From student debt to special needs: whatever the problem, Dr. Malieka Johnson, a 40 Under 40 alumna, is working to solve it.

HER PRACTICE IN San Diego is called The Boss With the Floss, but where Dr. Malieka T. Johnson really takes charge is in giving back.

Dr. Malieka Johnson

Dr. Johnson

In 2016, she founded the H.E.R.O. Project (Humanitarian & Educational Relief Operation), focused on making student debt manageable through scholarships, education and service-learning opportunities. “The academic American dream has become my generation’s largest burden,” she says. “We wanted to do something about it.”

It’s no surprise, then, that some of Dr. Johnson’s other community service recently morphed into a full-time job. After pioneering a treatment program for special-needs adults at her local community health center, she set out on her own when the organization wouldn’t offer sedation as an option. She’s now the only dentist in central San Diego who offers it for special-needs adults—hardly an easy gig considering the low state insurance reimbursements.

Despite the challenges—which include the perception of sedation among some practitioners as a significant liability—Dr. Johnson says she believes the need to treat those who can’t cooperate in a traditional setting is too compelling to ignore. “We have had many successful cases, and I have only been open for one and a half years,” she notes. She’s now branching out into mobile dentistry for group homes, and showing no signs of slowing down: “I believe without purpose, we perish.”