Sara Panton has always had a powerful nose. When she was 13, living in the tiny town of Metchosin, BC, she began the ritual of buying herself a new perfume every year on her birthday, with each scent becoming symbolic of a new chapter in her life. As an undergraduate, trips to Kenya and Morocco working for Craig Kielburger’s charity We.org made her interested in wellness practises across different cultures, as well as the sense of ceremony and ritual that she felt was lacking in North American life. When she went to medical school, her interest in the power of smell deepened, as she began to learn about the way the olfactory system can affect the way we process emotions in our brain. In 2014, she wove these longtime passions together to launch vitruvi, an aromatherapy company specializing in diffusers and essential oils designed for millennial women. Her business, vitruvi, began with writing articles from her bathtub with laptop propped on the side in Vancouver.
Vitruvi products are designed to help people create consistent rituals throughout their day based on scent (her oils have names like Wake, Focus, Move and Sleep), with the awareness that scent is key to driving our physical and emotional state. The business became such a runaway success that Sara quit med school in her second year to run the business full-time with her brother, Sean. Now vitruvi is an industry leader sold at stores like Sephora and Nordstrom, featured in magazines like Vogue and Architectural Digest, beloved by wellness industry icons like Gwyneth Paltrow, and one of the most influential names in the rapidly-expanding essential oil business.
Image by Christina Gareau
Sara is also a dear friend of mine; we met through our businesses and I immediately became enamoured by her mix of low-key humility and quiet fierceness, as well as the drive and perfectionism that lets her succeed at whatever she puts her mind to. On Saturday, she rolled up to my place at 5:30 PM, dressed in a silk skirt and a sophisticated beige cashmere sweater. I asked if she wanted wine or tea, and she asked for caffeine as if it was a really wild, on-the-edge request (we settled on Decaf Earl Grey with coconut milk). But that’s Sara — she enjoys leaving the party at an early hour, and would actually prefer to not to be at the party at all, but instead spending quality time with close friends or hanging out with her giant African turtles that are going to live to be 125 years old (they’re in her will). Over sneaky Saturday evening teas, we chatted about the state of the wellness industry, the importance of ritual, and that time she wore Blundstones to a meeting with LVMH.
Vitruvi is based around the idea of ritual. How do you define ritual?
It’s something that makes the brain happy. The brain is super lazy and it doesn't like things that are new. It a sense of rhythm and completion. In a lot of cultures, these sort of rituals are already baked into the culture, but that’s not as common here. As we have more technology and people pulling us places, it kind of throws off our rhythm. Most of us don’t have the natural rhythms anymore of, say, working in fields and having our schedules dictated by sunlight and moonlight. Now we all have artificial lights. Rituals are those touch points throughout the day, a year, week, month, that create a cyclical rhythm that allows the brain to feel like it's in some sort of natural rhythm and flow.
How would you encourage someone to start developing rituals?
I think that people need to think about what they want and what they want to do. Say you have someone who is taking on a lot at work and she picks up a bunch of people's energy and then comes home to three kids, and they pick up a bunch of energy. As she goes from one space to another, she could be feeling overwhelmed. Does she need to do some breath work, for example, or take three deep breaths when she walks in the door? This is the kind of stuff that helps you feel like you're creating a new chapter in a day.
What do you think is the biggest challenge the wellness industry faces when it comes to being more accessible to more people?
Coming from a medical and global health background, the human body is incredibly resilient and can actually handle a lot more than someone on a juice cleanse probably thinks they can. It’s important to keep perspective and create affordable access to medicine and health practices, which is what most of the world needs. The way I bridge that morally is by trying to create a narrative around a why behind people are taking care of themselves. It's easy to just get in the tunnel and to pay for a two thousand dollar retreat. But if you don't actually connect that to a why — why you want to feel better, why you want more energy — then I think that there's no point. Whether that's showing up for your kids or being more present in your marriage or being able to do charity work on the weekends because you're not exhausted, we all need to tune into that why. Because most people around the world don't have that kind of luxury or choice.
How do you encourage people to get into that self-inquiry?
By asking: what would you do if you were limitless? I've always been super fascinated by human potential, and my own potential. What are the limiting factors and what could I do if I woke up every morning with energy? What is my fullest self? Thirty years from now if I was to look back and be like: when I was full of vigor, what do I wish I'd done? That’s where I’m operating from.
I feel as though the first step is actually slowing down to even ask that question. We’re all so caught up on the hamster wheel. Something usually has to break down in your life for you to step back and really check in with yourself.
I think a lot of the wellness industry babies people. It almost makes them feel more broken than they are. Myself and vitruvi operate from a place of: you're already there, you're already whole. We're just filling your cup back up a little bit throughout the day with these little mini moments, and a deep breath triggered by a natural scent.
