Texas. As a pioneer in her field, Kimberlee has created a successful business, operated by women and devoted to the betterment of others through women’s and men’s health physical therapy.

With heart, purpose and hard work, Kimberlee carved her own path. “I don’t think I would ever say I had a pioneering spirit to be an entrepreneur or business owner. I’ve always been a very hard worker, and taken opportunities as they arise,” Kimberlee said.

Admittedly from a close-knit Italian family, Kimberlee’s first leap was in her decision to move away from her family to attend Pepperdine University. Having always been a straight-A student, this quickly changed in her time at Pepperdine. “I wanted to drop out. I was going to become a flight attendant because I love to travel and love being on planes.” With her mind made up, her father reminded her that she is too clumsy on level ground to be trusted with serving drinks at high altitude. So Kimberlee returned to Pepperdine.

Not only was her father’s sage wisdom helpful, but his profession inspired the direction of her career. As as a college football coach, Coach Di Fede’s household was rooted in athletics. “I had college football players as babysitters; they were at our home for meals, our whole world was sports,” Kimberlee said. She loved medicine and working with the athletes, but she realized a career goal for being a college athletic trainer would be all-consuming. She wanted to do great work in athletics, but also have a family. So she began researching physical therapy as a career.

Kimberlee furthered her education at Creighton University, which at the time was the only one of three institutions offering a doctorate in physical therapy. “People told me to just get my master’s degree, it would be sufficient. But I’m so glad and fortunate to have gotten my clinical doctorate. It opened so many doors for me. I was one of the first physical therapists to do this. Now, most programs offer the doctorate in physical therapy,” Kimberlee said.

Much like a physician’s residency, Kimberlee would be doing clinicals in a specific area. A literal coin toss led her to one of few places in the country that focused on women’s health physical therapy. What she expected to be an area focused on pre- and post-natal care, Kimberlee discovered was a wide breadth of issues in women’s health: gynecological care, pelvic pain, incontinence and colorectal care. “I fell in love with the ability to help women who suffered in silence, for fear or shame of their own health and well-being,” Kimberlee said.

Following the completion of her doctorate, she was able to further her practice in women’s health physical therapy to gain expertise. However, there would be obstacles in her path. Women’s health was a vital area of physical therapy that was going unnoticed and untreated. One company she worked for would not assist in funding her continuing education in the field…but she was expected to teach everyone all she knew about women’s health physical therapy. Deep down she felt this was wrong.

Through her frustration, she was encouraged by her tight-knit family dynamic. Her mother encouraged her to open her own clinic. “Women’s health physical therapy was about two hours of curriculum in all four years of physical therapy school. There was so much more to learn and do within this field and I was drawn to make this difference, to improve lives,” Kimberlee said. “I had a passion for something no one was paying attention to. Sarah Ida Shaw was the same, she fought for what she believed in.”

Four months later, Sullivan Physical Therapy opened. That first week, the clinic saw seven patients. Today, Kimberlee’s clinic sees over 250 patients a week.

Becoming a business owner presented a number of challenges which required confidence, hard work and determination. “In physical therapy school, they don’t teach you how to run a business, you learn that in an MBA program,” Kimberlee said. She did not comprehend how to run a company or even hire staff. Undeterred, Kimberlee created her business model in the mirror of something she knew…Tri Delta.

“I had to take my experience as collegiate chapter president, standards committee member and as a Fraternity volunteer to build my clinic from the ground up. We have a set of policies and procedures, my employees sign obligations of employment and our ability to have critical conversations comes from experiences I had as VP/CD, leading standards. Even marketing for the clinic is like recruitment, we did tabling, hosted functions and networked. Had I not had a collegiate Tri Delta experience, I wouldn’t have known how to do this,” Kimberlee said.

Even building her clinic with Tri Delta in mind, there were still a number of obstacles Kimberlee would need to face as a female business owner. People told her to ensure that she had the experience of a man to back her up. As a young business owner, vendors wouldn’t speak to her unless they could speak to her husband first. She says, “Even today, doctors will call the clinic and ask to speak to the business owner ‘if HE is available.’”

Kimberlee again looked to Tri Delta for the strength to endure as an entrepreneur and business owner. “I have a favorite part of our Ritual that says to ‘have perfect confidence in thyself.’ I always say this to myself before I teach or have speaking engagements. Sarah Ida Shaw knew what she was doing! She was telling us to do whatever we can that makes you, YOU. No one knows my business better than I do. I can say that with perfect confidence.”

She has also created an environment for the empowerment of women in her industry. Kimberlee is an employer of 14 women, physical therapists and administrative staff. “Women have so much to offer, and enjoy being empowered to help others in their communities. Women together can accomplish so much, and we can make it really difficult when we are against each other. When women come together, it’s truly amazing to watch,” she said.

That empowerment also allows her staff to have a responsibility to bring their own identities to Sullivan Physical Therapy. This allows them to bring their individual passions to their collective cause and have ownership of their contributions. Staff members have radio shows, blogs and yoga lessons that all add to the care they provide as employees and contributors to Sullivan Physical Therapy.

“In Tri Delta, we ask our members to ‘bring you.’ Just like we want our members to bring their passions and talents to Tri Delta, I ask the same responsibility of the women on my staff at Sullivan Physical Therapy.”

Kimberlee continues to fuel her passion for women’s health physical therapy through education. She serves as a guest lecturer to physical therapy assistants and doctoral students at South University in Austin and Texas Woman’s University in Houston.

Highly lauded as a professional and as a businesswoman, Kimberlee was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Texas Women in Business in 2015, and Sullivan Physical Therapy was awarded the Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award for ethical business practices in 2014.

“The success of my business is not because I’m the smartest or the best at what I do. I work hard. My work weeks are typically 60-70 hours a week. I try to take off Christmas, but I’m working 364 days a year. My husband contributes to the clinic with maintenance and IT. Even my three-year-old loves being at the clinic on weekends…mainly because she gets chocolate.”

Entrepreneurship for Kimberlee was not the goal or legacy she intended to create for herself. Yet, as one of the most prominent women’s health physical therapists in the country, she has crafted a vision for many future professionals and care providers. “I would love for my legacy to be that people could be treated as they should be treated. Most patients see seven physicians before they see me. I want to provide an environment where they can receive medical treatment with care and concern, and to be treated with the dignity they deserve.”

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