Why a Former Med Student Dropped Out to Disrupt the Wellness Space
After her first-ever medical school class, something just clicked for Sara Panton. While learning about the olfactory system, she had an epiphany led her to drop out of medical school to disrupt the wellness space. Enter Vitruvi, a cool aromatherapy brand that's garnered something of a cult following among the Goop-minded set.
Although it might have seemed like it was a difficult choice, the decision to leave medical school was surprisingly easy for Panton. "I knew I wanted to help women take care of themselves and to empower them to take on the world with the most energy and clarity and sense of well-being that they could," she told MyDomaine. Somewhat counterintuitively, quitting medical school and co-founding Vitruvi allowed her to merge her passion for wellness with her desire to help women take care of themselves.
Ahead, we ask the co-founder of Vitruvi about her decision to drop out of medical school, her determination to disrupt the wellness space, and the most surprising thing she's learned from becoming an entrepreneur.
Tell us about your first career path.
I grew up in a very small town and didn't travel but was always curious about different cultures around the world. I was always interested in health and wellness having been raised around organic farms. Being interested in helping people and cultures, I decided to become a doctor.
I started studying a double major in biology and psychology, and then ended up completing a degree in global health sciences with a focus in immunology and infectious disease. My dream was to work abroad in developing countries helping people to gain access to healthcare while learning about their traditional wellness practices.
My first career path involved a lot of studying, a lot of testing, and a lot of intensity, and a lot of right versus wrong, but the pace, demand, and level of excellence that was expected at all times helped prepare me for entrepreneurship.
How did you make the transition from med student to entrepreneur?
The concept for Vitruvi was something that I had been working on for two years straight in the evenings and at lunch breaks at school. I would write articles, create project formulations, and interview people about their health and wellness. It's how I knew it was something I was passionate about.
The long hours studying and demanding testing schedule weren't enough to keep me really fully engaged, and I knew that being at school didn't feel like "me." I would always make time for the project, and when we started to get a solid amount of traction to the website, we decided to take the big leap. I took a one-year leave from school. Sean (my brother and co-founder) and I knew that we really had 365 days to prove this concept and build the company.
It was all my passions and years of school being funneled into one project, and I knew I wanted to help women learn about different wellness practices, live more naturally, and carve out simple moments throughout their days to take care of their well-being.
Tell us about your current career path/business.
Vitruvi came from a passion for wellness and storytelling. It's the embodiment of my love of helping women find simple and effective ways of living more simply, more naturally, and with essential oils. I'm the CEO of Vitruvi and oversee all aspects of the business from the operations, finance, creative, and future vision. I'm part of an absolutely incredible team and work alongside a young, talented, and incredibly driven group of humans (and some dogs).
What triggered your need for change?
I loved what I was studying at school, but my medical anthropology and traditional herbal medicine classes created moments when I became very excited. I loved meeting with patients but truly wanted to do something with more scale. I knew that finishing medical school and starting a normal medicine practice would create a very small world, and I wouldn't be able to share my passion on a larger scale.
Why is your current path suitable for your personality?
My job and responsibilities involve equal parts art and science. I am by nature a very driven and organised person, I love accuracy and precision and analytics, and those things were very much part of my science background. Beyond that, I am also a very creative person and have bought Vogue magazine every month since I was 15 years old. I love the idea of creating worlds for people to live in through the creation of brand and campaigns. As CEO and founder, I get to both look at lots of spreadsheets and deal with the intricacies of finance and strategy as well as hold a large vision and work every day to push the company both creatively as a brand and in our scope and scale as a business.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career and why?
The biggest challenge for me, especially at the beginning was never knowing what was right and when things were good enough. Coming from a very regulated and strict academic environment, I was very used to being tested and marked by something being correct or incorrect. In entrepreneurship, the only right thing is forward momentum in a positive direction.
What's the most important thing you have learned in making a big change in your career life?
To stay incredibly focused. It's really easy to get distracted by staying busy and feeling important with coffee meetings or networking events. It's important to remember that the only thing that will move the needle is the number of moments to take to quietly put in the time that is necessary for execution. That grit is the secret sauce; it's the only secret.
What's the biggest risk you took that paid off?
Quitting school was the first big risk after spending years and a lot of money to pursuit that path. The second risk was deciding not to sell the company when we got an offer to sell a year after we launched. I'm grateful for both choices.
How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
I moved past the fear by making a choice, accepting and internalising it completely, and then by surrounding myself with really positive supportive people: my brother, parents, my best friend, and a close friend group. Beyond that, I stayed very focused to set myself up for some small wins at the beginning to ensure that I would keep progressing in a forward direction with momentum.
What do you love most about your current role and why?
I love the people I get to work with, most of which are women. I love getting to work alongside them and also see them grow and manage to lead the company in their respective areas. That really lights me up, and I feel an abundance of gratitude every day for the people who chose to spend their days with me at this company.
When you look back and reflect on your previous career, do you have any regrets? Or are you still really happy with your decision?
I'm very happy with my decision—I can't imagine my life being anything else but this. The fear of losing everything is one of my big motivations.
What advice do you have for other women who want to take a leap but fear the change?
People think that entrepreneurship is about taking big risks and one giant leap, but it's actually about effectively managing risks in creative ways.
For me, that means don't leap until your day-to-day is so uncomfortable that you really really really can't stand it anymore. And once you do take the leap, don't expect there to be safety nets but create them if you can so that you have the ability to maintain perspective and operate and make decisions from a place of abundance, not scarcity.
That means if you're nervous and about to quit your job, don't quit until you've saved up enough money to take care of yourself so your side hustle doesn't become your only hustle with no viable income right away. The worst place to operate a business from is from a panic. So control the risks and variables as best as you can so that you can think strategically and with a vision.
What mantras or affirmations do you use often to keep you motivated and inspired?
When I want to see if I'm into something or if I'm feeling hesitant to take on a project, I ask myself a question: "If not you, then who?"
If it really pisses me off that someone else could do a project or build something that I want to or if someone else were to take on a responsibility I've been thinking about, then I know that I need to make it happen. If I envision it and I'm okay if someone else were to do it, then I know I don't have the drive and passion to see it through to the level of excellence and execution that I would want to.
What's the most surprising thing you learned from becoming an entrepreneur?
When you become an entrepreneur, that uncomfortable feeling of living in the unknown is your new normal. I didn't expect to always feel unsettled with a constant feeling of needing to catch up. With owning and running your own company, there is a relentless need for more, for faster, and for better. It's that pursuit that makes a great entrepreneur, and being able to effectively manage that pursuit is what keeps you from burning out while being careful not to put the flame out.
What's one thing you didn't know before you started that you wish you knew?
People don't know as much as you think they do. Don't be intimidated, don't think they have a bunch of secrets that you don't. People with experience are just people who have been trying to figure things out longer than you have. We're all just a bunch of humans trying to make stuff happen.
Shop Vitruvi products at The Lab Organics.