Fedia Kourbatov of Baba Bags: “Anyone can be a changemaker”

Anyone can be a changemaker. No matter what your age, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. is… Ex. I could have not bothered to try and be proactive after what happened to George Floyd if I had the mentality that Baba Bags was still too small/young of a company to make a “real” difference. I instead had the […]

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Anyone can be a changemaker. No matter what your age, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. is…

Ex. I could have not bothered to try and be proactive after what happened to George Floyd if I had the mentality that Baba Bags was still too small/young of a company to make a “real” difference. I instead had the mindset that even if we are small, we can make a difference. And we did make a difference!

As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fedia Kourbatov.

Fedia Kourbatov was born and raised in Chicago, IL. He went to Lincoln Park HS in the city. Growing up Fedia spent most of his free time playing sports and being involved in the Ukrainian community. Once it was time to go to college he decided to go to The University of Oklahoma. He studied Finance and minored in Management Information Systems. It was at OU where his curiosity for entrepreneurship began. After his roommate introduced him to the podcast “How I Built This” (a podcast about how the founders of some of the world’s most influential companies built their businesses) his interest in starting a business began to grow. Hearing how ordinary people could build such influential businesses inspired him and made him believe that he could also build an impactful business one day. He just needed an idea.

The summer going into his junior year that idea came to him after a conversation he had with his mother about a reusable bag his grandmother had brought from Ukraine to give to his family. He thought sharing this bag with the world could save thousands or even millions of plastic bags from being used! When he got back to school, he applied to the “Sooner Innovation Fund”. The fund committee saw potential in his vision and funded his initial market research while also giving him valuable mentorship. After completing the program his market research gave him enough positive feedback to take the leap in starting his business!

A year and a half later the OU Graduate has sold hundreds of Baba Bags and donated thousands to impactful nonprofits through the business. His bags are used by influential people across the country like Hala Bahmet, David Meltzer, Maggie Nichols and Andrea Sullivan!

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 about how you grew up?

My dad was born in Ukraine and my mom is a 1st generation Ukrainian. Some of the fondest memories in my childhood were from Ukrainian Summer Camps, Ukrainian Saturday School, and Ukrainian Festivals. Another big component of my life at a young age was sports. I love and owe so much to sports. Sports taught me so many life lessons at a young age. It taught me to never give up, work ethic, teamwork, defeat, the thrill of victory, and so many other lessons that made me who I am today.

I’m was also very fortunate to have grown up in a very diverse community. In my elementary school, I was one of three white kids in my grade. In high school, I went to a school that was 1/4th White, 1/4th African American, 1/4th Hispanic, and 1/4th Asian. Being able to experience this type of diversity growing up is something I cherish. It exposed me to different cultures, taught me open-mindedness and the importance of diversity.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Guy Raz’s “How I Built This” podcast has been the most influential piece of content for me as an entrepreneur. Raz interviews the founders of some of the world’s most successful companies such as Starbucks, Spanx, Lyft, Lululemon, etc. Before hearing this podcast, I thought you had to be an Ivy League grad or a genius to create an influential business like Starbucks, Lyft, or Lululemon. After listening to the founders tell their stories I realized that these people for the most part are everyday people like you and I, yet they’ve created some of the most impactful and successful businesses in the world. This excited me and gave me the inspiration I need to start thinking about entrepreneurship.

All the stories are fantastic but the most influential to me is when they interviewed Blake Mycoskie the Founder of Tom’s Shoes. Blake started 3 successful businesses (one in college) and got 3rd place in The Amazing Race before he got the idea for Toms. Blake pioneered a new type of social entrepreneurship. The one-for-one model. When someone bought a Toms shoe, he would donate a shoe to someone in need. Many people didn’t believe he could build a successful business with the one-for-one model. He proved them wrong and has donated 100 million shoes to people in need and counting. Now many other businesses, like Warby Parker, use the one-for-one model. When I heard Blake’s story, I knew that if I was going to start a business it would have to be a business that would give back and have a mission tied to a social, cultural, or environmental issue.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

Our mission at Baba Bags is to use the power of community to make single-use plastic grocery bags extinct while supporting nonprofits that unify and make our world a better place.

