My success is only fulfilled if it becomes the inspiration for modern generation women. With such an endeavor in mind, Marina Tran Vu, Founder & CEO of the start-up EQUO Vietnam, believes that no one but herself can depict the story of her life in the most humane and altruistic way.

The year of 2020 has been a rocky one for businesses, as many were either forced to take a hiatus or missed their shot to rise above in the market. Meanwhile, it has also been a promising year for young entrepreneurs who saw the opportunity that came with risk, to bring their long-nurtured brainchild to reality. Among these are EQUO Vietnam, a manufacturer specialized in environment friendly products that was founded just this year 2020 by Marina Tran Vu, a Vietnamese Canadian with over 10 years of marketing experience in an international environment.

Marina Tran Vu, CEO EQUO Vietnam

Although her Vietnamese is still lacking, she has determined to settle down in Vietnam and, with the help of her talented partners, build a start-up business of “green” products that encourage us to cut down on plastic usage in our daily life. She strives to provide consumers with alternative solutions, to help change their consuming habit for the betterment of the very planet that we are living in. But what is it that fuels this woman’s determination to return to her homeland and embark on such a risky business path in the start-up ecosystem.

A female start-up founder with a passion for a leading

Greetings Marina Tran Vu, having decided to start your business amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, what do you expect about the development of EQUO Vietnam?

By utilizing a variety of materials from rice, coconut, bagasse to coffee, EQUO’s very first straw product will be both user and environment friendly as it is 100% natural, chemical-free, and totally biodegradable. I still remember the first time I introduced this product to a foreign market, and they thought it was a joke. But then as they actually got their hands on the product and started using it more, I knew I was doing the right thing. Despite difficulties due to the Covid-19 situation, I’d rather see it as an opportunity to bring up the matter of environment preservation, with the public becoming more and more interested in seeking “tangible” values and “putting words into action”, by offering realistic and plausible green solutions. Our decision to launch in such an unfavorable period speaks volumes of our goal, to rise above mere profits and aim at brand recognition, that is, for consumers to realize that, with Equo, they can lead a healthy and safe life. Setting our limits beyond Vietnam, we are also advertising our products to the international market, a way of proudly saying that, Vietnam’s green industry is sustainable, and with more than abundant local resources, we are entirely capable of coming up with products that are both creative and standards-compliant. I’m sure they’ll be a pleasant surprise.

With your expansion in both the domestic and international markets, how does Equo Vietnam direct its focus towards them?

We have developed an appropriate strategy for each market, domestic and international, but there will be certain similarities and consistencies in their general orientation. At the moment, we are focusing on a campaign called “Proud to be Vietnam”, which targets young consumers. I may not be born in Vietnam, but I’ve always been proud of being a Vietnamese, and I want to instill this pride in all young Vietnamese. You can sense the Vietnamese touch right from the packaging, the origin to our materials – the old Vietnamese countryside scenery, recaptured by the Equo’s design team in a refreshing and revitalizing style. From the lady farmer harvesting coconuts in Ben Tre on the coconut straw packaging, to the paddy field in Long An on the rice straw packaging, our efforts have been to bring these traditional cultural traits closer to consumers.

While, in the international market, we concentrate on the diversity of materials and changing how the world view Vietnam’s capability in the rising green industry, in the domestic market, we focus on raising the public’s awareness of the importance of sustainable products and boosting the need to consume for one’s own health and the community as a whole.

Equo Vietnam is to become a leading brand in the “green” product area. Setting such a high expectation, I’ve already anticipated countless unthinkable hardships. The production cost, for one, is not as desirable as that of our industrial plastic competitors, meaning we will have a lot of balancing to do before reaching a reasonable price for the public, while also trying to shift their mindset in choosing a green product. These environment friendly products are being widely accepted at the moment, but not by all. That’s why, besides individual clients, we are also reaching out to F&B businesses to carry out co-branding campaigns, all with a view to offer end-users more access to our products.

Marina Tran Vu

Making profits is not really the edge of sustainable and environment friendly start-ups. Then what are the necessary and sufficient conditions that make Marina Tran Vu so confident in launching your brand?

There are indeed a number of reassuring factors that help boost my confidence when venturing in this business field, one of which is the significant potential of the market as per our preliminary evaluation. This potential comes not only from the consumers’ need, but also from the reception of the suppliers that are factories and farms. We’ve been able to locate farmers who have great concerns for the land they sow on, and what they reap from it. Earning a living for them is not only making money, but securing it in the long run by looking for partners who share the same level of consideration for agricultural environment protection. And to be honest, besides transferring technologies on my part, I’ve really had a lot to learn from them in terms of agricultural production. In addition, another thing that has caught my attention is the growing interest of many governments in minimizing our impact on the environment, which we would be more than willing to contribute to in the form of our products, with the short-term goal of reducing plastic waste.

