Moving from a corporate role in Canada to begin a sustainable brand in Vietnam isn’t the most traditional career move, but it’s one that Marina Tran-Vu, founder of EQUO, found herself in. In a country known for its coffee, Marina was lounging at one of the many cafes known for this strong beverage when she chanced upon her first product: the Grass Straw.
Inspired by this discovery, she ventured into the world of sustainability and innovation, bringing genuinely eco-friendly solutions and building EQUO into the powerhouse it is today. Aspire was fortunate enough to sit down with Marina for a conversation about her entrepreneurial journey, her close relationship with her family, and how the spark of innovation struck her.
Aspire: What's the story behind you and EQUO? What led you down this entrepreneurial path?
Marina Tran-Vu: I don't want to be disingenuous about this, but a lot of people in this field would say this is their calling, and I really just fell into it. I had just recently moved to Vietnam, and had no friends at the time, so I spent a lot of time exploring the city. That’s when I saw this grass straw for the first time in a cafe, and was wondering how I’d never seen it before. I’m pretty well-travelled and consider myself in-the-know when it comes to new products, but hadn’t seen this anywhere else. That’s when my marketing background came into play, because I began thinking, “Is there a reason why this is not overseas?” I'm sure people would be willing to pay for it, so then it was a lot of curiosity. From there, I began to build my own brand and package around this idea.
Aspire: And that was when you decided to begin with Kickstarter?
Marina Tran-Vu: Exactly. We put it on Kickstarter to see if people would be willing to pay for it because that's a great way to test the market. The first 3 days, people just gravitated towards it in droves. We sold $15,000 worth of product — and mind you, it was just straws back then! It really highlighted to me how people are willing to invest in sustainable alternatives to plastic straws. It’s hard to believe this idea went from a small business to the powerhouse it is today.
Aspire: Was that always your intention?
Marina Tran-Vu: Maybe not at first. It started as a side hustle before the pandemic hit, and after that, we got incredibly strong responses from our markets. And then when my nephew was born, I felt that I needed to do something for this cute little kid that was brought into the world. I wanted to build a better world for him. Sounds clichéd, I know, but it honestly felt like I could accomplish this with EQUO!
Aspire: Speaking of your nephew and family, I understand that you were previously working in Canada. You also mentioned that you only started EQUO once you moved back to Vietnam. And it was really by chance that all of this came together, with your family playing a big part. Could you share about that?
Marina Tran-Vu: You’re right that I moved back to Vietnam for other reasons. At the time, my father was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. I made the decision to move back so I would be around to help support my family if my father passed away. I always believed I could go back to work later, but family comes first, you know? So I decided to pick up and move with the intention to stay for a year and get everything in place, then potentially move back to Canada. And then, as you know…
Aspire: Yes, the pandemic.
Marina Tran-Vu: Exactly. It wasn’t my initial plan to move here permanently, but a bunch of things happened, including the pandemic. Luckily, and very thankfully, my dad recovered during the lockdown period as well. And my business took off. It gave me a lot of purpose to stay and do what I can to grow it.
Aspire: So throughout all this, the general mindset was to build a better world for your nephew to live in?
Marina Tran-Vu: Yeah. I find this a little embarrassing in hindsight, but I think that I was pretty selfish before coming back to Vietnam. Like many at my age, I was just focused on building a career and leaving my mark on the world. Then all of a sudden, this cute little thing comes into the world and flips my mindset on its head completely.
Aspire: It seems like that mindset led you to start manufacturing and distributing this grass straw you touched on earlier in our conversation. I wanted to talk to you about your personal process of taking it from that cafe in Vietnam to a global commercial product.
Marina Tran-Vu: I think it was quite an intricate process. First off, sourcing if it was the biggest challenge, because aside from seeing it that one time in a cafe, I had no other information, let alone where to start except asking around in Vietnam. The second thing was researching competitors and alternatives. Like many other people, we were starting to hear about the craze around paper straws. But I never really liked them because they got soggy and little pieces would get in your mouth.
