From Empty Nester to Eco-entrepreneur
With tons of plastic trash littering Mount Everest and more grains of microplastics than sand being found on beaches in Hawaii, “Plastic has become ubiquitous in nature creating a serious challenge for the natural world, society and the global economy,” according to the World Wildlife Fund.
One key to stemming the global plastic crisis is the World Economic Forum’s work on The New Plastic Economy, which advocates shifting from a take-make-dispose model to a circular economy in which nothing that’s made becomes waste.
Enter Virginia P’an, one of the first female vice-presidents in banking at American Express in New York City in the late 1980’s after she made a career switch from the Foreign Department of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, responsible for managing seven billion dollars on deposit with the U.S. Treasury from Asian central banks.
After she and her husband, Albert, an engineer and a Harvard MBA, became empty nesters in 2010 they began searching for a meaningful way to give back, as it turns out, to an expanded concept of family — Mother Earth.
Together they founded Yumi EcoSolutions, whose mission is to replace plastics with innovative, zero waste, natural products for everyday use because as Virginia emphasizes, “There is no Planet B.”
GG50: Virginia, tell us why your bamboo products are more ecological than other bamboo products?
Virginia: We’ve developed a game-changing technology that is actually zero waste. We take the leftover bamboo pieces that other companies use to make furniture, flooring or cutting boards that used to be thrown into landfills. We grind them into a powder and mix them with food grade coloring in a special manufacturing process to make these Green Award-winning products. We also only use farmed bamboo which does not affect the food supply for pandas.
GG50: Your products are really stylish and functional, too. Is that part of your mission?
Virginia: The name Yumi means beautiful in Japanese, but I’m Chinese so our products also need to be functional! An interesting twist is that Yumi in Chinese also means golden corn and that is what our Yumi Return disposable products are made of - cornstarch and other natural plant products using a patented process.
We call our Yumi Return disposable plates, cups and cutlery, “the throwaway that goes away.” Unlike paper plates or plastic-coated paper plates - which can still be around after 1,000 years — Yumi Return disposables return to the earth in about 180 days with composting. Our manufacturing process requires significantly less energy, too.
GG50: What have you been able to do in starting this company that you couldn’t have done earlier in your life?
Virginia: I wouldn’t have the freedom or time to start something that requires so much time and energy. From understanding the materials and the manufacturing technology to product design, packaging, marketing, training salespeople in a brand new disruptive technology. And then you have to enter the market.
I have a different perspective on age. I think we have multiple ages, as a human being, aside from our gender. We have a chronological age, which is what Western culture focuses on, then we have a physical age because we may not always look our chronological age, and then we have a spiritual age and an emotional age. We have different ages. They all cross at various, they may not all be the same. Which is why I don’t look at an individual by a number.
GG50: So you and your husband founded this company together and work together. What is that like?
Virginia: We have complementary skills, so it’s working out pretty well. But on issues that we don’t agree on, we had to work on that and talk it out. You know, just as you would in a business meeting, we’d sit down and have a meeting.
We try at a certain point at night to stop work. We try to keep at least one day over the weekend when we don’t talk business.
GG50: Is it hard to stick to those rules?
Virginia: Well, we both get tired from the long hours and the intensity of what we’re doing so we’re both just happy not talking about it. Maybe that’s one of the advantages of age. We just get tired and say let’s forget about it for now, it’s going to be there tomorrow. Nothing’s going away.
Virginia’s Tips For Entrepreneurs
Have confidence in yourself that you can do it. You’re doing something that you are really passionate about, so have a distinct mission that keeps you going.
There are always highs and lows in every business. The key is to be resilient. Never give up, be creative, and find another way to do it. Stick with it.
Have a really good group of friends who are your advisors early in the process. You can’t think of everything yourself. So surround yourself with a core group of advisors in different disciplines - finance, marketing, sales - for advice, to brainstorm and bounce ideas off of. You need that feedback.
Build that team early in the process, not when you are in trouble. Talk about alternatives and ideas. It needs to be someone that you are very comfortable with and close enough that if they don’t know the answer, they can introduce you to someone who does.
It’s essential to take a break, no matter how busy you are. Taking a vacation from work at least once or twice a year gives you a whole new perspsective.
Top photo by Eleonora Albasi – Bottom photo by Ying Wu unsplash.com