OyChicago articles

8 Questions for Drs. Romy Block and Arielle Levitan: The vitamin experts

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8 Questions for Drs. Romy Block and Arielle Levitan photo 1

Dr. Arielle Levitan (left) and Dr. Romy Block (right), creators of Vous Vitamin.

Take your vitamins, Oy!sters, because this time, it’s personal.

Drs. Romy Block and Arielle Levitan are two doctors (and friends) practicing on the North Shore and changing the way consumers think about vitamins and supplements. That’s right, the days of Flinstones chewable vitamins are long gone. Time to wise up.

Levitan, a board-certified internal medicine physician with a special interest in women’s health and preventative medicine, and Block, a board-certified endocrinology and metabolism specialist and expert in pituitary and thyroid disorders, teamed up to create Vous Vitamin after years of advising patients about the right vitamins to take because off-the-shelf products were not meeting their needs. They found that everyone has different lifestyles, diets and health histories, and they should receive a multivitamin tailored to specifically to them.

Consumers take a short survey online that takes into account age, where they live, their exercise habit, family history, diet (kosher is an option!) and more. It generates a customized multivitamin that can be ordered right online and delivered to your door.

8 Questions for Drs. Romy Block and Arielle Levitan photo 2

Block and Levitan are also always keeping up on the latest studies and sharing their wisdom on their blog. They even recently gave viewers some advice for self-care during the holidays on the WCIU show “Now.Chicago.”

So if you’re mindful of your health, Romy Block and Arielle Levitan are two Jews you should definitely know.

1. Were you always interested in vitamins and supplements? What drew you pursue this project together?  

Arielle: As physicians, we both found that we were spending a great deal of our time talking to patients about vitamins and supplements. We both found that people were very confused about what they should be taking and what was safe and useful. As a primary care doctor, I was often discussing the use of vitamins for osteoporosis prevention and general health.

Romy: I found I was seeing lots of people who thought they had a thyroid problem but in reality had various vitamin deficiencies causing them symptoms.

2. Why aren’t personalized, customizable vitamins commonplace in the industry and how does Vous Vitamin address those challenges?  

We have not found many personalized vitamins in the industry, perhaps because the prevailing assumption is that more is better. Many people just add product after product to address different concerns without taking into consideration the person's diet or other factors. It turns out that many people are actually getting too much of vitamins they don't need that can be harmful and not enough of those that they do. Vitamin A, for example is found in most multivitamins, yet deficiency in this is extremely rare in the U.S. Taking too much, on the other hand has been linked to osteoporosis and high rates of cancer. The industry has not addressed this at all.

3. Why might/should young adults who don’t take vitamins and don’t even have them on their radar be considering them?  

Many adults need vitamins even if they eat a healthy diet. Some vitamins are not easily obtained from food sources. For example, Vitamin D is found in very few foods in significant amounts (namely beef liver and wild caught salmon—not farm raised).  It is obtained from the sun, but most of us who live in temperate climates do not get good year-round sun exposure and many of us wear sunscreen (as we should). Most of us need to supplement D for these reasons. We also often fall short on certain other nutrients, in part because our produce no longer has the same quantities of nutrients that it once did. Some of us, in the name of health, actually miss out on valuable nutrients, such as iodine; this is something that table salt contains. However, as a society people are using less salt and some are using only sea salt or kosher salt which has no iodine. Iodine is essential for thyroid health and should be supplemented, but only in the proper amounts. Many of us also need things like calcium to help keep bones strong. It is, of course, very individual and that is why Vous Vitamin came into being.

4. What are the highlights and challenges of being friends and business partners?

It was via our friendship that our concept for Vous Vitamin developed – we would often discuss our practices and needs of our patients. We realized we had similar views on many health topics and this has carried through to collaborating in our business. We collaborate well, but have found that we each are naturally suited to different roles in running the business. We have also been able to help one another when our home lives are particularly chaotic. We have each had challenges this year with ill family members and I think our friendship beyond the business has enabled us to each sense when the other needs a break from work and we have been able to help pick up the slack. The biggest challenge has perhaps been taking time to remember to connect as friends and not just business partners. Every once in a while we have to remind ourselves to schedule a lunch or night out as couples with our husbands so that we are not just talking business all the time. We try to remember we are friends first.

