Innovator Bunny Yan, 34, runs an upcycling platform all about turning trash - or oddments - into striking new, eco-friendly products. Yan's Shanghai-based startup, “The Squirrelz", which raised US $417,000 in seed funding, has won glowing coverage and even scored her a visit to the White House.
Her White House win came about through a competitive global startup contest run by Washington-DC-based incubator platform 1776. Yan beat hundreds of entries to win the Cities category at the 1776 Challenge Cup Beijing.
Her prize included a trip to the Challenge Festival held in Washington DC. At the Global Entrepreneurs Event, she rubbed shoulders with President Barack Obama inside his iconic mansion.
"The whole trip to the White House was so interesting, because first you get an email from the White House, and it's like, okay, the White House sent you an email. And they send you the second email confirming the security check, and it's like, 'Oh! This is actually serious!'"
Meeting the most powerful man in America was great, according to Yan who makes Obama sound as suave as he looks, when she pegs him as “very smooth-spoken".
“Sometimes even in my dreams, I'm strategising. But I love every moment"
New York state of mind
Xu herself has a New York accent that reflects her upbringing there. In line with her link to the city that never sleeps, she works non-stop.
"Even if it's my own social time, it still always feels like networking. Sometimes even in my dreams, I'm strategising. But I love every moment," the go-getter says, between sessions she's attending at the select two-week start-up program run by the Silicon Valley accelerator, Blackbox.
Originally, the Squirrelz hinged on sourcing overstock factory fabric in bulk, but now Yan has pivoted. Instead of playing an industrial numbers game, she has realigned herself with the design community, allowing peers to share spare stuff via her free material sharing app, which debuts in August.
“It means if I'm a designer and I have leftover fabric - trimmings, buttons, I put it on," she says. Her goal is to build a 100,000-strong groundswell of contributors within a year.
Creatives in need of materials who boot up the app will see who is giving away what in their neighbourhood. Then they can pick up the offcuts which appeal and upgrade them into a new, alluring form: jewellery or furniture, say.
The Squirrelz will still promote individual designers, based on which materials that app users seek, says Yan, whose brand embraces colour.
"Eco-product" need not mean dull; “eco" can be funky, Yan says. She's proud of the Squirrelz role in reducing the amount of industrial waste ending up in landfill and estimates that 80 percent is new or reusable.
Yan's eight staff are from Poland, Holland, Britain and the United States. She is the product of one of the world's top five fashion schools: the New York-based Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), which she attended between 2000 and 2005. At FIT, she evolved fast, and says she learned that everyone has a unique style that can be nurtured through experimentation.
From 2006 to 2008, she was head designer at the New Jersey-based wholesaler Wicked Fashions. After a stint doing her own freelance design, again she served as head designer, this time for an intimate lifestyle company [LELOi AB].
In November 2012, with her partner Nico Bouthors, she founded a Shanghai T-shirt business [Wasavy's Print-shop] which uses eco-friendly water-based ink, in line with a core value for the pair, who want their work to have a positive environmental effect.
The Squirrelz debuted seven months later.
Scrub up well
Named in a nod to the animal's foraging bent, the startup arose from an urge to see if up-cycling could take hold in China, with its vast market. The spark: a visit to a factory containing clean, defective fabric, including stunningly colourful doctors' scrubs.
Before the scrubs could be sold to garbage collectors, Yan grabbed and repurposed them into handbags and “cross-shoulder overnighters". The Squirrelz was in business.
Before long the platform had dozens of upcycle designers creating marvels including paper-ear rings and biscuit-tin desk lamps.
Soon, her resourcefulness attracted the interest of the team behind the 90-day start-up boot-camp Chinaccelerator, which aids all inductees with $30,000 in funding.
Yan, who attended in early 2015, says she felt like she was in an action-packed Japanimation cartoon. But Chinaccelerator increased her ability to persist under stress.
After she graduated, the Squirrelz gathered momentum, leading up to her Obama encounter.
Her take on the simple art of upcycling has been successful because of her in-depth fashion experience and business nous, underpinned by her drive which is vital, because entrepreneurship can be very rough. “You do cry. I have."
One pressure was changing the perception that designers' leftover, unused materials and the corresponding up-cycled goods are tainted by their defective past. But times are changing.
“In China, it's really catching up: there's a huge difference between when I first got here till now; there's so many more green businesses - people are more eco-conscious," she says, adding that her ambition is to make green design more accessible to everyone. Despite her White House experience, she looks set to stay in touch with the grass roots.
Writer: David Wilson