Tech Meets Health: Introducing Tara Viswanathan, Founder of Rupa Health

By Emily Merrell

Remember when people looked at you like you were nuts for sticking needles in your body? Now everyone knows what acupuncture is and the problem is figuring out how to book these services and vet who is worthy of your hard earned money. Enter Rupa Health. They simplify the way you book practitioners by pre-vetting them for you. From acupuncturists to other holistic healers, Rupa Health’s founder Tara Viswanathan wants you to find the right person for your problem. 

SDS: Food and wellness have always seemed to be your passions. Can you walk us through your background that led to Rupa Health

Tara Viswanathan, Founder of Rupa Health. Courtesy of Tara Viswanathan.

TARA VISWANATHAN: My passion is people! Feeling 100% alive and helping other people feel that way has always been my obsession. I’ve just always had this feeling of,  “Wow, we are the lucky ones, to be alive on this Earth.” I want to make the most out of every minute, and to me, that comes with feeling fully alive. It’s that “high on life” feeling. To me, improving human health is the ultimate manifestation of this passion. Food, wellness, healthcare…these are all vehicles to that end. When I started Rupa, many of my friends told me, “Tara, this is YOU in a company.” Which to me, was the highest compliment possible! I’m not exaggerating when I say my whole life has led to this. It’s hard to guess where you will go in the future, but when you look retrospectively at your life, it’s incredible to see how clearly the dots usually connect. That’s definitely the truth in my case. 

On the topic of health specifically – I actually got a research scholarship to do cancer research on telomerase when I was in high school. The summer before, I went to “nerd camp” to study genetics. So I was very lucky to have exposure and interest in human health from a young age. 

There’s a ton of hilarious stories, learnings, failures, and embarrassments along the way. Including (but not limited to): gaining the freshman 20 and suddenly needing to learn what a calorie was, pitching a non-alcohol bar and getting mercilessly shot down, doing a 10 day silent meditation vipassana over my birthday, leaving grad school to start a healthy chocolate company, going vegan just to see what the social repercussions would be, studying functional medicine and having everyone around me tell me I’m crazy, helping my mom through a debilitating health scare when no doctor (including my dad) could help, and so much more. 

Perhaps one of the biggest decisions I made was to leave all my friends & community on the east coast (I went to undergrad there) and move to California to study “how to build products for better health” at Stanford. (Not a real degree, but I made it up and they let me do it!) This is where I got to work with chronically ill patients and saw the impact lifestyle modifications could have on serious conditions like diabetes, early-onset neurodegenerative conditions, autoimmune, cancer, and more. What blew my mind was that my dad (a doctor) didn’t know these things. I knew I had to make complementary and alternative solutions more accessible to people. Side note: I was so lucky to be at such an open-minded institution like Stanford, where I got to study nutrition and meditation through the Stanford Medical school (the med school is the first in the country to get all of its residents to take a meditation course!) 

It hasn’t been a linear path at all, but looking back, I feel so incredibly grateful to have had all those moments and experiences – and I know it’s just the beginning of a lifelong journey. (p.s. I used to chronicle some of this at  taraviswanathan.com

 SDS: What is Rupa Health and why do we need it?

Tara Viswanathan, Founder of Rupa Health. Courtesy of Tara Viswanathan.

TV: Rupa Health helps patients access holistic (integrative, functional, alternative, whatever you want to call it) medicine. We vet holistic practitioners (functional medicine, acupuncture, nutrition, etc.) and help patients find the right practitioner for them through education, our concierge and free consultations. 

Most of our patients have seen over seven doctors in over three years and still haven’t gotten any answers to their (gut, autoimmune, hormonal, fertility, pain) issues. They come to us as a last ditch effort to feel better – and that’s where we see the biggest transformation. We’re not looking to replace Western medicine at all – we’re looking to fill the gaps where the current system is not built to work. e.g. helping patients build a customized nutrition or lifestyle plan. 

Here’s the thing – one out of every two Americans is struggling with a chronic illness that can be greatly improved (or reversed) using lifestyle medicine. Alternative and holistic practitioners can help in ways Western medicine alone cannot. For example, our practitioners spend on average 60 minutes per visit with each patient. They are focused on lifestyle, nutrition, and stress-reduction. Contrary to what most people think, it’s not a substitute for Western medicine, but an incredible complement. 

With rising lifestyle based health issues and lack of great solutions – it’s no wonder demand for alternative medicine practitioners has grown 5000% over the last 5 years. But that demand is going unfilled. It’s extremely difficult to find, vet, and pay for these alternative providers today. These practitioners usually operate as private local businesses, many without great scheduling systems or even websites. And there’s no great quality control. Unless we have a solid reference from a friend, we don’t go. There’s also the education gap. Most of our patients who come to us have no clue what type of practitioner can help them – an acupuncturist? A naturopath? A functional medicine doctor? What are those? We’re looking to fix all those problems and increase access to these types of practitioners who can really help patients. 