That being said, those are yet the “sufficient” condition. The one most reassuring factor for me is my own team. All of this would not be possible if I were alone, and it was indeed fortunate of me to have met these people who tread on the same path as I do. They are always on my side, backing me up and guiding me, and that is how we got where we are today.

I realize that every day comes with an obstacle, and the life of a start-up is an endless search for the solution for what we don’t have an answer for, and at times, even what we do. But no matter how many challenges, or how hard they come, as long as I have the faith to go on, why not go for it?

Marina Tran Vu

What is your final destination of your career path?

“From one dream to another. I hope that with my efforts to achieve my dream, I will be able to help others, especially women achieve their own dreams.”

In your opinion, what are the competitive edges for Equo Vietnam’s products at the moment?

To begin with, we are proud to have acquired all export certificates needed to enter major markets like the US, Canada and Australia. These certificates come with quite stringent requirements, and thus are not easily obtainable by just any brand. Moreover, the fact that we are based in Vietnam also serves as an advantage, since we will be able to deal with our supply sources directly instead of having to do it over the phone or via email. Our product R&D – Research and Development, is also benefitting from this with an easier access to local resources and a better grasp of their advantages. Packaging design, in addition, is yet another distinctive trait of Equo Vietnam’s products. Not sticking with the usual rustic images and strong messages, we decide to tell our own story of environment protection in a brighter tone and a most animated and passionate spirit. We also take pride in the diversity of the materials used and their corresponding product lines. Besides straws, we will also be launching several new products including knives, spoons, plates… made from indigenous materials like areca leaves, banana leaves, etc. to bring more choices to the table while also kindling the national pride in our Vietnamese customers.

As mentioned above, human resource is truly our greatest advantage at the moment. Their youthfulness and progressive thinking have brought about such creative strategies and products that will bolster the Vietnamese brand in any market.   

With product quality already at hand, how does Marina Tran Vu plan to convey the message to your customers and earn their trust?

People often regard those who do not use green products as ignorant to environment health; some might go even further to judge one’s personality by their action, or the lack thereof. That is what we want to change. The fact that someone does not (yet) use green products comes from a number of reasons, one of which could be the inappropriate way in which the message was conveyed. Many a brand has been exploiting the human fear as leverage for their environment-related products, but I don’t think this is the right way. Instead, we would like to propose a different message where people will find that they can remain environment friendly while satisfying their personal needs. There are many ways to get a message across, so why be afraid when you can be optimistic? For instance, we can tell a customer that whenever you use our straw, that’s one less plastic straw getting dumped into the ocean and costing a turtle’s life. I believe that a positive mindset will not only help with business growth, but also play an important role in shifting consumers’ thinking and behavior towards “for environment” products.

Marina Tran Vu

As a young female start-up founder in this Covid-19 period, Marina Tran Vu must be harboring a much greater passion when doing business other than business in and of itself. Is that the case?

My very first role model as a businesswoman is my mother. She has established a prominent career with only her bare hands, and she has been my greatest inspiration when pursuing the same career. With that said, and being in that role now myself, I also wish to do what she did for me, inspiring other women around me. Highly intellectual women are not hard to come by, but oftentimes they are hindered by a myriad of cultural barriers and social prejudices, settling for a peaceful life with a wealthy husband for instance. This way of thinking is exactly what I want to change. I myself was a victim of this when first returning to Vietnam, as people seemed more interested in my marital status than my career or accomplishment. I believe that a woman’s value does not lie in her family’s wealth or social status, or that of her spouse, but rather what she contributes to life, to her family and to her loved ones. That is what people should have asked me. Women should be given more opportunities to pursue success and demonstrate their capabilities, and that is what I yearn to achieve as a young female start-up founder.

Business has never been a fair field for women, but does Marina Tran Vu suppose there is a way for a female start-up founder to assert herself with greater ease?

Women are often underestimated; say, if you are a fresh start-up with a youthful fashion and fancy makeup, people will most likely see you as a good for nothing youngster. The same thing happened to me, but I believe that women can actually use it as an advantage. If people underestimate you or think of you as a “moving flower vase” (an all-looks, no-talent woman), they won’t expect you to achieve anything great. Inadvertently, this means that you won’t be under too much pressure and have a better chance at proving the exact opposite by surprising them with your knowledge. Turn the prejudices into prospects and change how people think of you. I possess a strong knowledge foundation, and I never stop yearning for more, that’s why I’m extremely confident when I speak, I know what to say and how to say it to convince others. No matter how you look on the outside, make sure that once you raise your voice, no one will be able to think lesser of you.

Interview CEO EQUO Vietnam

Making a dream come true is not a humble feat. How did Marina Tran Vu remain resolute to see everything through to the end?

I suppose that we should stop thinking of an ultimate high cause at the end of the road, and instead start looking for minor goals along the way. In my case, after achieving the first goal of setting up a business, I worked my way up the next one, spreading the Vietnam image and contributing to fighting pollution in my homeland. Then again, by observing my young nephew’s life, I set out for a bigger goal towards our future generation. My endeavor is to play a role in building a better world and a greener planet for our children to grow and enjoy in. That’s how my goals kept showing up along my way. By accomplishing each and every one of them, I hope that someday I’ll be able to reach that final cause at the end of the road.

