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Sara Panton image courtesy of Britney Gill Photography.
Sara Panton image courtesy of Britney Gill Photography.

Balanced Hustler: Meet Sara Panton, CEO and Co-Founder of vitruvi

10 min read

Being an entrepreneur can seem glamorous. We own our schedules, build our companies based on work we love—and sometimes we can even work beachside. But the glamour is second in command to the hustle. 

The hustle is what really defines the ups and downs of the entrepreneurship journey. And to shed some light on the work it takes to build a business, I’m interviewing fellow entrepreneurs who are ready to get real about their journeys. I’ll ask them how they manage to balance the hustle with the passion of what they do, and they’ll share what they had to overcome to get where they are today. It’s all in service of inspiring, supporting and illuminating the path for you, and we’re calling it the #BalancedHustler.

Sara Panton, CEO and co-founder of vitruvi, stumbled into the world of essential oils while pursuing a medical degree, but the seed had been planted long before. She grew up using natural beauty products, had an affinity for Vogue magazine from the time she was a teen, and had a long-standing ritual of buying a new perfume for herself every birthday to symbolize a new chapter of her life. Sara’s interest in scent deepened in her first year of medical school, when she learned about its effect on the limbic system (our brain’s emotional centre) in a neurology course. This discovery, layered with her love of culture and natural medicine, sparked a deeper passion for the science of scent, and its potential to help in her busy days.

But she didn’t stop there, utilizing her newfound knowledge only to help her study more effectively. Instead, Sara and her brother Sean created the concept for a brand that would allow people to weave the benefit and science of scent throughout their days. Using her understanding of indigenous botanicals from years of working with Nobel Peace Prize-nominated charity We.org and her degree in global health, Sara created a collection of essential oil products.

She and Sean launched the premium essential oil company vitruvi during her second year of medical school and after experiencing fast growth, she quit school to run the business full time. After four years in business, vitruvi is now sold in 300+ stores internationally—including at Goop, Nordstrom, Anthropologie and Sephora, where vitruvi made a mark as the first essential oils company each retailer carried.

Vitruvi offers a new take on the multi-billion dollar essential oil industry. The brand’s luxe reimagining of the age-old aromatherapy ritual includes single ingredient oils, blends and diffusers, all with sleek and enticing packaging that attracted features in Vogue, Forbes, Harpers Bazaar, Fast Company, Architectural Digest, W Magazine  and Coveteur (to name a few). Sara leads the growth of the vitruvi brand, and works closely with companies to take the wellness category mainstream—just one of the many reasons she’s our latest #BalancedHustler (and why I’m thrilled to welcome her to WELL Summit Brooklyn in October 2019!).

Image courtesy of Britney Gill Photography.

Fast Facts: Sara Panton

When did you launch vitruvi? 

2015

In one sentence, tell us why you started vitruvi. 

I created vitruvi to help women take care of themselves—to help them achieve more energy, stamina and inspiration to take on the world as their most impactful and real selves. 

How much did you invest to get the business started? 

Less than $50,000.

How did you get capital to start? 

From a mentor, someone who sat down with me and asked me the real questions about what I wanted in life and believed in me and my side project. I plan on doing that for someone else one day…

Are you growing your business to sell? Or this is your dream job and you want to be doing this in 10 years? 

We’re growing vitruvi to be a global leader in clean, essential-oil based personal care. The growth trajectory that it can take is varied—one thing that I am sure of is that I have a very clear vision for how the company is impacting the world in a positive way 10 years from now.

How many hours a week do you work when you started versus now? 

Oh gosh, I’ve never counted! Many, and many. That’s probably my only secret… I’m not smarter, and I don’t have any more money or connections than anyone else… I can just outwork anyone. 

How many employees do you have? 

16

What two business goals do you have for 2019? 

Two goals for 2019, is the expansion of our digital magazine Basenotes. It’s a brilliant publication run by Editor In Chief Sara Harowitz; she’s incredible and we have major plans for it as a platform. I’m also really looking forward to new products launching this year as well as the continuation of our support of girls in education, building out our internal program of helping women finish university in Kenya and Uganda.

Image courtesy of Britney Gill Photography.

How Sara Balances the Hustle

You launched your line before essential oils went fully mainstream. How did you know there was a hole in the market, and how do you now stand out in a sea of EO products?

I had no idea what industry we were launching in or that we would disrupt anything. I had always been passionate about natural products and aware of the importance of choosing natural for how we scent our homes and take care of our skin. I created products for myself and my friends and family… Everything just took off from there. I think when you fully understand your customer and are able to address their needs and help fix problems… That’s when you really win.

You were in medical school when you launched the business, and co-founded it with your brother. How did you balance school and starting a business? Why was that the timing that felt right to you?

