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How and Why Emma Rose Cohen of Final Decided To Change Our World

Our mission at Final is to create responsibly made, badass products that reduce the need for single-use plastics, empower individuals to change their buying habits, and raise awareness of the impacts of our everyday decisions. We call the line Foreverables because they replace single-use plastic and are designed to last forever. Over the past two […]

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Our mission at Final is to create responsibly made, badass products that reduce the need for single-use plastics, empower individuals to change their buying habits, and raise awareness of the impacts of our everyday decisions. We call the line Foreverables because they replace single-use plastic and are designed to last forever. Over the past two years, Final has prevented more than 300 million single-use straws from entering the environment. We’re excited to watch that number grow and continue making an impact by helping people eliminate other single-use products, like plastic cutlery, from their lives. Waste is just a design flaw and at Final, we’re on a mission to change that.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, 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 recently released 3 new products including: BiggieStraw, FinalFork and FinalSpork and also plans to release FinalWipe in 2020 to round out Final’s collection.

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?

I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My parents were never incredibly passionate about sustainability, but I remember my dad was really adamant against wasting food. It’s a value that became ingrained in me and I became somewhat obsessed with waste. As a child, I’d roam the neighborhood where I grew up, collecting fruit from neighbors’ trees. When I was just seven years old, I set up shop at a local farmers market, hired my sister and a couple friends, and we sold the fruit that otherwise would have been doomed to a perilous, rotting existence.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Our mission at Final is to create responsibly made, badass products that reduce the need for single-use plastics, empower individuals to change their buying habits, and raise awareness of the impacts of our everyday decisions. We call the line Foreverables because they replace single-use plastic and are designed to last forever. Over the past two years, Final has prevented more than 300 million single-use straws from entering the environment. We’re excited to watch that number grow and continue making an impact by helping people eliminate other single-use products, like plastic cutlery, from their lives. Waste is just a design flaw and at Final, we’re on a mission to change that.

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

When I was in college at UC Santa Barbara, I felt like I was drowning in a sea of single-use plastics: red solo cups, straws, water bottles, and the like were everywhere. Determined to make a difference, I started dressing up like a mermaid and organizing beach cleanups with a group of friends and soon enough, we were attending city council meetings and giving the council members plastic-filled sandwiches as an example of what marine life is forced to eat. I went on to earn my master’s degree in environmental management and sustainability from Harvard and spent a few years working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Pollution Prevention department.

But, government work does not suit a mermaid, and I became lost in thought about creating my own project. I knew there was a solution for single-use plastics that people use out of habit and desperation. I was inspired to create reusable products that would help teach people how to minimize waste by reusing products that are designed to last.

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?

I didn’t wake up one day and say, “I want to be known as the ‘straw lady.’” I don’t even use straws, so it is especially weird that my first company is a straw company. But, I had 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.

Many 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?

I actually had no idea what I was doing. One week into the Kickstarter, Shark Tank contacted me and asked Final to apply to be on the show. We hopped on a call and the producer asked me to send over our balance sheets and P&L’s. As those words were coming out of their mouth, I was frantically googling, “What is a balance sheet?” Yeah, it was that bad. But, when you get thrown you have to sink or swim, there is no treading water. Luckily, everything you could ever want to know is on the internet and I have a PhD from the University of YouTube.

The most important thing is to find what you are most passionate about and go from there. FinalStraw was born after a late-night Amazon search for a reusable, travel-friendly straw. There was nothing. So I decided to go for it. Starting a business demands capital so we prepared to launch a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of raising $12,500. While in the process of working on the campaign, I started creating shareable content for our Instagram account and would repost it on my personal social media to help us gain more traction. People liked the content — especially the memes — and began following along. The memes and the educational content helped us build an audience of 10,000 followers on Instagram and a list of more than 4,000 emails before officially launching. These people supported and shared the campaign as soon as it went live and the campaign went viral and raised $1.89 million in four weeks!

One of the biggest takeaways I’ve learned from starting a new organization is pretty simple — slow down to speed up. There will be moments when it may seem like disaster hits, but instead of diving head first, take a day and create a plan. Hitting the stop button and prioritizing what is most important to accomplish is one of the best things to do when times get tough.

