The most significant elements that shape the future of our planet can come in very small sizes. Here’s how a single straw, invented by a woman named Emma Rose Cohen, changed the world we live in forever.
Emma Rose Cohen is the CEO of Final, a company that seeks to eliminate environmental waste by creating multiple-use products to replace pollution-causing single-use products.
Her “FinalStraw,” a collapsible metal straw, has been highlighted by celebrities such as the Kardashians, as the popularity of her company continues to grow.
Cohen recently took the time to share with us about her journey to making a “splash” in the world, as her company seeks to eliminate the ever-growing buildup of plastic in our oceans and in the environment at large.
From her childhood, to beginning a non-profit called “Save The Mermaids,” to overcoming corporate fraud, to achieving national and international fame and recognition as one of the most influential entrepreneurs in the world, here is the story of Emma Rose Cohen.
M&C: If you don’t mind me asking, I’d like to go back to where it all started for you. What is the earliest memory that you have of really deeply caring about the impact that we’re having on the environment?
Emma Rose Cohen: Well, it’s funny because I think at the time I never looked at it as waste minimization. But now, looking back, I’m like, “Oh that makes sense.” When I was seven years old, I basically went around the neighborhood and found all of the fallen fruit off of my neighbors trees that was still good, and I got my sister and a couple of friends together and we went to the Farmer’s Market where we sold the fruit that was going to go to waste.
M&C: Wow. Incredible.
Emma Rose Cohen: So it’s funny because, at the time, I was like, “It was just a hustle.” But in retrospect, I guess I was interested in waste, even back then. But I began to make a more conscious effort in college. I went to the University of California Santa Barbara and I was studying neuroscience.
And I was looking at human behavior and I kind of just had this moment when I was walking around the street on a Sunday morning where there was trash everywhere — we’re basically on the beach and the school is located right there — and there’s just trash everywhere.
And I felt really removed from my purpose. In college, you’re there to better yourself as a human, to figure out what your contribution to society is. And it felt really contradictory that I was doing all this work to make the world better and yet living in a way that didn’t coincide with that same goal.
So it was then that my girlfriends and I decided to do a beach cleanup and dress up like mermaids. And the impact was immediately recognizable.
It was like, “Oh wow, people pay attention if you do something different and don’t just continue on with the same typical kind of granola messaging.”
And so by doing this, we discovered that we could make sustainability fun and sexy and exciting. And so that was kind of what I pulled from that experience.
From there, the group of us decided to start a nonprofit called Save The Mermaids, where we did environmental education and oceanography for kids. That was kind of when I realized that that was my passion.
M&C: That’s amazing. It often seems that a person’s passion will really track with them all the way from their childhood up. So hearing you say that you were seven years old, trying to clean up and minimize waste, even then, is so cool.
Emma Rose Cohen: Yeah, it’s funny how those threads kind of persist throughout our lives.
M&C: And I really think that the “Saving the Mermaids” concept is really attention-grabbing; that’s the messaging you’ve stuck with throughout your career in waste management, correct?
Emma Rose Cohen: Yeah. I think what makes me and this company different is that I have a very clear point of view and I like to be funny and ridiculous and cheeky and present a very clear aesthetic. And so that persists through our messaging. And it’s really funny because all my friends who see our commercials, they’re like, “It’s just like talking to you, but it’s a mermaid version of you.”
M&C: That actually does put a really strong image in your head when you consider saving mermaids as an imaginary motivator.
I watched your Ted talk, and when you talked about it, referring to the question of, “How would we be affecting them with our waste?” It really struck a chord. So, you started this nonprofit — where in the journey does FinalStraw come into the picture?
Emma Rose Cohen: Yeah, after Save The Mermaids — which still continues on today; I’m just not involved due to lack of time — but after working with Save The Mermaids, I realized that sustainability was my calling and my passion.
And so I got into a master’s program at Harvard in environmental management and sustainability and at the same time got a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory working in waste minimization. I spent four years there and found out government work doesn’t suit a mermaid; I was pretty over it by the last year or two.
And that’s when I kind of started plotting the next thing. And I actually was planning on moving up to Whistler to just be a ski bum and live off the couple of thousand dollars that I’d saved and see how long I could live off that. But I ended up starting to work on this FinalStraw project just as kind of a fun, “let’s see what happens” sort of thing.
But I get very obsessed with things, and I had a hard time just putting a little bit of effort into it. And so I ended up working really hard on it and put together the entire Kickstarter campaign. And when I pressed “go live,” all of a sudden my life completely changed.
M&C: Wow. I can only imagine.
