In the United States, just over 1 million active physicians attend to the medical needs of a population of 330 million people. Meanwhile, a fraction of this number—120,000 veterinarians—serve 200 million pets and counting.
“The divergence between the two is very high, especially when you consider just how massive the pet health ecosystem in the U.S. is,” says Vivian Graves, MBA ’19, founder and CEO of Otis, a pet health company.
Graves launched the company in 2023 to help alleviate the many occupational and financial burdens facing veterinarians and pet owners alike. She was inspired by her own experience as a pet owner, as well as by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which 23 million American households adopted pets while veterinarian burnout increased dramatically.
When it came to seeking emergency veterinary care for her dog Luna, Graves felt she had two options: pay a high fee for a consult that might result in nothing abnormal or save money in exchange for “going down a rabbit hole of potential misinformation” via Google.
“There was nothing in the middle,” says Graves.
The future of (veterinary) work
As an MBA student, Graves did not set out to start a company in the growing pet health care space, but she knew that being a founder was in her future.
“I always wanted to start my own company,” she says, “and [attending MIT Sloan] gave me the toolkit I needed to be a founder and to be an entrepreneur.”
From MIT Fuse at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship to the MIT Sloan Latin American Business Club, Graves participated in as many entrepreneurial opportunities as she could to strengthen her toolkit.
These skills would be immediately integral after graduation when she worked as an investor and entrepreneur-in-residence at FJ Labs in New York. Graves was then able to dig more deeply into the pet health care space and determine a course of action via the systems dynamics thinking she had learned at MIT Sloan.
“When you think about the whole system, there’s just an incredible amount of pressure because there are not enough vets for all the pets,” she explains.
In addition to the ratio of pets to vets and people to physicians, Graves also highlights the high financial cost for veterinarians with student loan debt and pet owners seeking medical care for their companions. Along with the shortage of available veterinarians and its exacerbation by the pandemic, the pet health care system is significantly overburdened.
At MIT Sloan, Graves studies largely focused on the future of work—the gig economy, the creator economy, and the evolution of various professions. What if these new models of work could be adapted for veterinarians? After all, the regulation and acceptance of telemedicine for people had greatly improved during the pandemic.
“No one was really creating a fundamentally different model of care delivery that worked for pets, pet owners, and veterinarians,” says Graves. “I wanted to think about the entire pet health ecosystem, not just one or two inputs.”
Hence the Otis platform, which provides asynchronous telemedicine to pets, low costs to pet owners, and freelance work to veterinarians—thereby systematically addressing all three pain points and, Graves hopes, the entire system. Pet owners limited by financial constraints or unable to visit brick-and-mortar establishments can seek virtual care for their pets, and veterinarians looking for alternative or supplemental income can provide said care.
Telling stories, growing networks
Building on her experiences at Otis, MIT Sloan, and in the venture capital space, the young entrepreneur wants to share her story (and her network) to help young Latina founders seeking investments for their startup ideas.
In 2022, women founders garnered 2% of the total capital invested in startups by VCs. These numbers are even smaller for women founders of color. To complicate matters further, a recent study revealed that even the kinds of questions potential investors ask women founders are quite different from those asked of their male counterparts.
“I can probably count on two hands the number of startup founders pitching their companies who were women,” Graves says of her time working in venture capital.
Despite many institutional efforts to improve these figures, Graves feels that her next step is abundantly clear. “The only way to open that path for other women, especially women of color, is not only to achieve things yourself but also to help other women through mentorship or through introducing them to investors,” she says.
The latter especially, for as Graves explains, networks are one of the things that women of color lack the most, which is why the Sloanie is going out of her way to open her network to Latina founders seeking advice, camaraderie, and potential investment.
“The people who have been the most helpful are oftentimes the people that I would least expect,” she says.