Sarah’s Journey: Balancing a PhD as an Entrepreneur

In a world where paths diverge unexpectedly, Sarah Vrankovich (Class of 2015) stands as a testament to navigating life’s unique crossroads. Her journey is one that balances a demanding PhD program with artistic jewellery designs for her business Hot Mess Designs.

What are some of your highlights since you left Santa Maria?

Being accepted into the PhD program at RMIT University is a pivotal experience in my life. Given that I had not excelled academically in high school, the idea of pursuing post-graduate studies seemed unattainable for me. It was not until I was completing honours that I considered applying for a PhD program. Throughout my PhD journey, I have been presented with opportunities that have influenced my career trajectory and opened new and exciting doors. For example, as my PhD research is focused on sexual violence prevention, I now work as a Research Assistant at Curtin University, and the projects I am working on are focused on sexual harassment within the mining industry.

What is your PhD research topic?

My doctoral research centres on sex education as a primary prevention approach aimed at reducing unwanted sexual experiences among young people. Unfortunately, such encounters are significantly widespread among this demographic. I became motivated to pursue this area of research when one of my beautiful friends disclosed to me an incident of sexual violence they experienced at leavers. I believe that had my friends and I been equipped with comprehensive sex education, the outcomes could have been vastly different. At best, we might have avoided such experiences altogether, and at worst, we would have possessed the awareness to recognise these incidents as sexual violence and had the knowledge to report it.

What was the driving force behind creating your own business? 

When COVID lockdowns were in full swing, I bought a polymer clay-making kit to pass the time. I started to really enjoy making earrings and would gift them to friends and family. I launched an Instagram page to document the earrings I was making. As the page started to gain followers, both my mum and partner encouraged me to turn my creative outlet into a small business. If it was not for their support, I probably would have been too anxious to commit to starting a small business!

Where do you draw inspiration from for your creative designs?

My design process is a fusion of imagination and observation, resulting in unique pieces that are often two of a kind. Nostalgia serves as a driving force in my creative journey. I find myself drawn to the charm of vintage and retro patterns, embracing the aesthetics that characterised the early 2000s, particularly the Y2K era. My obsession with early 2000s fashion has influenced my heavy use of checkerboard design. Additionally, staying with current trends and conducting market research on platforms like Instagram helps me understand my audience and adapt to contemporary styles. This approach helps me to create designs that resonate with a wider audience while still retaining the essence of Hot Mess Design and exuding colourful and creative designs.

What do you enjoy most about having your own business?

Engaging with customers face-to-face at markets holds a special place in my heart as a small business owner. It not only enables me to have direct interactions with customers but has also introduced me to many remarkable people. The creative landscape in Perth is bursting with talent, and I consider myself fortunate to have made so many friendships within this vibrant community!

Balancing a business with a PhD is undoubtedly demanding. How do you balance both?

I consider myself lucky because working creatively with polymer clay brings me a sense of relaxation. Often, dedicating a day to crafting earrings serves as my personal downtime, which facilitates my ability to maintain balance. However, I also believe that being organised and planning my time at the beginning of every week helps me a lot!

Looking ahead, where do you hope to see yourself five years from now?

As I find myself approaching the end of my PhD journey, with the light at the end of the tunnel finally coming into view, I am beginning to explore different avenues. Last semester, I had the opportunity to teach a criminology unit, an experience that brought me so much fulfilment. This has prompted me to consider teaching at universities, particularly in the realm of research methods, as an interesting prospect.

Reflecting on your time at Santa Maria, were there any specific people or programs that left an impact on you?

I felt quite lost during my high school years, particularly as I navigated life as a boarder and being away from my family. Reflecting on that period, I am appreciative of the time I spent in the Art Department, where I was able to express myself creatively. One memory that stands out prominently was the experience of embarking on an art tour to America during my final year of high school. At the time, I did not fully grasp the significance of this opportunity – exploring the lively cities of Los Angeles and New York with the entire trip planned out for us. This tour allowed us to see artworks in person that we had studied in our classrooms, and we were also able to watch Broadway musicals! Beyond the cultural exposure, what left an enduring impact was the chance to forge lifelong friendships. The resonance of this experience was so great that one of my friends, whom I connected with during the tour, and I planned to revisit New York. This was sadly postponed due to the pandemic. Furthermore, I would like to acknowledge the influence that the late Linda Bulloch had on each of us during our time at boarding school. While we may not have understood, her attentiveness, vigilance and unwavering care for our wellbeing were ever-present.

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Sarah. We wish you all the best with your PhD and the continuing success of your business.

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