5. If you could make your vitamins in any form, shape or color, what would they look like?  

Our goal is to be able to make vitamins in more different forms – we know some people want chewables or gummies and we know that some people are interested in liquid versions. We hope to eventually develop new products to meet these needs. In addition to our existing Situational Supplements (Power Up for energy and exercise, Immune Blast and Recovery Act for hangover prevention), we hope to introduce many more. We are also working on a dedicated line of men's Personalized Multivitamins since our branding has been tailored to women thus far. We are constantly thinking of adjustments and new ideas based on current research.

6. What do you love most about what you do?

We love being able to apply all our years of medical training and taking care of patients to creating products and a business model that is available to anyone online. It is so much fun to know that our knowledge can benefit so many people. In addition to supplying people with Personalized Multivitamins to meet their specific needs we also like educating them about health topics. We have a very active blog on our site with lots of up to date information on different issues. We are also in the process of writing a book about the role of vitamins in health and wellness.

7. In an alternate universe where you couldn’t be doctors, what would you do?  

If we were not creating vitamins we would probably find some other way to help the public become more knowledgeable about their health. We really enjoy translating confusing medical language into concepts anyone can understand. We also like to help people sift through all of the conflicting and misleading information on the internet about health so they can know what to believe. That is in part the origin of Vous Vitamins: we were tired of people showing up in our offices with bags full of supplements that they were taking for unclear reasons and with potentially toxic effects. We felt we could help them clear the clutter and take what was necessary and safe for them.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do (or how do you Jew?) in Chicago?

Arielle: My favorite Jewish thing is my involvement with Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I have been a camp doctor there for the last three summers and absolutely love to get away to the North Woods and soak up the energy of summer camp. It's an amazing organization and I feel so privileged to get to be a part of it and live and work in a thriving Jewish community. I’m also is on the Board of Directors at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El where I’m an active member.

Romy: I love participating in the Beth El preschool community. My children have all attended and I serve on the board for the Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Preschool. I love that my children have found a Jewish connection so early in life including their enjoyment of the PJ Library each month. I’m an active member in JUF and am looking forward to the YLD Big Event Fundraiser with Seth Meyers!  

Double Chai Check-In: Scott Issen is helping build the future

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Double Chai Check-In: Scott Issen photo

If you’re a big proponent of the phrase “our youth are our future,” then Scott Issen is a pretty important guy. As the co-founder of the Future Founders Foundation, Issen helps students in underserved areas as young as second grade explore entrepreneurship, building the skills and business plans that will lead them to successful careers as adults.

Issen began his work fostering the innovative spirit of students almost a decade ago when he worked for the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, which provides advisory service to local entrepreneurs. Tasked with figuring out how to help the next generation of entrepreneurs, he developed Future Founders, which in 2011 became an independent organization. In 2013 he was honored as “Double Chai in the Chi” by Oy!Chicago and YLD and just this last year was named 40 Under 40 by Crain’s Chicago Business

“I always joke if you told me I was going to be running a nonprofit or be an entrepreneur, I would say you’re crazy because I didn’t want to do either of those,” Issen said. “But now it’s what I see myself doing.”

Under Issen’s leadership, Future Founders has grown from a pilot program reaching 75 kids at three schools to a full-fledged organization now at 50 schools and serving 7,000 students each year through its Future Founders High School, Future Founders Connect and Lemonade Day Chicago programs.

Most recently, Future Founders revealed its College Founders program, a collaborative effort between organizations, universities, incubators and entrepreneurship assistance groups to provide higher level resources and access to college students.

Issen said the new program developed because high school students who graduated from their existing programs as well as college students from across the region were passionate about entrepreneurship but didn’t always feel their on-campus resources were giving them enough preparation for entering the real world successfully.

“What we wanted to do was leverage all the great things that are going on in Chicagoland and plug kids into things while they’re still in school so that by the time they graduate, they know the people to go to, they know the organizations to go to and they’re already immersed in the community,” Issen said.

College Founders consists of access to entrepreneurship events, trips to visit companies, networking opportunities and more, along with a fellowship program for a select cohort of students to receive further mentorship and a city-wide elevator pitch competition, which took place Monday night, Nov. 17.

Although the programs appear to focus squarely on entrepreneurship, Issen said he sees entrepreneurship as something that crosses field and industries.