The Environmental Protection Agency stated that in 2015 there were 4.1 million tons of plastic bags, sacks, and wraps generated in the U.S. If you distribute that weight across the U.S. population, that would amount to an average of 390 bags per person — these plastic bags are used for about 12 minutes before getting tossed. Currently, 2 million tons of plastic end up in lakes, rivers, and oceans by the United States alone. Plastic bags are a top 7 plastic item of that 2 million tons of plastic found in our water. This plastic in our water ends up killing over 100,000 marine animals and affecting 267 more species every year.

Baba Bags wants to be a part of the solution by creating a superior alternative to the plastic bag while also connecting our bags to impactful causes. Each color bag is partnered with an impactful nonprofit to which we donate 2 dollars for every bag sold. In our first year of business, we prevented the use of an estimated 21,000 plastic bags!

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

Baba means grandma in Ukrainian. I got the inspiration for Baba Bags from a bag my Ukrainian Grandma brought from Ukraine. I quickly fell in love with the bag because it was compact, held so many groceries, and often my mom would come home with a big smile on her face telling me about the compliment she had gotten about the bag while at the grocery store.

After talking to my mother after one of her grocery trips I had a light bulb moment: I needed to share this bag with the world. I saw it as a great opportunity to eliminate single-use plastic bag usage. Right around that time, I was starting to educate myself about our planet and the fact that climate change would be the biggest challenge our generation would face in our lifetime. I wanted to help. My idea would not only help our planet, but it would allow me to share my Ukrainian heritage!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In November 2020, Baba Bags was one of 58 businesses out of 455 global applicants to move on to round two of three in the Beyond The Bag Challenge, a challenge started by OpenIDEO, Closed Loop Partners, Kroger, Target, Walmart, and other impactful retailers to find sustainable solutions to the single-use plastic bag.

In round 2 I was able to speak with a Kroger executive and get feedback on our bag from an IDEO designer. These feedback sessions were eye-opening — these industry professionals gave me a clearer picture of what I needed to focus on in order to build Baba Bags into a large successful company that fulfills its mission of eliminating single-use plastic bag usage.

The winners for the challenge will be announced in early January 2021!

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

This is not an individual, but this is a good time to talk about Baba Bags’ proudest moment in 2020. George Floyd’s tragic death was a pivotal moment for our young brand. We could be proactive and be a part of the solution or we could stay silent and be a part of the problem. I also didn’t think a social media post would count as being proactive. This was when I came up with the idea of the 1st ever Special Edition Baba Bag. We manufactured and sold 50 Special Edition Baba Bags donating 100% of the profits to Campaign Zero — a nonprofit that addresses police brutality through policy reform. I was very excited to see the success of this idea and look forward to creating other special edition bags and raising even more money for other meaningful causes through this special edition model.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Making a difference to me is leaving the earth a little bit better than I found it (literally and figuratively). I think the “a little bit” part is important. Many people think that to “make a difference” it needs to be large and grand. I feel the opposite is true. You can’t make a large difference without doing the little things first.

The people who have made the biggest impact in my life like coaches, teachers, family, and friends did this by doing the little things that may not be a big deal to them but had a significant impact on me. By focusing on the little things in life every day I hope that it accumulates over time to make a large contribution to the people I interact with every day, to society, and to the health of our planet!

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

1. Anyone can be a changemaker. No matter what your age, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. is

Ex. I could have not bothered to try and be proactive after what happened to George Floyd if I had the mentality that Baba Bags was still too small/young of a company to make a “real” difference. I instead had the mindset that even if we are small, we can make a difference. And we did make a difference!

2. Don’t pay attention to what others think about your dreams

Ex. I had a lot of people who doubted me and didn’t see the vision I had for Baba Bags (even to this day). If I listened to the noise, I would have never started Baba Bags. You will always have doubters. Don’t let it stop you. Instead, let it fuel you.

3. Take Calculated Risks

Risks make everyone uncomfortable, but you need to take them. Trusting my gut & my research/preparation has allowed me to take calculated risks that have paid off and allowed me to achieve my goals quicker than expected

Ex. Going to the University of Oklahoma, a school 12 hours away from home, was very uncomfortable for me. In my gut, this felt like the best decision though. This risk ended up being one of the best decisions in my life.