It appears that you possess a positive mindset towards everything in your work and life, how do you always maintain such optimism in mind?

Things do not always go my way, and stress has become part and parcel of my daily life. I’ve had to make many sacrifices like being away from my family and skipping the nights out with my friends to stay in the office. But if I keep thinking of the good things I’ll be able to do with this business, I’ll always be positive. I believe that I’m making a difference, and so will everyone else; life is always finding a way to show you that you can change the world out there. Another thing that keeps me thinking on the bright side is the fact that I’m surrounded by those who share the same optimistic mindset and who are always willing to lend a hand. There are more than one reason to be proud of my team, they are not just employees, but companions who put their faith in me and I in them. It is these thoughts that bolster my spirit and strengthen my feet as I continue to tread on this chosen path.

In a modern society where women are enjoying many opportunities that give them more confidence and pride to strive to be better, what do you suppose prevails as a woman’s highest value?

I believe that each person has their own value. Women, in particular, do forget sometimes that they are the drive for the advance of society. Without women, there will be no children; and without children, who will we educate to become the next generation workforce? Women should be given more authority and attention, they deserve it. Take business for an example, companies with female owners will, in time, prove that they are just as efficient as those led by male, and that women are no longer bound by their family duties or mere traditional female industries. In my opinion, a woman should never hesitate to do what she wants. There is no fixed role model for a modern woman. She can be a businesswoman, or a mother, or anything or anyone she chooses to, as long as she is given the same choices as everybody else.

A businesswoman who empowers women to realize their dreams

Start a business and people start calling you “businesswoman”. How then does businesswoman Marina Tran Vu define her own success?

Although I am a businesswoman, I tend to feel embarrassed at times, for the title also entails the huge expectation that everyone has in me. And to be honest, I’m rather … afraid of it. Whenever you succeed in something, no matter how small it is, people keep expecting more from you. I don’t want to focus only on business, but also on achieving my goals in life. Not a day goes by that I don’t ask questions about how I run the company, whether I’m doing the right thing or my strategies are appropriate. Becoming a true businesswoman is not that simple, you may say. I still have a lot to learn, and I need to make sure this process never stops. Personally speaking, my definition of success is being able to achieve what you’ve set out to do. And I’m proud of what I’m doing because for at least once in my life, I can say: “I’ve done it, and I’ve done it for myself.”

How about your current life, what role does this start-up business play in it? In your opinion, what should businesswomen do to keep a good balance between work and life? And for you, do you need that balance?

My current work is indeed my current life. I’m not only building a sustainable brand, but also provide sustainable employment for my team, and in turn help them lead a sustainable life. I hope what I’m doing today will someday, but not too far into the future, become a national pride for Vietnam. Balance, in my opinion, depends on our own perspective. As for me, there is more to work than work itself, I enjoy it because I really love what I’m doing. You have total control of your life, and no one is making you send 100 emails a day. A work-life balance is a wonderful idea, but it’s different for everyone. Therefore, let’s begin with finding out what you love to do the most, for when you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life.

Interview CEO EQUO Vietnam

Drawing from your experience and business lesson, how do expect to inspire the start-up spirit among the young female generation in the future?

The first and probably most important lesson that I learned until today is that of humility. Despite having over 10 years working in international companies, I soon realized that running your own business is a totally different story. Never assume that you’ve known everything, there’s still a million things out there that you’re not even aware of. Furthermore, always be true to yourself. If start-up is what you’re looking be, be certain that you’re doing it for a good reason. For instance, if you want to open a coffee shop, you must have a deep understanding of the bean and take pleasure in observing people enjoy the drink you make. Or if you want to launch a fashion brand, you must have a taste for clothes matching and, again, take pleasure in observing people enjoy the clothes you design, and so on, and so on. No one knows your dream better than yourself, and many might not agree or even object to it, but if you believe you can do it, then nothing shall get in the way between you and your dream.

If you could give an advice to young women who aspire to build a start-up, what would it be?

When us women try doing something that men often do, people often find it strange, but when a man does it, they call him decisive. So my advice to you is to just do it. If you want to do something, and if men can do it that way, so can you. Being a woman does not necessarily mean being gentle or feminine. Just do what you think is right, take in any feedback and learn from it to become better every day. And remember, never change yourself just because you are not supposed to cross that line of standard etiquettes for a woman.

Thanks for sharing, Marina Tran Vu!

CEO EQUO Vietnam
CEO EQUO Vietnam

Text: JENNI VÕ, HỒNG ĐẶNG | Creative Director: HIEPLEDUC | Photo: CHANH NGUYEN | Stylist: ĐỖ ĐĂNG KHOA | Make up: KHOA LÊ | Producer: VY TRẦN | Copyright© All Rights Reserved.

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