Tell us about the book you just released.
It's called Essential Well Being, and it is a book with over 100 recipes for living naturally when it comes to your beauty, body and home rituals. It stems from that place of simplicity: things you can find in your kitchen, things that shouldn't cost money, things that take less than 30 minutes. Moments that can be secret and things that you're already doing that with intention. Maybe a drop of eucalyptus can turn into a moment that feels nourishing as opposed to just something you would do while thinking about your to do list.
There's an element of intentionality when it comes to practicing with essential oils. You are putting a couple of drops in the diffuser, but it’s also about what those drops signify, and that intentionality has a psychological component to it.
I look at it as a sense of control. You get to choose how the space feels. I think that can be really empowering. It’s like, okay, this is my home and I want it to smell like this and I'm controlling and commanding the space. And then people in your house might not even realize it, but you kind of set that tone.
Speaking of rituals, what did you do this morning?
I made some coffee with toasted coconut and I drank a ton of water. I always drink a crazy amount of water before I do anything.
That’s why you're a superhuman, because no one else in the world does.
We need to drink a lot of water. I have these cute little straws that I drink it out of. And then I journaled. I honestly hate my phone and I hate Instagram and all that. Saturday is my day where I don't look at anything, and so I love writing. A lot of my journaling is super futuristic and I try to make notes about what the process is like in my life right now and what I'm doing and how it feels, with the thought that my great great great great granddaughter might read them one day. And because I'm someone that's very future oriented, I like writing down the dates. And I always put what day of the week it is because I think it's cool to look back and be like that was written on a Saturday, a very different vibe than a Tuesday. So that's kind of a timestamp for me that I hope I get to read in a few decades. I take my Apple watch off to do it, which means I'm totally chill in the present moment.
How do you find a balance between that future state and being present in the moment?
I think I do it pretty well because I'm not a past person. I'm great to tell secrets to because I just move on right away. I'm a water under the bridge kind of person. I generally just don't really care that much about most things, in a nice way. It’s easy for me to be present because I’m a very happy person and I like people. So if I'm with a person, I'm really present because I think it's disrespectful not to be. I'm also very curious. I think part of that comes from studying anthropology and just liking to ask questions. As for being future oriented— I've always been like that. I live with a very clear vision of what I want to happen and everyday is just a little chip away at the vision. It hasn't changed that much since I was 10.
When we work for ourselves, our businesses often act as a reflective mirror that shows us the stuff we haven't dealt with. How has that played out for you?
Like, how having a business has made me know how fucked up I am?
Kind of! Or perhaps it’s made you realize the work needed to heal or tend to that little girl’s voice within you?
I think when you have a team you think you're accountable to every day, you have to put yourself second and just deal with it. And figure your shit out and the energy you're bringing into a room in a space, which is something I'm very aware of. It definitely just makes you realize everything that's going on for you. It's a giant mirror every day and you don't get to turn it off. But it also makes you grow really fast and makes you, like, heal. In business, you’re your own limiting factor. So you better get over your shit really fast.
What does it mean for you to “be well”?
It’s about being happy with how you are and what you do and how you do it and just having the energy to do shit you're proud of and making choices. There's so many people that don't make the big leap or take the risk because they're exhausted. For me, I think about energy a lot. To be well is to have the capacity to live out your potential, whatever that is.
What are the indicators to you that you’re getting off keel?
I lose stuff. Like two weeks ago, I lost my airpods and my pen. I had to buy new airpods today. And I was pissed because I’m normally really organized!
That seems very not like you! What are you your go-tos to bring you back?
Just slowing down and being present in the moment. It’s all around presence, not the green juice.
Where do you feel challenged by vulnerability?
I think that I am really good at being a listening space for people, my team, the people I work alongside. I am probably a little more old-school when it comes to how much I share personally at the office, because I fundamentally operate from a place that people just don't care. They have enough of their own shit going on that they don't need to know about mine anyway. So that's kind of how I operate in a professional setting. I would say that's kind of the vulnerability piece.
Image by Kelley Farlow
If you have if you were to have a movie based on your career, what would the title be?
Hmm. Maybe it would be… Hippie In A Blazer. Farm Girl in New York. Barefoot Under the Boardroom Table.
I love that. I was going to say Blundstones Under the Boardroom Table.
I wore Blundstones for this Sephora pitch that I did for LVMH because I just wanted to feel like myself. In retrospect, I should have been like, no, Sara, just put some nice shoes on. Just put a loafer on and get over it. You'll be fine.
Main Image by Brit Gill