“Don’t hold yourself back, and make sure to embrace it if it’s something that you’re passionate about,” advises Justine Lee, DVM, the co-founder and CEO of VETgirl, an online service she started to deliver “clinically relevant, practical continuing education via a tech-savvy, multimedia experience through podcasts, webinars, videos and blogs.”
Embracing her passions has taken Lee, the world’s only veterinary specialist board-certified in both emergency critical care and toxicology, on an exciting, nonstop professional and personal journey. In addition to leading her company, she works part-time in an emergency clinic and is a devoted wife and mother, an award-winning speaker and the author of two chuckle-inducing pet reference books, It’s a Dog’s Life … but It’s Your Carpet, and It’s a Cat’s World … You Just Live in It.
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The idea for VETgirl came to her one day in 2003 when the Cornell-trained veterinarian was running off stress and wishing she could learn at the same time. But she had never thought of herself as an entrepreneur, so she put that wish off for years. In 2012, Lee teamed up with Garret Pachtinger, DVM, whom she remembered as a technologically proficient student when she was a resident at the University of Pennsylvania. “By finding the right business partner and putting our dreams together, we were able to get it off the ground,” she says, adding that they self-funded the business with $10,000 each plus a lot of sweat equity.
When she wasn’t launching VETgirl or handling veterinary emergencies, Lee, who married at 40, was ardently pursuing another startup—motherhood. She and her husband “instantly started trying to have kids,” she writes in her blog. “Several pregnancies and losses later, we decided to try in vitro fertilization.” After learning about the slim chances of successful IVF for women in their 40s, however, they decided against it.
Meanwhile, Lee’s brainchild was thriving. She says her original goal was “to allow veterinary professionals to have what I call ‘time property’… so if you have a long commute, if you’re running on a treadmill, you can learn while you’re doing something else.” After about three years of charging for access, VETgirl started offering free podcasts to increase brand recognition. “They’ve been downloaded over 2 million times in 170 countries,” she says.
As the podcasts were attracting a worldwide audience, Lee’s dream of becoming a mother unexpectedly came true. Thanks to what she calls “God’s crazy timing,” she got pregnant at 43, and gave birth to a son in November 2016.
Motherhood hasn’t slowed Lee down at all. She says her husband “is amazing in that he’s very supportive of my career.… I’m a stay-at-home mom two days a week, and he’s been very supportive of that also.”
VETgirl continues to thrive and expand, recently hiring a “chief happiness officer” to promote wellness for veterinary professionals, who are often overwhelmed by compassion fatigue.
Lee advises women starting small businesses to consider online options, including social media; not to let perfectionism delay the launch of a product or service that can be revised as it’s released; and to schedule time for self-care.
“We as women often have great ideas, but we rationalize too much,” Lee notes, adding that owning a small business can often provide the financial freedom that finally leads to that elusive work-life balance.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LESLIE PLESSER