This year’s International Women’s Day theme is, “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” and what better way to celebrate women and sustainability than to chat with someone who actually walks the talk — Marina Tran-Vu, the Vietnamese-Canadian founder and CEO of a sustainable brand that provides 100% plastic-free, biodegradable, and compostable products to replace everyday single-use plastic items.
Like most children of war refugees who fled Vietnam in the 70s or 80s, Marina had a tough life growing up. But just like most refugees, that didn’t stop them from dreaming of a better life and actually making it happen.
Looking back, Marina said that at one point they had to live in the back of a store in Vancouver, Canada, while her mom attempted to open an accounting business in the front. During that time, she was sharing the same space with her parents and her sister.
“At the time I don’t think I realized how poor we were,” she said. “With my mom getting clothes for us at the Salvation Army, keeping books from school and the library to read and not really eating much besides white rice, noodles and eggs.”
At a young age, Marina supported her parents the best way she could. “We learned how to help where we could with the business, stapling, stamping, photocopying documents,” she said. “And mostly they taught us the value of money and hard work. By the time I was 11, all the hard work and sacrifices my parents made allowed us to move into a better neighborhood and put my sister and me to University.”
Amidst all the hardships, one thing remained inside Marina’s core memory — “there was no shortage of love and support from my parents.” Thanks to a loving and supporting family, Marina managed to keep a positive attitude. She wanted to be a fashion designer, inspired by the anime she used to watch as a kid. “At the time, drawing, art and colors were one of my escapes where I could release my creativity.”
In 2010, Marina graduated from The University of British Columbia with a degree in marketing. She traveled the world and has worked with top-tier brands like Unilever, Bacardi, and LG.
Nine years later, she birthed the idea of EQUO at a Vietnamese coffee shop in Vietnam.
EQUO is a wordplay of eco and status quo. It stands for the idea of creating products with minimal impact on the environment. It’s Marina’s way to address UN Sustainable Development Goal #12 which is to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Some of her accolades include FLIK’s 21 Womxn Entrepreneurs to watch in 2021 and Vegpreneur's list of 22 Founders to Watch in 2022. Marina has also appeared in Shark Tank Vietnam and Front Office by PlayersTV to promote her startup. The most notable one yet was getting accepted into Techstars, an American seed accelerator backed by over 75 different venture capital firms and consistently rated among the best startup accelerators in the world.
It doesn’t stop there. Just over a week ago, EQUO was selected as the Grand Winner of SheDisrupts Vietnam, a virtual venture competition, mentoring, and pre-acceleration program for women entrepreneurs.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, Vietcetera spoke to Marina about how her team continues to inspire her and bits and pieces of her personal and professional life — her nephew, childhood struggles, and the future of EQUO.
Who is Marina Tran-Vu to her family and closest friends?
Those who really know me, know that I’m a really silly, easy-going, free-spirited, spontaneous person — the opposite of my CEO persona. I love corny dad jokes, I don’t take myself too seriously and I love seeing others happy. I am furiously protective and loyal, and will really go to the ends of the Earth for those I care about. Being a good person and treating others kindly is something I value, no matter their status or wealth. I live life to the fullest, never missing an opportunity, and am always challenging myself.
In your LinkedIn bio, you mentioned your nephew is one of the inspirations that keep you going and your goal is to provide a greener future for him. How will you explain sustainability to him and why everyone in the world should pitch in?
I would explain to him that sustainability is a few actions and choices he makes each day so that the people who are born after him get a chance to see the beautiful earth just like he does today. The world changes every single day, and the more people that come into the world, the more it is our job, being the ones here first, to make sure they get a chance to see it just as beautifully. It’s like borrowing a library book — you want to keep it in as good a condition as possible so as many people can enjoy it after him. This is why everyone should pitch in, not for the good of one person at one time, but for the good of lots of people for an infinite amount of time afterward.
What's so special about Vietnam and what do you love most about this country?
Having traveled all over the world and lived in Hong Kong, Korea, and Canada, the thing that I can say that makes Vietnam so special are the people. No other country can you simply ask someone you just met out for coffee and not get that are-you-crazy look. Vietnam is also young enough where you can still have the freedom to be innovative and bring something new to society or the country. And nothing can really beat Vietnamese food in my opinion. It has the best of everything and I’ll never get tired of eating it!
Your days are surely swamped, constantly meeting people and hustling. How do you usually spend your Sunday mornings?
I love Sunday mornings! There’s a quiet calm to them, so I usually wake up early, walk around the neighborhood and take in the sun, go to the gym, do some errands, and then go to a coffee shop to relax with a book or to catch up on some reading and work. I try to take this time to see friends as we’re always so busy during the weekdays. There’s a Netflix series I recently got into and just finished up, Halston, which I HIGHLY recommend. It comes with some really great lessons about creative thinking and entrepreneurship, and I guess it is really relevant to my life now! Aside from Netflix, I pamper myself by trying to discover something new, a new restaurant or cafe or little store. I just love to endlessly explore Vietnam because there’s so much to unearth still!
Tell us about EQUO. What’s in the pipeline that you’re really excited about?
We have some huge plans to really expand our product line offering beyond straws and utensils. Going into dishware, cups, containers, and bags would be first. Then into anything else related to single-use plastic. In addition to that, we’re working on something that would make it much easier for Vietnamese manufacturers to bring their sustainable products to market. The data we collect from running EQUO will help inform us of how to build this tool and also work on new innovations for us to introduce to the market. Aside from that, we’re working with some really great partners, some of which we will be announcing soon, to drive awareness of EQUO globally. There’s a lot in the works!
Almost all brands now are talking about building a sustainable future. How do you differentiate yourself from your competitors?
How we differentiate ourselves is in our execution. There can always be a lot of talk about building a sustainable future, but building this reality can only be possible if you can enable consumers to easily do so, and give them a reason besides “the planet is going to die.” The latter narrative has been repeated so many times it makes it hard to repeat this message and have it be heard. What we do is we focus on first delivering products that are simple and easy to use, that you don’t have to change your lifestyle or behavior.
For example with our straws, there's no need to wash them or carry them around — use them once and throw them away, but it's way better for the environment than plastic or paper. This is enabling our consumers to make a change with little friction. Second, we differentiate ourselves by admitting, sustainability may be a dry topic for people to discuss, so let’s spice it up with attention-grabbing branding and make sustainability not only attractive to learn about but fun! Our brand is bright and colorful and we are basically going into product categories no one cared enough to put effort into, and branding it and saying to people ‘pay attention to your choice!’.
Since you launched EQUO, what was your proudest moment and how did it change you?
My proudest moment had to be when we first got accepted into Techstars. It was a game-changer not only for us but other Vietnamese startups following us. We were the first-ever Vietnamese startup admitted into and backed by the global accelerator and VC fund. Being the first made me super proud to represent Vietnam and not only show the power of sole female founders but the Vietnamese startup ecosystem. Really any chance I’ve had to represent Vietnam on the global stage makes all the hard work and sacrifice worth it.
With the enormous success and attention EQUO is getting now, is there anything you would have done differently when you were first starting out?
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. The second thing I would have done differently is not judging people by their resume and experience, but more on their output. I’ve learned enough to know now that talent comes in so many forms, and some of the youngest and most inexperienced people have the biggest drive to win and deliver. This mentality would have helped me avoid many of my past hiring mistakes.
Tell us about your first employee. What made you hire that person?
Tram Do (Claire) and Binh Duong (BD). My first two employees, actually, both empowered ladies. They are the heart and soul of EQUO and without them, EQUO would not be here today, even with me around.
I knew both of them from when I worked at California Fitness & Yoga previously. I instantly saw their talent, discipline, creative thinking that set them apart from others. Plus, they willingly helped to teach me about the culture in Vietnam and helped me improve my Vietnamese, which I am forever grateful for.
What made me hire them was first their problem-solving skills. This is something that sounds odd, but often what I find are younger individuals are often looking for senior people to tell them exactly what to do and how to solve a situation. BD & Claire didn’t need any level of micromanagement, they took the initiative to find a way. I think that kind of mentality and spirit is rare.
Second, their discipline and consistency. When they said they would do something, they really would do it. They built and maintained trust with me right from the get-go when I worked with them.
Lastly, is their perseverance. Anyone who knows entrepreneurship knows it isn’t easy, and they have been with me through the lows of almost shutting down the business multiple times, to all the highs and successes. Throughout, they stuck with it because they had their own vision for what they wanted to build. Looking back, hiring both of them was the best decision I had ever made.
If you were to have a female apprentice, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned in life that you would want to share with this person?
That the biggest currency you have in life isn’t money, it is time. So when you spend your time with people and on certain things, know that it needs to be something you find valuable. Because you can get back the money, but you can never get back time. Another thing is if you’re going to do something, do it with passion or not at all. And lastly, never let the fear of failing or making a mistake keep you from taking action. Better to say “oops” than “what ifs.”
How do you move forward when everyone is telling you your idea won’t work, or is not good enough?
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 want to achieve next?
The dream would be to see EQUO in every country in the world, which I know will take a long time to achieve! On the list are some other pretty ambitious things: attend a UN/UNDP conference; meet the inspirational Ms. Thao, the CEO of VIetJet; take on an advocacy role for female entrepreneurs; launch my next business idea (related to beauty/fashion); finally take a trip to Europe after such a long time. With the world slowly returning back to normal, the possibilities are endless!