I am a really big advocate for having a side business. I don’t believe in quitting everything to jump into a prospective business full time. That kind of pressure, both financially and personally, can really change the way you make decisions. When you run a company, it’s full on 24/7… So being in an intense school program, studying and running a start-up at the same time really helped me create the stamina and grit that it takes to run a quick growing company as a CEO.

It didn’t make sense to me to throw away something I had worked hard for six years in academia—I went on a one-year leave from school, and if the company didn’t get traction, I would just have gone back. We put our heads down and worked so hard for 365 days to prove the concept.  

How do you and your brother work together—who’s in charge of what? What’s it like to build a business with a family member?

Sean and I work really well together and have complimentary skill sets. Having a cofounder who is also a family member creates a level of realness and trust that has allowed us to grow quickly and to navigate all the ups and downs that come with building a company. I don’t think you can build a company with someone unless you trust them like family… a co-founder really needs to have your back.

In my opinion having a co-founder is important, though I have a lot of respect for solo founders. Running a business is lonely enough—having someone with you to bounce ideas and feelings by is crucial for sanity and decision making.

You’re the first aromatherapy brand to be stocked by Nordstrom. How did you land that retailer relationship?

I personally emailed their teams every three months for well over a year… It’s all just about timing and stamina, haha. 

You’ve expanded from essential oil blends to single essential oils and single-ingredient products like base oils and complex oils. How do you source it all?

We work with contractors to ensure that we have access to the highest quality oils from around the world. This allowed us to have organic certification and third-party testing of all our oils for quality, purity and potency. We really focus on getting the best products from the best places around the world. There are no short cuts… it’s about time and research. 

What would you like everyone to know about essential oils that they might not?

Essential oils may seem “new” and a cool, new part of the wellness movement, but they have really been around for hundreds of years. The first perfumes were all made by steam-distilling essential oils, and many of the most luxury fashion houses in the world still have laboratories in Grasse, France, the perfume capital of the world. It’s also said that Cleopatra used essential oils and oil extracts such as Geranium… We source our Geranium from Egypt still to this day. Goddess energy is important.

Image courtesy of Britney Gill Photography.

Sara’s Advice for Entrepreneurs

What do you want to leave our readers with?

Clearly define what success looks like to you at different stages of the company. It’s a long haul and it’s important to have touch points that remind you that you’re winning and achieving what you set out for. I have very specific milestones that I’ve set out for the company and for myself professionally. I go to the office every day to chip away at these goals.

What is your number one piece of advice for fellow entrepreneurs?

Know the opinions that matter—and those that do not. Have people around you who support you as the person you truly are, and who have your back and love you no matter what. And also have people around you who will give you real, important advice at the right times… it’s important that you respect feedback—but make sure it’s from people who have actually built stuff successfully and in a field that’s similar to yours. Everyone loves giving “advice.”

What failure have you learned most from? How did you overcome it? 

I learn from a new failure almost every day… Yikes, some of my favorites have been the shift to not waiting for things to be perfect or for things to “settle down” in order to take action. It took me a long while and some missed opportunities to realize it’s going to be a wild ride… and that this is my new normal, so I decided I need to figure it out and handle it if I’m committed to the goal. 

I’ve also learned the importance of getting experts around you who have done what you’re doing (or a close example to it). Having people around you who can see around the corners that you cannot is invaluable and has saved us lots of time and money. We’ve tried to sort things out without second opinions in the past and it can be incredibly costly, both mentally and financially.

Also trust no one… haha, actually. Sounds horrible, but you need to keep a tight circle when growing something fast.

What does being a #BalancedHustler mean to you?

Being a #BalancedHustler means being aligned on the WHY of your wellness. I’m clear on my priorities and how I want to show up for the people around me, both personally and professionally. I don’t take care of my “balance” or “wellness” for the sake of it… My goal each day is to have the stamina, mental clarity, positivity and energy to help those around me achieve their best and to show up as my most impactful self. I cannot do that successfully if I feel exhausted and depleted.

My diet, sleep, exercise, movement, time outside and friendships are all things I prioritize… I know how they influence me and those around me. Self care should be thoughtful, and it all starts with knowing your “why.”

Want more inspiro and tactical advice from female entrepreneurs? Check out our full #BalancedHustlerseries and join us in person in Brooklyn for WELL Summit’s The Business of Wellness track.

About The Author

Gianne Doherty

Gianne Doherty

Gianne Doherty is an inspirational and educational speaker, clean beauty advocate, co-founder of Organic Bath Co. and founder of WELL Summit. You can find her on Instagram @wellsummit and @giannedoherty. Her weekly series, Balanced Hustler, on WELL Insiders is a deep dive into entrepreneurship.

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