Emma Rose Cohen: Yeah. All of a sudden, all of this work that I’d done for four months straight was just immediately affirmed, and the world was like, “F*** yeah, we love what you’re doing; this is amazing.”
M&C: So where were you — maybe this was a few different moments in time — but do you remember a specific time when you came up with this idea? A time and place? Or was it more a gradual thing, developing the idea of FinalStraw?
Emma Rose Cohen: Yeah, it was more gradual. I actually did my thesis project for my masters on a to-go container. So I was already thinking about products. And then I met my former co-founder and told him about this, and he was like, “Well that’s funny because I think that straws are actually the next thing.”
I’ve done a TEDx talk on straws and knew that Seattle was banning straws in the coming month, and so from there we kind of worked together to create the design of this collapsible straw and then put that up on Kickstarter.
M&C: That’s incredible. So you mentioned that when you put FinalStraw on Kickstarter, things started speeding up pretty quickly. What was that experience like for you?
Emma Rose Cohen: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s very similar to getting launched into space on a rocket ship when it’s halfway built and you don’t have any instructions. It was just complete chaos, and it was terrifying. There were moments of immense excitement and gratification, but they were immediately followed with more freaking out.
It was my first company. But I think what was good is that I’ve always had a vision. I’ve always known what I want. But putting all the pieces together and building the team and all of the other aspects that come with building a company are really challenging when you’re doing it for the first time.
M&C: Looking back now, what would be the first thing you would tell yourself as you were going through that time? Looking back at you clicking submit on that Kickstarter, what would you have told yourself there?
Emma Rose Cohen: I would say, “Slow down to speed up.” Meaning when things go crazy and sh** hits the fan and you don’t know what to do, don’t just dive in and start trying to fight the battle right away. Take a step back, make a plan, be strategic, and put resources where you most need them.
When I did my EMT training, I learned how you triage a situation. When you have all of these issues building up, you need to kind of prioritize and attack them one by one versus just going in like a chicken without your head, just trying to put bandaids on everything.
M&C: I know that you had several factories copying you pretty quickly after you released the idea of FinalStraw. Walk me through what that experience was like for you.
Emma Rose Cohen: It was horrible. I worked so hard day and night to create this company and then to just have all of these other companies steal what we were doing was horrible. And then to see the amount of confusion that it created with our customers. We got thousands of emails from people saying, “I can’t believe you sold me this straw for $20 when you’re selling it on Amazon for five bucks. You guys are frauds; you guys are a scam.”
All these things. And then to top it all off, these knockoffs were such low quality. They were breaking within five minutes. So not only were we losing so much business but also, a lot of people who bought the product were like, “Oh, I’m not the kind of person that can carry this,” or they were immediately deterred from making the behavior change.
M&C: Wow. So you’re probably screaming on the inside a little bit — I know I would be — as you’re watching a cheap knockoff product get bad reviews.
Emma Rose Cohen: Yeah, exactly. I can’t even tell you how many people called me a scam artist. And I was working 18 hour days, seven days a week. And so it was so hard to keep going because I felt like I was just getting beaten down from every angle but then still having to work so hard.
M&C: So how did you fight your way out of that situation?
Emma Rose Cohen: I’m very determined, and I have a hard time taking “no” for an answer. I guess it’s just intrinsic in my personality. So first, we had to — pretty quickly — find people to help. Having to bring on a team was important because they held me accountable. And it also meant that I wasn’t just working for myself anymore; I was working for these other people. We were all working together.
M&C: Incredible. So you find yourself on the other side; your product starts to catch on What was it like for you, with the copycatting in the rearview mirror, to finally see, “Wow, this is actually catching on; this is making an impact”? Did you have a moment where you realized what was happening?
Emma Rose Cohen: I mean, I think I’m still in the moment because I’m still just so appreciative and in so much disbelief at the kind of amazing community that has been created around the product. We have super-fans and this cult following, and I don’t know if that ever gets old. You never lose the appreciation for those kinds of people.
M&C: And what was it like for you seeing celebrities getting excited about the product?
Emma Rose Cohen: I mean, just completely unreal. I immediately broke out in tears. It’s just — to work so hard on something and to dedicate your life to something that I think is so important, and then to have other people in the limelight say, “This is important,” and, “This is the best straw you can get,” is just kind of — I mean, it’s the best feeling ever to have other people see what you’re doing and value it.
Emma Rose Cohen continues today in her efforts to quell the impact that non-reusable plastics have on the environment. As she puts it, in the US alone, we use 500 million straws every day — a large quantity of which end up in the oceans, poisoning sea creatures.
Would you consider taking a step toward creating cleaner oceans and a brighter future for our planet by purchasing a FinalStraw today? Follow this link and join the movement.