Aspire: Paper straws are great, but it does feel like you’re in a race to finish your drink before it disintegrates.
Marina Tran-Vu: Yeah, it's exactly like a race to finish your drink before it falls apart, and then use it in lids? Forget that straw if you try to use it after it is punctured or bent! I felt there had to be a better alternative. So the grass straw just made sense. They're all plastic free, but they're also compostable. And they're actually much better than paper because paper tends to be bleached, whereas our grass straws are not. After doing my research, I decided that if I was launching this as a business, I would have to launch in a really cool, different way than what the market has been doing.
Aspire: How did you accomplish that?
Marina Tran-Vu: The entire commodity segment is easy to enter. Literally anyone can make it and the barriers to entry are pretty low, but no one had ever tried to build a brand in it, specifically straws and utensils. I thought this was going to be the only way because there are companies that have been around for decades in the production of these things, but they haven't had any traction. In fact, they garnered less than 1% of the entire drinking straw market at the time. So I thought: hey, they're probably not doing something that works. Why not create a brand there? My hypothesis was that people would want to actually pay for a brand that has a story and has an educational element to it. So that's really how I started on EQUO.
Aspire: I believe you started EQUO in a challenging time, literally the month before the pandemic closed international borders. What was one significant challenge you faced because of that, and how did you overcome it?
Marina Tran-Vu: The most significant challenge was not being able to plan for the future. We didn't plan on launching right before a pandemic, but that was notoriously hard to predict. We didn't know the whole world was going into lockdown. For me, the hardest part was being able to plan effectively because if you always have the hope that the lockdowns will end by the next month, and then the next, it just keeps going. So the biggest issue that we ran into was cash flow. During a pandemic, sustainability falls to the bottom of the priority list for a lot of customers, despite their strong interest. It’s all about health and wellness. A lot of our customers were restaurants and cafes, which were not open during a pandemic, so a large chunk of our consumer base was gone too.
Aspire: That’s extremely challenging.
Marina Tran-Vu: We managed to overcome this loss of cash flow firstly by starting our retail arm. It was originally a ‘nice-to-have’ entry point, but we now had to prioritise that. The revenue from this line really kept us afloat. Secondly, because we got enough revenue from consumers, we were able to get external investors interested in our company. I’ve never raised capital before, and I didn't even know what angel investors were, so this was a scary process. I basically learned that all from scratch and raised funds at the same time. But it was the best decision I made, because raising funds really helped our business to survive the pandemic.
Aspire: Despite these challenges, you and EQUO have won some prestigious awards since you started in 2021! I would like to highlight some: FLIK’s 21 Women entrepreneurs to watch in 2021, Vegpreneur’s list of 22 founders to watch in 2022 and, notably, the only Southeast Asian winner of the UNOPS S3i Innovation Center in Sweden Global Challenge.
So I do want to ask you on a personal level — how does it feel to be recognised? Not just as one of the top female entrepreneurs in the region, but one of the global figures at the forefront of sustainable innovation?
Marina Tran-Vu: It's honestly still astonishing to me that my team and I were able to achieve so much. We never set out to win awards, or be recognised in that way — we just wanted to create a brand that was good for the planet. And so, to be recognized like that is really amazing and humbling. I definitely think that we're not at the stage where we should be yet, and we have so much more that we can do.
Aspire: What’s on the horizon for Marina Tran-Vu, Founder and Sustainability Champion?
Marina Tran-Vu: Oh! That's an interesting one. Honestly? What's on the horizon for me is hopefully bringing EQUO to a place where we can really proudly represent Vietnam. It's one of those things that we didn't set out to do, but I'm very, very proud that we're able to build this business and bring more recognition to Vietnam as an innovation and sustainability leader. The second thing is just to make sure I live and enjoy every single day. It's really easy to get caught up in business and life!
Learn more about EQUO’s eco-friendly products and its mission to rid the world of single-use plastics at www.shopequo.com.