written by Amy Faust | photos by Peter Mahar
Doctor Elinor McGrath is not a household name…yet. When she graduated from veterinary school in 1910, McGrath became the first practicing female veterinarian in America. Now, more than a century later, she has become the face of—and the inspiration behind—a new line of animal care products created by Portland entrepreneur Juliette Fassett.
Starting with a shampoo in 2012, Fassett has since expanded her natural ingredient-based product line to include dog treats, ear wipes, and kibble toppers—all branded and packaged in an old apothecary style befitting their namesake. To honor Dr. McGrath, a portion of sales goes to scholarships for veterinary students.
The company Dr. McGrath’s was born after what Fassett called a “flat-out, flaming, crash to the ground failure.” When the multimillion dollar handbag business she created in 2003 cratered during the recession of 2008, she found herself jobless, with no way to support an expensive equestrian habit. “My trainer said, ‘Why don’t you groom for me in exchange for lessons?’” Fassett found herself spending days in a stable, using a dozen different horse shampoos, not satisfied with any of them.
“I became obsessed, testing every product on the market and deciding what I did and didn’t like about them,” she said. In her experience, the natural products didn’t always get the job done, but she also didn’t like the way certain chemicals dried skin and damaged the environment. Knowing that the pet market was particularly resilient and growing, and seeing an opportunity in the marketplace, Fassett’s entrepreneurial lightbulb lit up once again.
Her approach was not to create a boutique, small-batch product. Instead, she is trying to build the Burt’s Bees of animal care products—a brand that ultimately scales, but maintains its high quality and does some good in the world. Fassett sees her role as growing the brand and ultimately selling it to a buyer who can take it to an even larger market.
From the first phase of research and development, Fassett was already thinking big. She worked with a scientist and a manufacturing facility to create a shampoo formula that uses traditional, plant-based ingredients and leaves out the chemicals that have negative environmental impact. The process of developing and testing each product was, she admitted, “a nightmare,” as her high standards for ingredients and packaging bumped up against cost-effectiveness on a large scale. “I wanted to make everything as clean and natural as I could, and have it still be functional and affordable,” she said. “I’m proud that we managed to do that.”
While digging through century-old veterinary products, she noticed that all of them were made by men. “I started to wonder about women veterinarians and set out to find the first one,” she recalled. To dig deeper, she flew to Washington State University, put on white gloves and explored its extensive archival collection on the history of veterinary medicine in the United States.
Elinor McGrath was a standout. As the first woman to enter Chicago Veterinary College, she was encouraged by the dean to endure the scorn of her male classmates because, as he said, “You’ll make a better veterinarian than any of ‘em.” McGrath ran a successful practice for many decades on Chicago’s South Side, founded the city’s first pet cemetery and was appointed assistant Illinois state veterinarian.
Fassett knew she had found her archetype, but this was just the start. How do you build a brand around someone you’ve never met, and whose permission do you need if that person is no longer living? Delving into an area of law called “right of publicity,” Fassett found that she could probably use Dr. McGrath’s likeness without making a formal deal with her descendants, but that didn’t sit well with her. Tracking McGrath’s grandsons to Oklahoma and Arkansas, Fassett discussed her plans with the brothers in long phone conversations that culminated in a steak dinner together in Arkansas and a licensing agreement.
Before the first product even hit the market four years ago, Fassett established two scholarships for veterinary students and began awarding them annually through an alreadyestablished foundation. As the brand grows, these scholarships will grow as well. “My goal is that the scholarships will last far beyond my involvement in the business, and that they will grow into something that will stand forever. We think Elinor would have liked that.”
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