#EscentualMeets: Dr Carolyn Wheeler, Vella CEO and Co-Founder

To celebrate National Orgasm Day, we’re chatting with the CEO and Co-Founder of Vella, a sexual wellness brand that prioritises your pleasure. Carolyn is one of the masterminds behind the brand, and we got the opportunity to learn all about her career journey, how Vella came to be, and her advice for future entrepreneurs.




Where were you born and raised?

“I was born in Boston and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My family was progressive, and I found a tight group of friends in high school who were too. Because the difference was so stark, finding your “group” was perhaps easier here than in other places. My friendships as a teenager in Tulsa defined how I understand women’s sexual equality today – our right to pleasure, to choice – and my understanding of gender and sexuality as a fluid system.

What did your school journey look like?

“I have a master’s degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Design and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Colby College.

High school is where I know I learned the most, or what is most important. I realised that the privilege to learn begets a necessity to teach, however, one chooses to define that. Naive as it may sound, the pursuit of equality through education is what inspires my devotion to the work I do at Vella. Vella Women’s Pleasure Serum was developed with rigorous science and informed by a deep understanding of women’s sexual anatomy and physiology. Yet our bodies, our sexual health, and our sexual pleasure have been ignored for so long—by the medical establishment, but also by our partners maybe, and perhaps especially ourselves. To push against the silence and the unknowing is where I am now with my work at Vella: still between learning and teaching.”




Can you share your career journey so far with us?

“Let me preface this by acknowledging that I have had a very zig-zag career trajectory that I would never have predicted would lead to what I’m doing today. Though I wouldn’t have it any other way. Though I always knew that whatever work I did, I needed to feel I was affecting positive social change in some capacity and to ideally feel consistently curious, hopeful, and creative in that pursuit.

From my college days studying Anthropology, I was interested in how the representation of people affects cross-cultural understanding, empathy, and action. So I moved to New York City to intern at Aperture magazine, then landed an editorial position at Princeton Architectural Press, specialising in books on design and architecture. At Princeton, I helped edit a book about landscape architect Paolo Burgi, and from there fell in love with the discipline.
I went on to get a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard and practised at a firm in Boston after. Not too much later, I married, and my partner and I decided to start a family. We moved to Tulsa, where my parents lived.

Whilst on maternity leave, I turned to pursue a grant-funded research project linked to horticulture and worked on this project with a friend and colleague from Harvard, which culminated in a symposium presentation and essay published in a book about cultivated landscapes. The work allowed me to dip my toes into academia—which was the only way at the time that I could envision making a career in the field. I quickly realised that academia wasn’t for me.

But what I did learn was how many things I could accomplish or be a part of that would fulfil the same mandate I had given myself as a younger person: to do something positive for society and affect social change. It just took me a bit to realise that a career path for me would never be predicated on adherence to one discipline. But rather, I would take the approach of simply saying “yes” if something felt curious, I thought had traction for impact, and it provoked my imagination.

So, when my friend, Nial DeMena, told me he had some freelance work he needed help with related to the Boston-based cannabinoid incubator he started with Dr Michael Frid, I said “yes.” This was in 2017, when the widespread legalization of the use of cannabinoids was still only imminent. The idea that a new group of molecules essentially just entered the world, ready for research and development, with nobody knowing the full potential of their use, was compelling.

Dr Harin Padma-Nathan, who was the Key Principal Investigator for Viagra and Cialis and an expert in sexual medicine, soon joined Nial, Michael, and me. We followed a similar trajectory for the development of Vella as he had for Viagra. And when the results from the studies came back, we knew we had something big on our hands that would require our full attention, and thus Vella Bioscience was born.

I still live in Tulsa, which I’m proud to say is the unlikely official headquarters of Vella Bioscience, with my husband and our two young daughters.”

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in business?

The biggest challenge is the amount of education required to explain how female sexual response works and, thus how Vella works. So few women, and even fewer men, understand that just like males, our bodies also go through a physiological change when aroused, which, just like men, is required for us to be able to orgasm. Vella enhances female arousal, which is
essentially a blood flow event that results in engorgement and lubrication.

What is the hardest business decision you’ve ever had to make?

Not to pander to the crowd too much here, but the hardest business decision I’ve made—or we’ve made—was whether to invest in a relatively early international expansion into the UK. We launched in the US only in May 2021, and not soon after, were considering expanding into the UK market. We knew we wanted to, but had to face whether we would play it safe and test the waters first or take the risk to go all in. Ultimately, I decided we didn’t want to approach our UK presence in a way that didn’t indicate commitment from the onset. We have a fantastic distribution partner too. It was a difficult decision, but I’m glad we made it and look forward to all we can achieve in the UK market.”

What does your typical day look like?

“A juggle. I have two young daughters–3 and 7 years old. So the morning is a lot of, well, let’s call it “conversation” about hair brushing, breakfast eating, teeth brushing, etc.
Then before I enter my office, I usually grab a cup of coffee from my go-to shop, where I see the same barista almost daily.

I’m then on a screen: emailing and zooming for the morning then I typically get lunch with my mentor. My work varies so much every day. But basically, I oversee inventory and manufacturing and am heavily involved with investor relations, and I love what I do.”

What would you be doing if you weren’t in this role?

“I really love working for Vella and contributing to what it stands for. I hope to be in a position someday to mentor young female founders. I am lucky to have had a lot of generosity that was gifted to me, and it’s important to pass it on. This is an innovation that is changing lives. Being an entrepreneur at a start-up is frightening and beautiful.”

If you could relive any moment of the business timeline, what would it be and why?

“When the results of the preclinical study landed in my inbox. The study was a risk: it was both
speculatory and expensive. We conducted it at a specialised lab in Paris that my colleague Dr. Harin Padma-Nathan had used for his Viagra studies. The moment we read those results, we were shocked. The results were better than we could have expected. We had just made an actual discovery, and one with incredibly important sexual health implications for women.

This was made doubly meaningful because of the absurd lack of educational inclusion (literally the textbooks used by medical students) around the specificities of the female sexual response and our sexual organs. To further prove this point, we had to commission what we have been told by academic professionals in the field is the first-ever medical illustration of an aroused vagina. We believed, then later proved, that this discovery would remarkably affect the quality of women’s lives. Sexual arousal is a requirement for orgasm. We just realised we had a way to give women easier, more intense, and more frequent orgasms. I would be very happy to relive that moment.”

Who is your biggest mentor and/or business inspiration?

“Since Vella began, my North Star has been a brilliantly 82-year-old Clayton Woodrum. He grew up in a very small town on a farm in Kansas, and today leads a successful accounting firm in Tulsa. It’s hard for me to overstate how much he has taught me about running a company. And it’s even more difficult to express how grateful I am to him for his generosity with his, wisdom and sound guidance, and most importantly, his respect for me as a woman entrepreneur. I knock on his door all of the time to ask him questions. Humility, I always thought, was a strong suit of mine, but he has taught me to go farther with it. Even though he’s one of the smartest people I know, I have learned from him that much of that is because he never is afraid to ask questions. He always wants to learn.

What’s your next big career goal?

“I want to bring Vella to more people. We have seen time and time again the way it transforms lives. To see Vella continue to get in the hands of more and more people whose lives will benefit from it in so many expected and unexpected ways: that is all I’m focused on.

What message do you have for someone who wants to follow in your career footsteps?

“Don’t look to the world for validation first. Don’t plan to wander a finite distance. Because you need to and hope relentlessly. Because hope is the bedrock of innovation.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“If you don’t do it, someone else will. My mom told me that when I was young. And you know, it’s pretty true.”


Discover More:

Vella Pleasure Serum Review

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