“Being able to empower students to create opportunities and help them build skills is going to be key for them to be successful,” Issen said. “We’re not saying that every one of these students should become entrepreneurs, but I think what’s great is entrepreneurship offers a lot of great ways to synthesize skills that already exist and are going to be relevant for whatever you do.”

The fact that entrepreneurship is interdisciplinary is among the reasons, Issen said, that funders have been eager to support Future Founders and other innovation-focused programs and organizations.

“[Entrepreneurship] is like the new fad almost, but we have to remember our economy and country is built on entrepreneurs, all these large companies started as small business led by entrepreneurs, so I think it’s a resurgence of this energy,” he said.

Future Founders provides a multitude of volunteer opportunities for those looking to pass their energy and knowledge as business leaders on to students. Volunteers can help students build business plans, lead a skills workshop, talk on a career panel and more. Opportunities to mentor and work with college students are still in development as College Founders begins to develop and assess the students’ needs.

As for his own volunteering, Issen recently joined the board of Mishkan Chicago, the fast-growing spiritual community based predominantly on the North Side led by 2012 Double Chai in the Chi honoree Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann. After attending High Holiday services with Mishkan last year, Issen said he connected instantly with the spiritual experience it offered. On the board, he has been involved in Mishkan’s marketing and branding strategy, and also discussed how to sustain and continue developing the energy and growth it has built in the last few years.

“I feel honored to be involved in the growth of the organization,” Issen said. “I would really encourage people to just try it out once. Just like with anything, give us a chance to move you and I think you’ll be moved.”

Issen plans to channel the good press from Double Chai in the Chi and Crain’s 40 Under 40 into raising the profile of Future Founders and Mishkan, and to engage people through both.

Leaving no vet behind

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Leaving no vet behind photo 1

“Every day is Veterans Day for us,” explained Rob Walker, program director at Leave No Veteran Behind. Walker served in the U.S. Navy before getting his law degree. Now, he serves his fellow vets — including his fellow Jews — by helping them integrate back in to civilian society.

LNVB was founded by Army vets Roy Sartin and Eli Williamson, both Chicago natives, who were themselves readjusting upon returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. As they struggled to pay off college debt and find jobs, they realized that they were not alone, and founded LNVB in 2009 to change the game for others.

Today, LNVB still focuses on these issues. One of its major programs is its Retroactive Scholarships. These are payments made to help ease vets’ tuition-loan payments. So far, the organization has provided $150,000 in debt relief.

In return, veterans perform community service, such as patrolling for the Safe Passage program that helps kids get to school safely. Walker staffed a Safe Passage route himself, to get a feel for the job. He found himself thanked by the children, their parents, and even police officers.

Staffing Safe Passage routes still gives the vets a five-hour block each day to work at a more formal job, and LNVB also helps them land these jobs. They work with the vets and employers to find a good employment fit. And some vets also continue their higher education as well, during the day or on evenings and weekends.

Another way the organization helps vets is by helping them continue to serve their communities. Vets help disadvantaged kids learn employable skills by helping them rehab old bikes and make their own solar cell-phone chargers. And they help whole neighborhoods by turning vacant lots into community gardens, especially welcome in “food deserts,” areas with a lack of ready access to fresh, healthy foods.

Walker, who served as a mechanic on a nuclear submarine, also participated in the bike rebuilds. He is joined by another vet, also last-named Walker; while they are not related, their fellow bike mechanics have taken to calling them “The Walker Brothers” in reference to the pancake house. The bikes, aside from being cleaned up and made safe to ride again, are outfitted with tech that recharges riders’ cell phones as they cruise along. Even Mayor Emanuel has ridden one.

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A non-profit, LNVB is supported by donors, philanthropists, and corporate sponsors. They serve vets of all ages — at the moment, most have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and from all branches of service. They are referred to LNVB by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, by their school guidance counselors and by other vets. They’ve also been on the news. LNVB has worked with 400 vets so far; 100 are in the program now.

Walker is proud to serve his fellow vets and help ensure that they transition back into civilian life smoothly. He points out that the work the veterans do — renovating old bikes and helping vacant lots bloom — shows the veterans that they, too, still have lots of miles left in them, and lots of growing they can still do.

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