File your intellectual property immediately and enforce it aggressively. This is one of the most important things you can do to protect your idea. It takes a long time to get IP through the system, so filing correctly is extremely important. File a complete portfolio including patents (design and utility), trademarks, and copyrights. If your idea is a hit, you are going to spend a lot of money enforcing your IP so make sure to set aside an adequate budget. A patent is essentially just a nice shiny piece of paper that does nothing unless you have a team enforcing it.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewingEmma Rose Cohen. Emma found her passion in sustainability while attending the University of California Santa Barbara. During college, she and her friends started a non-profit called Save the Mermaids to educate children about the harmful effects of single-use plastics. Emma took her passion to the next level and got a master’s degree from Harvard in Environmental Management and Sustainability. She then spent four years working in waste minimization at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Pollution Prevention department. In 2017, Emma started working on FinalStraw in hopes of creating a convenient, durable alternative to single-use plastic straws. In April 2018, FinalStraw was launched on Kickstarter, raising $1.89 million and has gone on to sell more than 300,000 units.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was a child, I’d roam the neighborhood where I grew up, collecting fallen fruit from the neighbors’ trees. I convinced my sister and a few friends to join me. We’d set up shop at the farmers market, selling fruit that would have otherwise been doomed to a perilous, rotting existence. I didn’t feel a deep need to conserve materials; I was simply being practical. At 7 years old, this was the first of my many business ventures.
Fast forward 15 years and you’ll find me studying neuroscience at the University of California Santa Barbara. It was the first time in my life that I came face-to-face with how single-use culture, when concentrated in a small location, can have a massively devastating impact on the environment. Sunday mornings were the worst. The roads were littered with plastic bottles, red Solo cups, and other assorted trash. And less than 100 feet away was the beach, where all the garbage would eventually collect. It was there, on the main road in Isla Vista, on a random Sunday morning, that I became obsessed with single-use plastic.
I’d talk to my friends about my newfound obsession. As avid surfers and outdoor enthusiasts, they were equally concerned. Together, we decided we wanted to do something about it. We took our mermaid outfits out of the closet and did a beach clean-up. Soon enough, we were attending city council meetings dressed as mermaids and offering the councilmembers plastic filled sandwiches. Our public appearances inspired us to found Save the Mermaids, a 501(c)(3) that educates kids about the negative impact of single-use plastics on the environment.
Once I found my passion in sustainability, I knew I wanted to take it to the next level. So I went back to school and got my master’s degree in environmental management and sustainability at Harvard and got a job working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in waste minimization.
After four years of working at the lab, I was bored. Government work does not suit a mermaid.
For years my friends referred to me as the “straw lady.” So when my former co-founder (I bought him out!) was chatting with a mutual friend, she told him to give me a call. We met, chatted about the gap in the market for travel friendly straws and ended up creating FinalStraw together.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Shark Tank reached out to us and encouraged us to apply to be on the show one week into our Kickstarter campaign. Almost overnight, we went from being two kids with an idea, to two kids with the world’s attention. We got on a phone call with Shark Tank and learned they wanted us to film a month later. They asked us to send our balance sheets and P&Ls — and as they were saying that I was googling “what’s a balance sheet.” I knew we weren’t ready, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. So, we decided to go for it.
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?
When we appeared on Shark Tank, the company was just six weeks old. We had a prototype design and some sales, but we didn’t have any customer reviews or proof we could pull off delivering more than 100 thousand straws in less than six months.
At midnight, the night before we taped, we were spray painting the cases that we were presenting on the show. We had to be on set four hours later at 4 a.m. When we were passing out the samples to the judges, I handed Lori a straw with a smile on my face. I expected her to smile and say thank you, but instead, she said “mine’s sticky.” I was mortified. I wanted to run off set, crawl into a hole, and hide forever. But instead I just stood there, kept smiling and said, “It’s a prototype.”
Now I’m able to look back on this moment and laugh, but it was far from funny at the time. So, the moral of the story is… always spray paint a full 24 hours in advance if you’re going to go on national TV.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In a world full of humans, we’re mermaids. We like to approach all topics, even the heavy ones like the plastic pollution epidemic, in a fun and exciting manner by providing people with bite-sized chunks of information across our social media platforms. We’re not just posting pictures of cute seals on Instagram. We’re using our social media platforms to educate people about how to reduce their waste by posting tips and breaking down “too long didn’t read” (TLDRs) news articles.
Reading environmental news headlines these days is depressing. At times, it can feel as if the problems are too big to fix and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. We want to educate, inspire and empower individuals with messages that encourage behavior change.
FinalStraw has had a greater impact on people’s personal lives than I ever could have dreamed. Everyday I receive emails from students, professors, entrepreneurs, and kids who tell me stories about how FinalStraw has inspired them. I’ve received a few funny notes from parents, too. My personal favorite: a mom told me how her child saw our commercial and demanded their entire family give up straws. The demand came during a nice meal out where their daughter started yelling at other customers, saying they need to stop killing the turtles.
Kids just get it. These emails make everything we do worth it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Our mission at Final is to create fun, easy to use, convenient alternatives to single-use plastic. When we first created FinalStraw, we had no idea that there was such a large community looking for alternatives. But, it didn’t take long for us to see that there was a huge demand for these types of products.
FinalStraw is about more than just a straw. If you removed all of the single-use plastic straws in the universe, we would still have a massive plastic pollution problem. It’s not about thousands of people doing zero waste perfectly, it’s about millions of people trying.
