Cathie Anderson

Eyes of East Sacramento reflects demographic shift in optometry

The owners of Eyes of East Sacramento reflect a demographic shift in optometry practices as women now constitute a majority of students earning degrees in the field.

Drs. Arlene Espiritu and Susana Belmonte opened their practice at 3315 Folsom Blvd. just last year, opting to partner up because they both have children and wanted backup.

“As I was nearing the end of my optometry school, they started to see a turn in the demographic,” said Espiritu, 38, a graduate of the optometry school at UC Berkeley, “so it was more like 60 percent women, 40 percent men and then 70 percent women, 30 percent men. I mean, it was just amazing.”

Still, the two optometrists say, they don’t see as many female owners yet on the Sacramento scene. A 2013 study commissioned by the American Optometric Association showed that women made up 39 percent of practicing optometrists in 2012, but projected that in 2020, that number would rise to 51 percent. As a growing number of women gain experience, consumers also will see more women owning the practices they visit.

Espiritu and Belmonte worked together in a practice owned by a male colleague before deciding to strike out on their own. They didn’t want to leave him in the lurch, though, so for their first two months of business, Espiritu said, they worked in both practices while he trained their replacements.

Espiritu completed a residency in pediatric optometry at the State University of New York in 2006, she said, so she can work with patients as young as 6 months old. Belmonte, 46, got her optometry degree from Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, she said, and in clinical training, she was exposed to many patients with uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension. Consequently, she said, she became adept at diagnosing and treating patients with eye problems associated with those diseases.

“I did most of my fourth year here at Kaiser at Point West and then graduated,” Belmonte said. “I got a call from an optometrist, and he gave me a job, I think mainly because I was Spanish-speaking. I worked with him for 10 years, and then I worked with Arlene for a couple of years.”

Espiritu went to work for another practice, but Belmonte ended up working with her again after covering for Espiritu while she was on maternity leave for the birth of her eldest daughter. Belmonte has been practicing for more than 15 years, Espiritu for about 10 years.

“We started talking, and I said, ‘Hey, let’s do this on our own. We both have kids and we both want to work on our own,’ ” Belmonte said. “To do this by yourself is a tremendous task to undertake, so we thought, ‘Together, we’ll conquer.’ 

The two women applied for loans at a couple of banks, but it was Wells Fargo that gave them the capital to renovate their space and buy the equipment they needed.

“They have a special department for new practices in the health field, so they know there is a return,” Espiritu said. “It’s a good investment for them because they know there are always going to be people who need eye care, so they put the money on us because they have that record of lending to new startups in optometry and dental. That’s how we were able to get the loan.”

Belmonte and Espiritu said they were looking for a location that didn’t look like a typical optometry office and selected the site in East Sac because they felt it would be warm and welcoming.

“As soon as we stepped in, we saw the brick and the cement and the high ceilings, and we thought, ‘OK, this is going to work out,’ ” Espiritu said. “We kind of had a vision, and we both had the same vision. We did our own decorating. We picked out everything from top to bottom with paint colors and everything, and then we wanted a place that wasn’t too small so we could grow into it.”

Eyes of East Sacramento carries well-known brands such as Hugo Boss, Prada and Ann Klein, but it also has added independent eyeglasses such as Oceanside-based Raen and Italy’s Rudy Project. The latter are known for their prescription-friendly sports frames, popular with cyclists, kayakers, tennis players and others leading an active lifestyle. Raen promises timeless, handmade optics. Such choices, Espiritu and Belmonte said, are aimed at distinguishing their inventory from the products offered by online and discount retailers.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee