Young, female and alone in a foreign country, Marina Tran-Vu talks about her inspirational journey and some of the challenges she’s faced as a start-up entrepreneur and founder of EQUO in Vietnam’s eco-business space.
Can you tell our readers why you decided to start a business during the Covid epidemic? This must have taken a lot of courage, do you think it was a reckless decision?
The idea for the business came in June of 2019. When I officially started working full-time on the idea in February 2020, we only began to hear about the pandemic here and there. It was around May that we launched our Kickstarter campaign - now almost a year later, we all know that globally everything has changed forever. I don’t think courage had much to do with it, it was just the reality of what was happening in the world, and a lack of ability to predict that resulted in us pivoting to be able to continue pursuing our business vision.
Growing up, your mother was an entrepreneur - how do you think this influenced your decision to follow in her footsteps?
Watching my mom start her business and struggle was humbling. She worked 16+ hours a day in order to make sure the business was successful enough to provide for the family. It showed me that entrepreneurship is difficult. Keeping that in my mind drives me, because my mom is my motivation, my inspiration and a real-life example of what hard work and the right vision can achieve.
EQUO could be described as a social enterprise. How do you think young Vietnamese can be encouraged to use business principles and practices to address social and environmental issues?
We are not a non-profit. There are ways to approach and solve social and environmental issues in different ways. We choose to do it through a forprofit business. Our stance is that we can’t help anyone else if we can’t help ourselves become a successful business first. Consumerism is a powerful thing. If aspiring young Vietnamese entrepreneurs can realize this, they will see that businesses are not bad or evil. Consumerism and a for-profit business is our way of achieving our mission.
You highlight that EQUO is ‘committed to supporting local people to build sustainable raw material areas, optimize production and create more jobs.’ How EQUO has supported local communities?
The biggest way we do this is by making sure our manufacturing and sourcing come from local regions like Dong Thap, Ben Tre and Long An. By sourcing materials from these areas, we are not only driving sustainable income but helping to support traditional agriculture way of life.
What do you think about the potential of the green industry in Vietnam, and what favourable conditions does Vietnam have for development compared to other countries in the region?
Vietnam’s resources along with the innovation and speed of development are the biggest advantages that Vietnam has. The West does not have the abundant resources that Vietnam has in terms of eco-friendly materials! Finally, the freedom to pioneer, start something, test something out, is much more available here in Vietnam - it’s an amazing land of opportunity, untapped resources and talent.
Consumption habits are not easy to change, especially when the price of green products is often more than non-green products. What marketing plan do you have to solve these problems?
Our biggest focus is intangible costs versus tangible costs. Someone might say this plastic straw costs me 1 cent but your sugarcane straw costs me 3 cents, but this is from a tangible cost perspective. From an intangible position, we take into account the cost of disposing of that plastic straw properly.
How will the strategy of promoting products in the Vietnamese market be different when compared to promoting internationally?
In Vietnam, we focus on heritage marketing and education. People know that plastic is a problem, they hear about it every day. But they want to hear it in a different way that is relevant to them. Many people internationally are unaware that it is possible to make products like straws or utensils out of natural materials like grass or sugarcane, so we focus a lot on educating about the raw material instead.
Do you face any difficulties when sourcing raw material suppliers in Vietnam?
Suppliers, in general, have been quite easy to find! People in Vietnam are great to work with. The biggest challenges we face sometimes is having the right information or documentation for sourcing. Paperwork is really one of those things we have to provide when selling our products, and understandably sometimes this isn’t available with smaller suppliers in Vietnam.
What message do you want to send to young girls who are still suffering from many social prejudices out there?
Be yourself - let your work, your experience and your results speak for themselves. Society will always have something to say about your appearance, your youth, your behaviour. Ignore those things and focus on delivering what you commit to and prove people wrong with results versus your words.