Much like keeping a finicky plant alive, cultivating the seed of an idea into a thriving startup is no easy feat. It’s one thing to dream up a concept but quite another to oversee supply chain logistics, manage production, win over skeptical investors, and handle the myriad other tasks of breathing life into a new entity — especially when sustainability is a requirement.
A business school education provides a blueprint for developing such a green thumb. And speaking of green, today’s entrepreneurs are increasingly starting companies with sustainable principles at their core. This is reflective of the larger business landscape: According to McKinsey, the number of organizations committed to science-based sustainability targets grew threefold in just one year, from 2020 to 2021.
For three scholars from Columbia Business School — current students Freeda Johnson and Aileen Lee, and graduate Alex Zhang — their sustainability-focused entrepreneurial efforts have already yielded fruit. In honor of Earth Day, these three founders share how they’ve nurtured their ideas into budding businesses, as well as how they’re planning for future growth.
Freeda Print: Making Sustainability a Family Affair
A couple of years ago, when Freeda Johnson ’23 was planning her wedding, she and her dad had a serious father-daughter sit-down about the future. He asked if she had any interest in taking over the family printing and packaging business back home in India.
“Moving back to India was not something I wanted to do, but I did want to move into entrepreneurship,” says Johnson. “I didn’t want to let the opportunity go, but at the same time, I wanted to craft it to be something I was passionate about.”
Her company, Freeda Print, which launched on April 22, Earth Day, stems from the foundation of Johnson’s family business. With the endeavor, Johnson hopes to fill a gap in the US market by connecting small manufacturers in India with US-based clients seeking sustainable packaging solutions. The business-to-business marketplace will initially primarily serve catering companies, focusing on products like bowls, plates, and cutlery made from materials such as sugarcane-based bagasse, palm leaves, and easily recyclable craft paper. In the future, Johnson plans to scale the business to encompass e-commerce compostable mailers and corrugated boxes.
Pursuing an executive MBA at CBS helped Johnson hone her entrepreneurial skills. “When I think back to two years ago, I just had an idea — I didn’t know how to execute it. The Columbia community was instrumental in helping me formulate my pitch deck, refine it, learn about supply chain operations, and more,” she says, adding that she won a couple of pitch competitions thanks to the coaching she received.
Johnson is also part of Columbia’s Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program, an accelerator-style course that provides individualized support and mentorship. “It’s almost a Zen-like feeling when you go to Greenhouse, and they keep you accountable,” she says. “The coaches, professors David Lerner and Brendan Burns, gently nudge you to keep going,” she explains. “But if you hit a roadblock or you’re in a brain fog, they step in and help you clear things up and keep going.”
Though Johnson has found a way to make the company her own, Freeda Print remains a family affair, with much of its base located in India. Johnson’s husband is also the company’s CFO, and the duo’s 19-year-old daughter, Anushka, assists with social media marketing.
This Earth Day, in addition to officially launching the company, Johnson planned to unplug with her family. “We’re going to turn off our electronics, play some games, maybe go to the park and ride our bicycles,” she says.
OMAO: Building a Better Straw
A sustainability enthusiast, Alex Zhang ’22 was used to dutifully carting around reusable shopping bags and sipping his beloved iced coffees from a paper straw. But he noticed that some of the products meant to replace single-use plastics left a lot to be desired — the paper straws, for example, would often dissolve into mush midway through his beverage. “It just drove me crazy,” he says. “Everyone wants to be eco-friendly, but those products were not functional.”
The observation led him to develop a bio-plastic straw alternative. His company’s name, OMAO, is derived from a Hawaiian word meaning “green.”
While there’s a lot of awareness about the importance of sustainability today, Zhang notes that in today’s challenging economic conditions, simply “being in sustainability” doesn’t guarantee funding. “It’s more difficult when you’re dealing with tangible, physical products versus, say, a technology company,” he explains. “So there are pros and cons.”
Still, Zhang and his team have seen some big wins over the company’s short two and a half years: He calculates that OMAO has replaced at least two metric tons of traditional plastic in landfills. “I get a lot of joy and excitement out of that data,” he says.
Zhang credits CBS with giving him the launchpad for his idea as well as providing networking opportunities to find future team members. “Courses like Foundations of Entrepreneurship and resources like the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program are really fantastic,” he says. “I’m also part of the Columbia Startup Lab, which is a great community of like-minded people.”
Today, OMAO employs several people affiliated with CBS, including the company’s chief science officer and a few other classmates and alumni with expertise in sustainability, the restaurant industry, and the consumer packaged goods space. Though OMAO currently focuses on straws, Zhang envisions expanding its product line to include a full suite of single-use tableware made from natural materials.
To celebrate Earth Day, Zhang and his team planned to explore a trade show in New York City’s Union Square that highlights sustainability-focused products.
Infinite Goods: Closing the Loop for More Ethical Fashion
When Aileen Lee ’23 first entered the world of retail at the age of 16, she loved everything about it. “It was fast-paced, the products were beautiful, and it was very customer-centric,” she says.
But as an adult working for a major fashion label, it dawned on her that the industry had a big problem. “I went to a distribution center, and there were just truckloads of returns and damaged goods that were going to be incinerated,” she remembers. “I couldn’t just let that rest.”
Digging into the issue further, Lee discovered that the fashion industry contributes as much as 10 percent of overall global carbon emissions. “I was shocked that there weren’t more people trying to solve this problem,” she says.
Lee enrolled at CBS specifically to focus on sustainable fashion, although she didn’t yet know exactly what she wanted to do in the field. Ultimately, she decided to create a retail company focused on circularity. Last August, she officially launched Infinite Goods, an e-commerce platform that curates sustainable products across brands. The site now works with a total of nine brands and has ambitious plans to bring many more into the fold. Over the next three years, Lee hopes to fine-tune the company to be truly circular, selling only products that are 100 percent recyclable and accepting used clothing for recycling or repair.
Lee cites the Summer Startup Track at CBS with giving her the initial know-how to get Infinite Goods off the ground. “The program gave me step-by-step guidance on how to form a company, how to interview customers, and how to build a minimum viable product,” she says. She also found invaluable support from the School’s Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurship Center, the Columbia Build Lab, the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program, and the university’s alumni network. In fact, CBS professor Pauline Brown, former chair of North America at luxury goods label LVMH, is currently a mentor for Lee and her team.
For Earth Day, Infinite Goods will launch an exclusive collection of 20 naturally dyed silk dresses by brand partner Laila Textiles. Lee plans to spend the day attending the Sustainability Fashion Forum in Portland, Oregon.
For would-be startup founders interested in sustainability, Lee offers this kernel of advice: “It can be difficult to be a sustainability-focused startup when the other side of sustainability is profit. But if you really care, you have to work to find that balance. For sustainability startup founders, the goal is to consume less, while also informing the consumer.”