Buckle your seatbelt, it’s gonna be a wild ride. Starting your own company feels like you are blasting into space on a rocket ship that is only half-built, and you accidentally left the instruction manual at home.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emma Rose Cohen. Emma Rose Cohen, 34, is the CEO and founder of Final, the company that created FinalStraw — the world’s first reusable, collapsible straw that raised nearly $2 million on Kickstarter. Prior to launching Final, Emma earned a Master’s Degree from Harvard in Environmental Management and Sustainability and spent four years working in waste minimization at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In the last decade, Emma’s passion for sustainability motivated her to help create a nonprofit called Save the Mermaids, to educate children about the harmful effects of single-use plastics. Emma has also spoken about the harmful effects plastic straws have on the environment on the TEDx stage and in numerous podcasts.
Emma’s love for both the ocean and the mountains has resulted in a semi-nomadic lifestyle — she calls Santa Fe, New Mexico, Santa Barbara, California, and Whistler, British Columbia home. Emma continues to lead Final’s entirely remote team as they develop an entire line of Foreverables™ — items designed to replace single-use plastic and last forever. Final launched its second product, FinalWipe, on Kickstarter in March 2020 and has plans to release several additional products, including FinalFork and FinalSpork, later in the year.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My journey to living a more sustainable life began as a college student at UCSB when my friends and I would grab our shell bras and mermaid tails and lead beach clean-ups. Following graduation, I believed I had landed my dream job in waste minimization at Los Alamos National Laboratory, but in reality, I found myself drowning in a sea of government-issued trash.
I decided to leave the Lab and move to Whistler to be a ski bum for a year. At the same time, I started tinkering with the idea of reusable travel-friendly straw. Seattle was just about to enact a revolutionary ban on single-use plastic straws and when I looked on Amazon for a cool reusable straw, there was nothing. It was clear there was a huge gap in the market and the demand was close behind. FinalStraw was successful thanks to a lot of hard work, quite a bit of luck, and above all, timing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My obsession with waste inspired my friends to call me the “straw lady.” Now, I am frequently recognized when I am out and about by complete strangers as the “straw lady!”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on, we designed packaging with the words “Suck Responsibly” on it. However, I failed to notice a typo and ended up with packaging that read “Suck Reponsibly.” The lesson has been burned into my brain: always use spell check before printing hundreds of thousands of boxes.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it? Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I didn’t wake up one day and say, “I want to be a CEO when I grow up.” I have a vision for the kind of change I want to see in the world and the kind of companies I want to see more of. After studying companies like Patagonia in school, I realized there’s a profitable business model that takes more than just profit into account, and instead values the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit.
As the CEO of a startup, there is no job that is below you. From customer service to cleaning the pots after company lunches, you are in and out of the trenches on a day-to-day basis. Taking on all of these different roles taught me the skills each of these positions requires and how to hire people that best fit those needs. The best CEOs are natural team builders and create a beautiful balance between work and culture within a company.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
It blows my mind that I can have an idea, present it to the team, distribute responsibilities, and in a matter of months, it becomes something real. It’s kind of like your dreams can become a reality and this can be a pretty dangerous game for me because I have some pretty weird dreams.
What are the downsides of being an executive? What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The public perception of a CEO is super glamorous, with a beautiful corner office, and an assistant knocking at the door with a hot pumpkin spice latte. In reality, I am in my pajamas, sitting at my kitchen table, sipping on a smoothie for dinner because I am too tired to cook anything real.
As a team leader, I set the tone for the company; this means when I have a bad day or am in a bad mood, I have to suck it up and show up for the team with a smile on my face. It’s a challenge when I am down to feel like I still need to lift the team up when I don’t necessarily feel like there is anyone there to lift me up.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think the times have changed considerably. A lot of women pushed really hard to make the workplace an even playing ground for both genders. Though I haven’t entered this stage of my career, I see female CEOs who have to balance raising their families with growing a company and I am in awe of their ability to successfully manage both.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
As a CEO, I dedicate a huge portion of my time to learning how to communicate effectively with people and building teams. It’s a constant evolution and new challenges always arise. Everyone has different communication styles and needs; managing different personalities effectively requires curiosity and dedication to listening.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
Creating a company is terrifying! There are a million reasons anything can go sideways, and the probability of failing is 100 times higher than the probability of succeeding. Successful executives do not focus on what might go wrong; instead of being paralyzed by risk, they flourish in the waters of uncertainty. They are comfortable pushing their boundaries — for them, the unknown is both thrilling and exhilarating.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Slow down to speed up. When things seem to be moving too fast we always stop and bring it back to our mission: create sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic and empower people with the tools they need to reduce their single-use waste.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am so lucky to have parents that love and support me in whatever I choose to do. Though my mother cried when I told her I was quitting my stable job with benefits to make a reusable straw, she eventually got behind the idea and is now the biggest straw pusher on the team.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
To date, Final has prevented more than 300 million single-use straws from entering the waste stream. And we’re not stopping there. We are creating an entire line of Foreverables — sexy, sustainable, and totally badass reusable solutions that make it easy for people to say no to single-use plastic and reduce their waste. Summer 2020 is a *big* season for us. We officially brought our second product, BiggieStraw — a reusable, collapsible straw with enough sucking power for boba and thick smoothies — to market. We also have product launches for FinalFork, FinalSpork, and FinalWipe slated for 2020. Waste is just a design flaw and at Final, we intend to fix it. While we’re a company that focuses on creating innovative designs to help people waste less, we also recognize that the plastic pollution problem goes deeper than consumer behavior. That’s why we became a member of 1% for the Planet. We donate 1% of our gross sales to nonprofit organizations that focus on source reduction and policy solutions for plastic.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Buckle your seatbelt, it’s gonna be a wild ride. Starting your own company feels like you are blasting into space on a rocket ship that is only half-built, and you accidentally left the instruction manual at home.
- Write solid contracts. My co-founder and I split ways early on. It was messy and very distracting as I was trying to get FinalStraw off the ground. A well-written contract would have made the split much easier.
- Trust your gut. I have hired people I knew were not right for the job and as a result, created a lot of problems that otherwise could have been avoided.
- Know when to pivot. Good CEOs make just as many bad decisions as bad CEOs, they just pivot faster.
- Hire experienced people for certain jobs and trust that someone’s drive to learn is enough for others.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
FinalStraw is about more than just a straw, it’s about inspiring a greater movement. The straw is a foot in the door to the conversation about sustainability and single-use plastic. It encourages people to start talking about the larger issues at hand. Even if we removed all of the plastic straws from the earth, we’d still have a massive plastic pollution problem. It’s predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the ocean. FinalStraw is an easy first step for anyone who wants to live more sustainably.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
When I was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, I had a “secure” job with health benefits and upward mobility. These are all of the things your parents tell you you need in a career. But I wasn’t happy. At the same time, I was nervous to leave the lab and jump into the arena. When I read this quote it shook me to the core and helped inspire me to just take a leap of faith and stop worrying about what all of the critics might say.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Hoda Kotb. She’s an incredible news anchor, host, storyteller, mom, and friend. She’s the kind of woman you think of when you think of SuperWoman. I think she’d be a great company. Her ability to make serious topics more approachable when she shares them with others is an incredible skill. It’s something we strive to do every day at Final when we share our mission with others.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.