4. Stay curious and always be listening and observing

You don’t know where you will find your next piece of inspiration. Always be engaged because your next big idea may come from where you least expect it.

Ex. For Baba Bags it was an informal conversation my mom and I had after she got home from the grocery store.

5. Make a promise to never stop learning

Your biggest competitor in life should be yourself. This means you should always be growing and evolving as a person. Trying new things, reading non-fiction books, and listening to business podcasts are my favorite ways to learn and grow.

Ex. Books have been influential in my self-growth and in building Baba Bags. My favorite book are: How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, Contagious by Jonah Berger, 100 Dollar Start-Up by Chris Guillebeau, and Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie.

What are the values that drive your work?

Authenticity, boldness, community, service, loyalty and love

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centered in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

There are so many distractions in today’s world that it can be very hard to stay centered and focused. When I am lost or don’t feel like myself, I surround myself with my friends and family. I am lucky to have loyal friends and a family that is always in my corner. Spending time with them allows me to be myself, express my thoughts and just simply laugh and have a good time. This helps me center myself and refocus on my goals.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

Climate change is one of the biggest problems our generation and future generations will have to face. The problem is many are not treating it as urgent of an issue as it is. In order to save our planet, we need buy-in from small/large businesses, governments, and individuals. I would like to see a world where small/large businesses, governments, and individuals stop taking our planet for granted and TRULY start being proactive to save it.

Businesses would make their operations carbon-neutral (or even carbon negative), use sustainable materials & packaging, and motivate employees to understand the climate change problem and how they can contribute.

Governments would create strict laws that would not allow businesses to pollute, ban single-use items(water bottles, straws, plastic bags, etc.), and create a mandatory curriculum in schools that would teach kids at a young age about climate change and how they can make a difference.

Individuals would really buy into reducing, reusing & recycling in their everyday life, invest in renewable energy for their homes and transportation, and just think about how their everyday decisions affect our planet (ex. littering or buying from environmentally conscious businesses vs ones that are not)

We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?

If I had limitless resources to create a society that would be fully committed to stopping/slowing down climate change here is how I would do it.

  1. Ban single-use items (water bottles, straws, plastic bags, ect)
  2. Make a law that only zero emission cars can be sold after 2035 (Like California!)
  3. Create strict laws around business pollution (Every business would need to be carbon-neutral by 2032. Create tax incentives if they do it sooner)
  4. Sponsor a conference that invite all Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs to explain the laws, hear their concerns and give them the resources they need
  5. Create a SBA seminar to talk about these laws and give them the resources they need
  6. Create a mandatory curriculum in grade schools and high school on climate change (Education is key to making people aware of the problem)
  7. Invest in innovative start-ups that are combating climate change
  8. Invest in solar energy so that it would be a no brainer for business and homes to make the switch
  9. Create a monthly virtual curriculum about climate change for individuals and give a tax incentive if you watch it and pass a short little quiz afterwards.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

As I mentioned before I believe that climate change should be a part of the curriculum in grade schools and high schools. Educating our youth about climate change at a young age could be the single most effective way we combat climate change. The curriculum would address the biggest causes of climate change, what can/can’t you recycle, what the youth can do to help etc.

If our youth would learn about climate change and how to protect our planet recycling numbers would increase, they would influence their parents to be more environmentally conscious and these young minds who will be future entrepreneurs would come up with innovative ways to combat climate change.

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?

Debated by many climate change scientists on the exact timetable but we have a give or take a 10 year window for action to prevent the effects of global warming from becoming irreversible. We need your help now more than ever to tackle what may be the biggest problem the human race has faced.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would have to say the man whose interview on “How I built This” inspired me the most and made me want to start a business with a mission centered around making a difference. Tom’s founder Blake Mycoskie. Blake’s story fascinates me and is a constant inspiration. He proved to the world that businesses could be successful AND make a huge difference. It’s hard to build 1 successful business. Blake has built 4. I would love to learn and pick his brain on how to build a successful and impactful business.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @itsbababags or visit and subscribe to our email list!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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