Be yourself — don’t try to impress others. When starting a business, social enterprise or venture, you may feel pressured to act or do things a certain way because someone told you so. Be yourself, be unique and embrace that always.
Aspart of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie-Lee Kay.Jamie-Lee is a business grad turned social entrepreneur. In 2018, after graduating with a commerce degree, she turned down the corporate career path to start her own company to address one of the world’s biggest challenges — plastic pollution. Driven by social impact and sustainability, in late 2018, Jamie-Lee and her partner, Lennart launched The Other Straw, a company that replaces single-use plastic straws with reusable, ethically made bamboo straws. Since launching in 2018, they’ve sold over 75,000 reusable bamboo straws and prevented over 7.5 million single-use plastic straws from entering our landfills, natural environments and oceans. Her work has supported and educated over 11,500 individuals and businesses on the impacts of single-use plastic straws and their plastic footprint. Also, she has supported over 45 ocean cleanups and provided 50 fair and sustainable jobs to the Hmong Ethnic Minority Group in Northern Vietnam. Jamie-Lee is one of Australia’s most well-known social entrepreneurs. Her work has led to inclusion in numerous media outlets including 10 News, Urban List, Medium and brand collaborations with ING Bank, Lululmeon, Johnson & Johnson, University of Missouri, Marriott hotels amongst others.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Igrew up on the coast in Australia, spending lots of time outside and at the beach.
Looking back at my childhood, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunities I had. I grew up in a small coastal community, where everyone sort of knew everyone. Afternoons were spent at the beach, or spending time in nature, a real blessing.
When I was 15, I moved to Michigan, and completed my sophomore year. Soon after, at the age of 17 I moved on my own to complete my high schooling in Portugal. I spent two years living in Portugal, studying and working at a surf school.
When I turned 20, I returned to Australia and started a commerce degree in Melbourne. With my itchy feet, I moved overseas again, but this time to South America. I spent one year completing my business degree in Santiago, Chile, where I met my now partner, and co-founder of The Other Straw, Len.
Len and I moved to Australia, and we launched The Other Straw just after I graduated from University. We poured our personal savings into starting the business, which was a bit daunting. But we are so passionate about our cause and impact, so we knew it was the right thing to do.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
With 8 million tons of plastic being dumped into our oceans every year, our marine life is swallowing more plastic than ever before.
The Other Straw is a social enterprise replacing single-use plastic straws with reusable, ethically-made bamboo straws.
Our mission is to make the world a more sustainable place. We do this by offering reusable bamboo straws in replacement of single-use plastic straws. The Other Straw serves as a symbol to everything people can do in their everyday life to live a less wasteful lifestyle.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Plastic straws take hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to actually break down and every single plastic straw ever used still exists today. They are unrecyclable and do not biodegrade leading to long-term pollution environmental impacts.
Realising these realities, Lennart, my partner and I founded The Other Straw. We’re really lucky to live by the beach in Australia and we’ve seen firsthand the damaging impacts plastic straws have on our natural environments and wildlife.
We’re both passionate about sustainability and the environment, which led us to start The Other Straw– to help make the world a more sustainable place.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
One of my favorite quotes is, “If not you, then who? If not now, when?”
It couldn’t be any more relevant to following your passion, or starting a new venture.
When I graduated from University, Len and I decided to go to Vietnam for a holiday.
Not far into our trip, we were becoming more and more concerned with the issue of plastic waste, especially straws and we wanted to do something about it.
After doing some initial research, it was very clear that bamboo straws were the most environmentally friendly straw alternative.
Within a couple of days, we found ourselves meeting up with bamboo farmers in the North of Vietnam. We returned to Australia and within 3 weeks, we left our jobs and The Other Straw was born.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
If you don’t know how or where to start, it’s really important to surround yourself with people who can support you and help you out.
Within a few months of launching The Other Straw, we joined a startup accelerator program to help drive our growth. We met our mentor during this program and surrounded ourselves with a group of like-minded young individuals.
It’s really important to find similar networks where you can tap into knowledge and resources to help transform your idea into a reality.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Within 3–4 months of launching The Other Straw, we were approached by an multi-national bank to run a crowdfunding campaign, in collaboration with them.
At the time, this was huge for us. We crowdfunded a bit of money which we used to launch a new range. When starting out, you just never know what opportunities will come your way.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Even though I made a lot of mistakes, none of them are top of mind.
But, one of our most memorable moments was when a customer from our eCommerce store wrote us a personal letter in the mail to describe how much she loved our brand, ourselves and wanted to thank us for the work we are doing. It’s a great feeling to receive these sorts of notes and encouragement letters from your customers.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Yes, for sure! I’ve been part of a variety of networks and start up groups which helped grow my personally, and also The Other Straw.
Nonetheless, my biggest supporter is my partner and co-founder, Len. He constantly inspires and challenges me to grow. I couldn’t have asked for a better best friend, boyfriend and business partner!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Our bamboo straws are ethically handcrafted in Northern Vietnam. We work with local ethnic minority groups to design, grow and harvest our bamboo straws.
Last year, we took on a second farm in Vietnam, which is women-lead and run. Through our work, we’ve provided economic job opportunities for many women within the rural village, which would not have had a job otherwise, providing them with financial freedom and independence. It has been really empowering for them, and us also.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Try to live more sustainably and use less plastic in your everyday life. Swap plastic straws for bamboo straws, swap takeaway coffee cups for reusable coffee cups or ditch cling wrap for reusable zip lock bags — be part of the solution, not the problem.
- Use your voice and help raise awareness to the problem of plastic pollution. Whether it is sharing a post on Facebook or participating in Plastic Free July, there are so many ways you can use your voice to raise awareness to this issue and inspire others to do so as well.
- Advocate and help change policy. Write a letter to your local senator, or University President and ask them to introduce plastic free policies. Whether it is banning plastic straws in your local town, or on your College Campus, every bit makes a massive difference. Don’t underestimate the power your actions can have.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Don’t be afraid to say no — in the early days, I was saying yes to every meeting, event or opportunity that came my way. I felt exhausted and run down. It’s important to only say yes to the things that matter to you, and don’t simply say yes to be polite.
2. Celebrate your wins — when you run a business or organization, you’re constantly chasing the next thing. It’s important to slow down, reflect and celebrate your wins along the way. Whether it is hitting your next milestone, hiring an employee or starting a new collaboration, make sure you stop and reflect on your achievements.
3. Always come back to your ‘why’ — if you are feeling lost or exhausted, always revert back to your ‘why’. Why did you start your business or organization? This is my biggest motivator. It’s important to be true to yourself and know exactly why you started your business/organization, this will keep you going on the tough days.
4. Surround yourself with good people — in the early days of starting our business, I didn’t realize how important and vital it is to surround yourself with positive, aspiring people. Find people within your community, or online who make you feel motivated to achieve more, and immerse yourself in their content or spends lots of time with them and learn from them.
5. Be yourself — don’t try to impress others. When starting a business, social enterprise or venture, you may feel pressured to act or do things a certain way because someone told you so. Be yourself, be unique and embrace that always.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Our planet will not get better by chance, it gets better by change. It’s by our actions that lead to change. If you want to make a positive impact, it starts with your daily actions. By doing this, we can provide future generations and eco systems a place to thrive.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Climate Activist, Greta Thunberg for sure! She is such an inspiration, and I admire her ambition and courage. I’d love to pick her brain and believe there is such much I could learn from her.
How can our readers follow you online?
Learn more about us on: https://theotherstraw.com/
Or follow us on Instagram @theotherstraw or connect with me personally on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamieleekay
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!