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

Shark Tank reached out and encouraged us to apply to be on the show one week into our Kickstarter campaign. I was completely unprepared and had never pitched a company to investors before. I had just 3 weeks to prepare and binge watched Shark Tank, furiously taking notes and researching the judges. We were rushing to get a new version of the prototype ready for the show and at 9pm the night before we shot the episode, I was up spray painting the straw cases. We were on set at 6 a.m. and in front of the judges at 7 a.m. As I was passing out the straws, I got to Lori and handed her straw and the first words out of her mouth were, “Mine is sticky.” The spray paint had not dried completely and I was absolutely mortified. Definitely not the best first impression.

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?

Early on, we designed packaging with the words “Suck Responsibly” on it. Long story short, I’m a terrible speller and didn’t catch that there was a typo on the packaging. We ended up misprinting thousands of packages with the words “Suck Reponsibly.” Clearly I never won the spelling bee in school. In the end we were able to fix the mistake with a small sticker, but I learned a valuable lesson- spell check is your friend.

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?

I wouldn’t be where I am today without my former boss, Patricia Gallagher, from Los Alamos National Laboratory. When I first started working at the lab I was enrolled in a JD-MBA program at the University of New Mexico. I was miserable. The classes didn’t resonate with me, it didn’t feel challenging and I didn’t connect with the professors. I told her about this and instead of saying “tough it out” like a lot of people in her position would have said, she listened. Patricia did a little research and told me about the Extension program at Harvard, and it turned out to be the perfect match. This program and experience at the university was a game-changer and helped shift my career path and ultimately lead me to where I am today.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. As a society we need to rethink how we value materials and create a more circular system. Instead of reduce, reuse, recycle we need to reuse, reuse, reuse.
  2. Pass legislation that implements Extended Producer Responsibility. EPR is an approach that puts the responsibility — both financial and physical — on the producer to manage the treatment or disposal of a product after consumer use.
  3. Individuals’ small actions can make a big impact. Commit to carrying your reusables (like your FinalSpork or FinalStraw) on your keychain or in your purse/pocket so they’re with you wherever you go.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Every person that has ever created a company has a vision for the future — it’s why they’re creating a new product, service or idea. It’s important to include sustainability in the DNA of this concept. Regardless of your political, spiritual, or social beliefs this is the one and only planet we have and it’s essential for every business to consider the impact they have on the environment.

When I worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, it was my job to reimagine systems. I was part of a team that was focused on coming up with ideas that were sustainable and offered a financial return. One of the larger projects that I worked on was presenting and convincing leadership to invest in an industrial composting system. The upfront cost was high, but the systems ultimately saved the Lab millions of dollars. The industrial composting system helped the Lab eliminate biohazardous waste and turn it into materials used on site for landscaping. It was a win-win.

While this particular situation is not applicable to most people’s work life, the same principle can be applied. There are small things you can do around an office to reduce waste: make sure the kitchen is equipped with reusables, stop printing unnecessary documents — most things can be done electronically now; replace paper towels with hand dryers, or use reusable towels to dry your hands instead; install LED light bulbs or solar panels. Not only will making these changes make a company more sustainable, it will also save money in the long term.

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. Write solid contracts. My co-founder and I split ways early on. It was very messy and distracting as I was trying to get FinalStraw off the ground. A well written contract would have made the split much easier.
  2. 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.
  3. Know when to pivot. Good CEOs make just as many bad decisions as bad CEOs, they just pivot faster.
  4. Hire experienced people for certain jobs and trust that someone’s drive to learn is enough for others.
  5. Just do it! You have to fully commit to your new idea and business full steam ahead. I quit my job, started eating ramen and spent three months on a Kickstarter campaign.

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?

The problems we are trying to solve are incredibly complex; it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the issues at hand. So, start small. Start by thinking of little solutions that work for you to start living a more sustainable life. This could be as simple as reducing energy consumption by carpooling or replacing disposable products with reusable ones (shameless plug: FinalStraw, BiggieStraw & the FinalOrks 😉).

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 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.

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. 🙂

Tim Ferriss. I am obsessed with the way his brain works.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/emmasirena/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/emmarosecohen/

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

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