Also, our generation is demanding a much different health system than our parents’ generation. We’re demanding a much different relationship with practitioners – we want to be part of the conversation rather than just told what to do blindly. Millennials are highly likely to challenge doctor recommendations and estimates are only 30-40% of us even have a primary care physician. At Rupa, we’re so excited to be rethinking the way patients will access and interact with healthcare in the future. 

SDS: There definitely needs to be a better way to book and vet holistic practitioners. How does it work to be on your platform? 

TV: Right now, if we vet you and think you are a great practitioner who we would feel comfortable sending our mother to, then you can be on our platform. 

SDS: Not only are you the founder & CEO, but you’re also busy building a team. What do you look for in a candidate? 

Rupa Health team. Courtesy of Tara Viswanathan.

TV: This is a great question. We are a startup and our team is everything. I am so stoked to be working alongside some phenomenal humans, and we are very protective of who comes in our team. 

That said, I’m not going to sugarcoat this. 

You need to have that hunger. We work really freaking hard and love being around other brilliant and hard working people. I’m writing this on a Saturday at 8:15PM. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Do you have that drive as well? Are you the best at what you do? Prove to me that you’ve hustled and figured things out before. One of our interview questions is “Tell us about your scrappiest moment.” That tells us a lot about a person. 

You need to be able to self-manage. We don’t have any official time off so it’s up to you to know how to take care of yourself and do the things that enable you to thrive at work. There’s no vacation policy. Take a day off if you need it. Sleep in if you need it. 

We’re so driven by our mission of making alternative medicine more accessible and approachable that we will do whatever it takes to manifest that vision. Ultimately, you need to have faith, courage, and determination to succeed at Rupa. 

Faith that the impossible might be possible. Faith in yourself, your team, and ultimately the vision that’s bigger than all of us. Faith that your teammates will show up in the same way you are. Faith that all this hard work is going to pay off. Faith that you’re in the right place, even when it’s tough.

Courage to take on a HUGE challenge. To be a leader even when you don’t feel like one. To be scared and do it anyway. To have extremely high standards for yourself. To make decisions in the face of huge uncertainties. Courage to do something different from all your friends. Courage to trust yourself. To have passion and seemingly illogical belief in a vision. 

Determination to keep going. To be rejected 1000 times and still pick yourself up. To be creative and find another solution. To say “yes, and” instead of “no, but”. To come to the table with solutions rather than problems. To fight the good fight, even if no one recognizes it today.

Oh, and you need to be able to have fun and laugh. We have a LOT of fun. (See my insta for the real inside scoop!) P.S. WE ARE HIRING!! Technical, Marketing, and Head of Medical. 🙂 

SDS: Let’s talk about self-care. What are some of your favorite ways to take care of yourself? Would you rather: acupuncture or cupping? 

TV: Journaling 100%. Stream of conscious journaling, specifically. Daily, ideally. I’m a huge advocate of this.

I’ve learned that some people “think to talk” – i.e., they think in their head before they speak. Other people “talk to think” – i.e., they speak out loud to make sense of their thoughts. I am

Rupa Health event. Courtesy of Tara Viswanathan.

definitively in that second category. So the times when I am spiraling out of control or stressed – it is almost ALWAYS because I am holding too many unprocessed thoughts in my head.

Enter journaling, specifically the “stream-of-conscious” style journaling. It helps calm my brain down, make sense of things, and re-energize my soul. And it’s truly stream of consciousness: Whatever comes to my mind, I write it down.

You have to be really honest with yourself for it to be as therapeutic as it is. You can’t hold back, you can’t judge yourself, you have to write down whatever comes to your mind. And don’t stop until you feel good. Most of my journal entries end with – in all caps and with tons of exclamation marks – a “LET’S GOOOOO!!!!!” (If anyone read my journals, they’d probably think I was crazy; most times it doesn’t make any sense. But that’s okay because it serves its purpose for me!)

Also, if you’re able, treat yourself to a nice Moleskine exclusively for this purpose. Write the date, time, and where you are for each entry – doing so makes a huge difference.

Between acupuncture and cupping (did you know cupping is technically acupuncture?!), I actually LOVE cupping. I suffer from chronically tight muscles and cupping is a godsend. Then again, I’ve never had cupping without acupuncture needling as well. (Usually, cupping follows needles, and I have yet to meet an acupuncturist who does just cupping!) 

SDS: What’s one thing you wish you had known a year ago? 

TV: This is seemingly off-topic but has actually made a huge impact on the company. 

Investing in a (romantic) relationship and learning how to depend on my partner has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I am a better leader, creator, friend, and human because of it. I can’t emphasize this enough. 

It’s so easy to dive into work and say you don’t have time for a relationship. But I actually met my person right when I was starting the company and kicking into gear – and it’s been such an incredible experience. (He has a startup too, we are a very high risk couple!) Don’t listen to people who say you can’t do both… 🙂

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