How Vitruvi's Sara Panton Put Essential Oils on the Map
The wellness industry is expanding at a breakneck pace, and women are leading the charge. Our new series profiles the brand founders and influencers who are breaking the mold. Follow along as we learn about the ins and outs of their daily gigs, how they're looking to change the collective conversation, and what they envision for the future of wellness.
Sara Panton knows how much can change in just three years. In late 2014, Panton was in medical school when she and her brother Sean realized that her passion for essential oils and aromatherapy could have business potential. Fast-forward to now, and their brand, Vitruvi, has carved out a new space in the wellness market for luxury essential oil blends and diffusers. The brand's covetable aesthetic and intentional blurring of beauty and wellness has been so successful that Air Canada announced a toiletry partnership with Vitruvi earlier this year.
But while Panton and her team's business savvy can't be overstated, she also insists that Vitruvi's success is indicative of larger changes in the wellness sphere—namely, the growing approachability of self-care. "Essential oils are interesting because they fit both the functionality and the intention around lifestyle," she says. "I [think] that makes them a big part in the shift in how people are thinking about taking care of themselves."
To learn more about the way Vitruvi factors into this larger conversation, we spoke to Panton about how the brand came to be, what a typical day in her life looks like, and why focusing on her breath makes her a better manager. Read about it in her own words below.
On turning a side hustle into a full-fledged business:
"The concept for Vitruvi was something that Sean and I started just over three years ago. It started as a passion-project blog and website we worked on late in the evenings, and then it took over our every waking thought. I worked on it during lunch breaks at school. I would write articles, create product formulations, and interview people about their health and wellness rituals. Sean built our website and online store. I knew it was something I was passionate about because I found myself more fully engaged with our side project than with the demanding studying hours and test schedules at medical school.
"Our project started to get a little traction, and then Sean and I decided to take a one-year leave from school. We knew that we really had 365 days to prove this concept and build the company. It was the only thing we really cared about. It felt incredibly scary and still does every single day.
"The pace with which we grew was overwhelming and also underwhelming at the same time. In my opinion, there is a juxtaposition to entrepreneurship: Every feeling is so intense but also never quite enough. The feeling becomes addictive, and the fuel that really makes us work to the level that we do are our customers."
On a typical day at Vitruvi:
"I am part of an absolutely incredible team and work alongside a young, talented, and driven group of humans (and some dogs!). Our office is very open and collaborative, and I get to work closely with almost everyone on our team on a daily basis. I love the people I get to work with, most of which are women who are forming new roles and really building their own jobs and responsibilities as the company scales. Getting to see them grow and manage leading the company in their respective areas really lights me up, and I feel an abundance of gratitude every day for the people who choose to spend their days with me at this company.
"As the CEO of Vitruvi, I oversee all aspects of the business, from operations to finance, creative, and future vision. My job and day-to-day responsibilities involve equal parts art and science. I am by nature a very driven and organized person. I love accuracy, precision, and analytics, which were very much a part of my science background. Beyond that, I am also very creative and have a strong vision for how I want the brand to make people feel. I believe that the visual component of a brand sets a mood before someone interacts with the actual products. Our design team is incredibly talented and what we design and create is very intentional from each email or social media post that is sent out to product that ships across North America.
"Each day, I also review our customer experience themes, any issues that are coming up, or frequently asked questions that our customers are talking to our team about. Being as close to our community and customer is my favorite part of what we do. I also prepare the all-hands meeting each Wednesday, during which we review customer feedback, comments, and general themes."
On the "relentless" need to be better as a business owner:
"When you become an entrepreneur, that uncomfortable feeling of living in the unknown is your new normal. I didn’t expect to always feel so unsettled or have the constant feeling of needing to 'catch up.' Owning and running a company brings with it a relentless need for more, for faster, and for better. It's that pursuit that I believe makes a great entrepreneur, and it's being able to effectively manage that pursuit while being mindful of operating from a place of abundance and simple thinking.
"I live a very simple life outside the company and really identify with a Zen-like philosophy to life. Within my business world, I would say I have a lot to learn to bring the philosophy and principles of zen into how we run the company."
On using breathing techniques to be a better leader:
"I don't think that I get stressed per se. I more so get incredibly underwhelmed and disappointed relatively easily. When you've sacrificed a lot for a company or opportunity and when you're all in, it's really hard to feel overwhelmed or stressed. I would say that most of the time, I find it harder to deal with things not happening fast enough or not going as smoothly as I think they could.
"I take a class called The Block, which is taught by a dear friend, Katie McKenzie. The Block incorporates traditional qigong breathing techniques that help the brain and body get rid of stale and negative energy. I've worked to modify these larger breathing movements into simple and discrete habits during my day, like grounding my feet and using visualization and awareness of breath during meetings.
"Getting back to my breath changes my state and the energy I give off to the team. I believe that this grounded breath translates into the grounded energy required for great leadership and complete mental presence with the people around me. I wear a watch so that I don't need to look at my phone when I'm meeting with people, and I am working every day to become a better and more present and intuitive leader for the team I have the privilege of leading."
On what the future of wellness looks like to her:
"I think there has been a shift in recent years in what wellness means to people. It used to mean fitness: workout classes and aerobics and cycling. Now I believe there is much more curiosity in exploring mental and spiritual potential. We're even seeing Sephora bringing on supplements, and we're looking at inner beauty practices around meditation.
"I believe that the term wellness in the upcoming years will be less about sweating and more about your mindset. This, to me, is really exciting. We’ve been at the table and in the boardroom when some of the largest retailers in North America have decided to launch into the wellness category, and it's been really interesting navigating that with them.
"I believe there will also be a very strong shift into simplicity in living, in the products we use, and in the methodologies with which we live our lives."