Ten years ago, Saigonese Jesse Khanh Tran left Vietnam to study abroad in Helsinki, Finland. Three years later, Hanoian Son Chu Hoang followed the same path. Unaware of what the “land of the thousand lakes” had in store for them, until before they officially launched Rens Original to the world, the only two things they shared were their home country and their love for sneakers.
The two sneakerheads have considered Finland their second home but remained proud of their Vietnamese heritage. “We both grew up when Vietnam was changing. We saw how things changed really fast,” Jesse said. “We built this strong company thanks to our really strong manufacturing network in Vietnam. In a way, being Vietnamese has helped us a lot in this journey.”
Both expressed how being an entrepreneur was never in their plans, Jesse said that despite seeing the potential of Vietnam, he wanted to just go out of the country and see the bigger world. Son’s story, on the other hand, was straightforward. “I just wanna get away from my parents,” he laughed. “But really, it was a great choice to come here, I got a good education. I studied IT and I got to work for two years as a software developer at one of the biggest online retail stores in Europe.”
Jesse and Son realized the need to launch Rens Original when they couldn’t find a sustainable sneaker brand that’s also “cool” and trendy for young people. “We created Rens to create a young brand for the young generation, a sexy and edgy brand,” they said. The name Rens is a Scandinavian word for “pure and clean,” and it also means “the feeling you get when you do something good to others.”
And although sustainability is central to the brand’s identity, these Vietnamese entrepreneurs said they’re not “selling sustainability” and will not say “buy our shoes to save the world.” Instead, they want people to buy their shoes for their style, the innovation, and how they continue to develop and improve their designs.
‘The only one that’s created fully by non-white founders’
Rens Original was established in the summer of 2019 and just a year later, Jesse and Son already made it to Forbes Europe 30 Under 30 - Social Entrepreneurs list. In the same year, they also were part of Forbes Vietnam 30 Under 30. Jesse is the company’s CEO and Son is leading the marketing team as the CMO.
With all their international recognitions — most recently was in CNN’s Innovate segment where their Dubai EXPO display was highlighted and their story told — there’s one major thing they consider as their biggest win. “There are over 200 venture-backed startups in Finland but there’s only one that’s created fully by non-white founders and that’s Rens.” Rens has become one of the internationally-famous fashion brands to ever come out of Finland.
“We aspire to be a global company from the beginning,” Jesse shared. “We have 20 people who speak 17 languages and from 14 countries and territories — Finland, Vietnam, the US, UK, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, Ghana, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Korea, Uzbekistan and China.” All are coming together under one common goal — “to create the best waste-based products that are sustainable by default.”
Jesse is only 29 and Son’s 25, and already managed to pull off two crowdfunding rounds — first in the summer of 2019, when they launched and second just this year. As young social entrepreneurs, they make sure everyone in the team is heard and appreciated. “Our team is pretty unique for Finland, as well as for Vietnam. Usually, for a small startup like us, this shouldn’t be this diverse, but we are.”
Both admitted that it can get tricky when it comes to managing their team but at the end of the day, they all share the same goal and they don’t feel like they’re the bosses but part of the team.
The environmental impacts of coffee waste
Call it a coincidence that two young Vietnamese entrepreneurs are creating something stylish out of coffee waste in Finland, of all places. Fact one, Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer globally and fact two, Finns consume more coffee than any other nation in the world. According to the World Population Review, on average, Finnish people drink nearly four cups a day on average. Coffee is so popular in Finland that two 10-minute coffee breaks are legally mandated for their workers.
But what happens to coffee ground wastes? After throwing directly to the bins, coffee grounds directly go to the landfills and that’s when the problem begins. Coffee grounds contain oils and other compounds that make the soil acidic (acidic leachate) and damage the surrounding soil. The decomposition of coffee waste in landfills also generates greenhouse gases.
With Rens, each pair is made from 300 grams of coffee waste and six recycled plastic bottles. “We can’t solve the problem of coffee waste alone, but we can show the world how this material can be used to make awesome products.”
One extra note, all materials, dyes, and adhesives are 100% vegan. “No animals were harmed in the making of these awesome sneakers,” their website clearly notes.
What’s unique about Rens Original?
Son shared that even if making shoes from recycled coffee grounds is considered unconventional and new, “we wholeheartedly believe that this is just the beginning of a revolution in garment technology and manufacturing.”
Rens offers three shoe types for both men and women — casual cruiser, performance footwear, and premium style.
Like most manufacturers in all parts of the world, Rens was not spared from the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their latest model called ‘Nomad,’ got delayed because of the travel restrictions. Like the first model, Nomad is made from coffee waste and recycled bottles, while recycled polyester creates the membrane to make the footwear waterproof.
“With the new model, we are continuing our mission to promote sustainable fashion with technology and innovation,” Jesse shared.
It’s also worth saying that the waterproof feature of Rens doesn’t wear off because it’s not a treatment— it’s built that way. “Each pair of Rens contains a breathable, waterproof nano-layer driven by our AquaScreen Tech™. This keeps your feet dry for your sneaker’s entire lifecycle.”
Presently, Rens caters to online orders and they ship worldwide. When asked if they’re planning to open a store in Vietnam, “Even if we get a lot of support there (Vietnam) and we are Vietnamese, we have never really worked in Vietnam and we are technically a foreign firm. Therefore, we need a really good local partner or distributor before getting to Vietnam. As of this moment, we have not finalized any partnership yet.”
But the good news is, Jesse said they have partnered with a big supplier in Tokyo to distribute Rens in Japan. More good news, Rens is going to New York and London to open physical stores and officially join the mainstream garment industry.
“We are developing a lot of technologies in fashion and we will expand to clothing, too, and work on other innovative waste-based materials beyond just coffee and plastic wastes,” Jesse said.