Single-use items are flawed by design. Plastic is an amazing material that is designed to last forever, but it is commonly used for items that are only used for a couple minutes then discarded. It’s a common misconception that plastic is the problem. It’s not. It is how we use it.
We are designing an entire line of Foreverables to provide convenient alternatives to single-use plastic. All of these items will be travel friendly, easy to use, and will support the foundation of our mission. Up next: FinalFork.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Whether you’re in a traditional office setting or your team works across five different time zones, take time to celebrate the small moments and make your company a fun place to work.
Final’s team is entirely remote, so I’ve gotten creative when it comes to “office culture.” Because we don’t have traditional water cooler time, we have Slack channels like #Random and #PetSquad where we share whatever is on our mind and pictures of our pets. Afterall, one of the perks of working from home is sitting with your furry friend on your lap.
We also have a Slack channel called #Wins where we celebrate each other’s accomplishments. I’ve worked at many jobs where there wasn’t any positive feedback. As a result, it felt like my performance didn’t matter. It’s important that people feel supported within an organization and that every action that people take is seen and appreciated. This is especially the case at startups where people are often overworked and underpaid.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
First and foremost, hire a team that you trust. When you trust your team, you can give them the freedom they need to do their jobs autonomously and there is no need to micromanage. It’s important to find people that are self starters and and don’t just settle when a question has been answered. Find people that go above and beyond and solve problems that you didn’t even know you had.
Hiring is not only one of the hardest parts of growing a business but also one of the most essential. Finding the right people is tough, and ensuring they will fit with the company culture is even harder. One trick I have when hiring people is to put a small detail in the job listing. If they graze over the detail in their application submission, I do not consider the applicant. Ultimately, this weeds out a great majority of applicants and makes the selection process much easier.
Managing a team is about more than company performance. It’s also about ensuring that people have the tools they need to grow personally. It’s important to create a company structure that’s like a family so people feel safe being vulnerable sharing their thoughts and ideas.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
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. She did a little research and found a sustainability program at Harvard. This program changed my career path and ultimately put me on the path I’m on today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Final is about more than just straws. Adopting a reusable straw is the first step in the larger global movement to increase awareness about waste. Everytime an item is thrown away there’s an opportunity for a design change. With created FinalStraw to inspire people to think differently about waste. We plan to continue innovating new products people can use to reduce plastic waste.
We stand behind our mission to protect the environment in a variety of ways — by creating high quality products that replace single-use plastic and also by supporting NGOs. As a member of 1% for the Planet, we donate one percent of sales to environmental nonprofits every year. As Yvon Chouinard, co-founder of 1% for the Planet said, “Donating one percent is not philanthropy, it’s rent for living on this planet.”
In 2018, we donated $7,691 to four organizations: 1% for the Planet, 5 Gyres, Lonely Whale, and the Plastic Pollution Coalition. We also donated 68 straws to seven nonprofits and three schools/students. In 2019, we’re projected to donate $100,000, of which $50,000 will be cash, while the rest will be a combination of product, volunteer hours, and advertising. We’re excited to build long-lasting partnerships with these nonprofits so we can support their work and further our philanthropic mission.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1.Trust your gut. Early on I hired someone to do operations that I knew wasn’t right for the job, but we were desperate. There was quite a bit of conflict between the two of us because whenever I’d ask for an update she wasn’t able to provide one. As a result, I began micromanaging her because I never knew what was going on. The entire time my gut was telling me it was time to let her go but then I would convince myself it would get better. It never did. The result was Strawmageddon and 20,000 orders did not go out when they were supposed to. By keeping her on, I ended up doing irreparable damage to the company that could have been avoided if I had just listened to that little voice.
2. There is no such thing as a weekend. A business is like a baby. It needs your constant love and attention and there’s always a diaper that needs cleaning. So, get your FOMO in check because this is your baby now.
3. Set aside an hour a day for personal health. Remember, just about anything will start working again if you unplug it and give it a minute, including you. Physical activity is a must — get your heart rate up and sweat it out. No excuses. Block out an hour on your calendar and get it done.
4 . File your intellectual property immediately and enforce it aggressively. This is one of the most important things you can do to protect your idea. It takes a long time to get IP through the system, so filing correctly is extremely important. File a complete portfolio including patents (design and utility), trademarks, and copyrights. If your idea is a hit, you are going to spend a lot of money enforcing your IP so make sure to set aside an adequate budget. A patent is essentially just a nice shiny piece of paper that does nothing unless you have a team enforcing it.
5. There is a big difference between a leader and a manager. A leader is the conductor of the orchestra, she sets the tempo and encourages everyone to play to their highest potential. The conductor is not concerned about the individual notes, but instead listens to how all of the instruments sound when playing in harmony. A manager on the other hand is more concerned with the individual notes. As CEO, it is important to listen to the song in its entirety and not get bogged down with specific notes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
FinalStraw is about inspiring a greater movement. The straw is a foot in the door to the conversation on single-use plastic and encourages people to start talking about larger issues. 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 someone 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.
Some of the biggest 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
ELLEN! She’s hilarious, smart, and a steward to the environment. I admire her ability to connect with people and make them feel comfortable regardless of the situation. She’s able to use comedy to relay important messages and transform people’s opinions in a non-confrontational manner. So Ellen, what do you say… banana oatmeal pancakes for breakfast next week!?
Thank you for all of these great insights!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.