Marina Tran-Vu was born in Canada, years after her parents immigrated during the Vietnam War. With 13+ years of brand management experience at global FMCG companies including Unilever, Bacardi, LG Electronics and Spin Master, Marina set off to launch her own sustainable brand with EQUO. Her inspiration is driven by trying to build a brighter, greener future for her nephew, working to support local economic growth and job creation from her parent’s hometown, and the desire to raise Vietnam’s profile as a global leader in sustainability and innovation.
Marina has appeared in global media to share her ambition for a world free of single-use plastic, appearing in Forbes, Shark Tank Vietnam, Front Office by PlayersTV, being the first Vietnamese startup admitted in to Techstars, and was recently named to Vegpreneur’s list of 22 Founders to Watch in 2022.
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Thank you for joining us, please introduce yourself to our readers.
Marina Tran-Vu: My name is Marina, Founder & CEO of EQUO. EQUO is a sustainable brand providing 100% plastic-free and compostable solutions for everyday single-use plastic items. First line of products are drinking straws made of grass, rice, coconut, coffee and sugarcane. We also make utensils and other products like bags, plates and bows. No added inconvenience – you don’t need to wash them or carry them around. Just go about your day with a better, more eco-friendly swap. Prior to starting EQUO in Vietnam, I worked leading brand and marketing for companies like Unilever, Bacardi, and LG Electronics.
To get us started, Can you tell our readers what does your company solve differently in the crowded marketplace? Give an example or share a story.
Marina Tran-Vu: EQUO will help solve the problem of millions of tonnes of plastic waste polluting the earth, people annoyed with having to carry around or wash their straws. It will also help Cities/regions having to deal with global government plastic bans, people who want to go green without a compromise to their lifestyle or changing their behavior, those who hate plastic and paper straws (especially ones that go soggy). We provide a solution that doesn’t require you to compromise. It is about uncompromising lifestyle and comfort at no extra burden to the world, and alternatives that lift both care for the world and the positive feel-good factor of consumers. Government bans on plastic starting as early as 2020 make the problem not only necessary to address, but mandatory.
While your company is growing, what are some of the challenges you face? Hiring? Tech development? Raising capital? Branding? Tell us more about the journey.
Marina Tran-Vu: Our biggest challenge right now is education in the market and overcoming price disparity. First off, there’s a lot of confusion nowadays with recyclable, compostable, biodegradable and what’s really good for the environment. AT the end of the day we chose compostability over biodegrading or recycling primarily because anything can actually be biodegradable, as lon gas it breads down – that’s the definitaion of it. But being compostable means it can break down into organic compounds which don’t cause as much harm to the planet. Also, our products can really help to change the industry, but we’re fighting against a lot of retailer and corporate red tape and legacy mindsets of using plastic and paper. Finally, it always comes down to pricing of our product.
When mentioning the value of a straw, many people think about the tangible value – the cost of that product. We tend to compare the selling price of green cutlery products with single-use plastic cutlery products, and sometimes choose plastic products because we assume “It’s just a straw.” Did you know that a plastic straw made in 1888 is still on the Earth today and will continue to exist for at least the next 200 years. Of the total amount of plastic waste discharged into the environment each year, only about 9% of it is recycled, the rest will be discharged directly into the ocean or treated by incineration or landfill.
Either way, this amount of plastic waste leaves unpredictable consequences for the natural environment and human health. Therefore, the price we pay for plastic straws may be a bargain today, but will amount in unmeasurable impacts through pollution in the future
Everyone has a different story, what influenced your decision to be an entrepreneur, what would you have done differently?
Marina Tran-Vu: My very first role model as a businesswoman is my mother. She has established a prominent career with only her bare hands, and she has been my greatest inspiration when pursuing the same career. She was the first entrepreneur I have ever known, and seeing her be able to do it gave me the strength to pursue it myself. Second, I believe everyone has to have a reason beyond profit for why they do what they do. Mine is my nephew and bringing a sense of pride to my parent’s home country and my heritage as someone who is Vietnamese. I want my nephew to have the chance to grow up in our beautiful world full of unmarred nature, but at the rate that we are going with pollution, that may not happen. I also want to show the world all the great innovation that can come from Vietnam, and that Vietnam is not only capable, but ready to be a leader on the global stage of sustainability.
What I would have done differetnly is I probably would have delayed the timing of the launch of the business. I started it during the pandemic and that was based on assuming things with the pandemic would be over soon. That assumption cost me a lot of time, money, and stress. So I’ve learned definitely don’t assume something will happen and also don’t assume something won’t happen. It’s hard, but tackle each day one at a time, because no one can predict tomorrow.
Now for the main focus of this interview: what qualities or characteristics do women entrepreneurs have that make them great leaders? Please share some examples.
Marina Tran-Vu: I think in a lot of cases we are able to take both emotional and personal into account, and are willing to share more viewpoints. We also have a level of humility and seek to greater understand our surroundings and people that allow us to make better decisions or more informed decisions.
What are some of the biggest challenges you still see women face while conducting business, compared to their male counterparts? What would you like to see change, and how would you make it happen?
Marina Tran-Vu: I think that women are often underestimated and overtly judged. But this works to our advantage. It makes us that more perceptive, that more keen to work harder, to do better, to do better than others so that we can achieve the same thing that our male counterparts do. This additional obstacle for us becomes a source of strength and gives us more resilience. If we are seen as bossy or emotional, we will take extra care in how we present ourselves. If we are seen as someone who may not have enough time to balance personal life and our career, we will how how efficient we can be, while accomplishing everything that is expected of us and more. We simply are willing to and able to work harder if needed.
With all of your experience as a business leader, what is the most important thing you can tell fellow entrepreneurs that you’d like to share with aspiring women entrepreneurs?
Marina Tran-Vu: I know this is easier said than done, but just don’t listen to others. Your passion, your idea, your motivation should come internally, not from others. Find that drive by knowing your WHY and continue to drive yourself forward by remembering that WHY. That is how you keep progressing, keep learning and keep going. And then after that, surround yourself with good people — people who will criticize, but not shut down; people who will support, without coddling; people who will, in a room full of opportunities, mention your name and your business. Half of business success is a great idea, and half of it is a community that can help you bring it to life.
What do you plan on tackling during 2022? Share your goals and battles you expect to face.
Marina Tran-Vu: Our goal in 2022 is to scale our business, now that the pandemic has somewhat normalized we hope some big corporations and businesses will give us a chance. However, with lots of political and social issues still plaguing the world, we fear the continued supply chain issues and pricing on materials will still have an impact on our business. We do expect a large amount of resistance to the market based on pricing, but we are hoping with our communication and sustainable benefits of our products being seen, we will be able to overcome this and not only obtain customers, but partners in our fight against single-use plastic.
How do you keep learning? Podcast? Books? Audiobooks? Videos? Share some of your greatest sources of inspiration? Share an impactful story.
Marina Tran-Vu: I am a big reader. I love reading books whenever I can. My biggest source of inspiration is just reading the biographies of successful entrepreneurs like Sara Blakely, Mariam Naficy, and Arianna Huffington. One of our advisors recently gave me a book called “Good to Great” which I plan on reading. I think reading helps you not only learn for personal improvement, but also in business.
I’m sure our readers will be very thankful for the insights you have shared. Where can our readers follow up with you?
Marina Tran-Vu: You can find me on instagram at @marinatv_ or on my linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marinatranvu/
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Marina Tran-Vu for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Marina Tran-Vu or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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