Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, who are advancing the UN SDGs.
Spiffy here! I’m back with the scoop on the entrepreneurial leaders of Planet Earth. As the only interplanetary journalist stationed on this blue planet, I’m thrilled to present this galactic exclusive with Uyen Tran, the founder and CEO of TômTex Inc. Let’s see what he is doing to make a positive impact in the world.
Spiffy: Welcome, Uyen! Let’s jump right in. What challenge are you addressing with TômTex Inc?
Uyen: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! TômTex is a revolutionary bio-based material, created from two key ingredients: seashell waste and mushrooms. The company’s vision is a cruelty-free and eco-friendly alternative to synthetic and animal leathers. It is made from 100% bio-based ingredients and natural colors without tanning process or backing fabric. At the end of life, TômTex products can be disassembled and fed back into TômTex production or fully biodegradable in a natural environment. We not only use various wastes as raw material inputs, but the production of TômTex also consumes significantly less water, energy, and land use compared to the standard production of synthetic or animal leather.
Spiffy: That sounds fantastic! What motivated you to do it?
Uyen: I grew up in Da Nang, Vietnam. It’s the epicenter of the wasted textile landfill. I remember growing up wearing second-hand clothes, which were discarded from western countries. It’s devastating to see my hometown contaminated by textile pollution and leather manufacturing. I was a fashion designer for luxury fashion brands in NYC and I worked with a lot of different types of leather and synthetic fabric. However, it still made me think of home but also of those toxins. Because of this, I have shifted my career focus to sustainable textiles and founded TômTex Inc.
Spiffy: How are you working towards a more equitable world, would you say?
Uyen: TômTex is leveraging renewable resources and natural ‘waste’ materials to enact our vision. We envision a world where people surround themselves with high-performance materials sourced directly from waste, not fossil resources. We are working with biomaterial scientists in the US and Vietnam to deploy technology that can be tailored and scaled up to fit different regions and communities across the world. By using local resources and employing local labor, we will build a closed-loop production system to boost the local economy while maintaining and improving the quality of life and a sustainable environment in the future.
Spiffy: Tell me about a recent milestone/initiative by you or your org. What impact does that make?
Uyen: Along with the awards and the biotech community’s support, forming a strong team is my greatest achievement so far. Recently, we were delighted to welcome a new co-founder and Chief Security Officer – Ross McBee from Columbia University. With a dedicated team of designers, scientists, and businessmen, we work across industry boundaries to provide this sustainable material to everyone and to help protect the earth. At TômTex, I want to build a culture where everyone feels accepted, valued, and has a sense of belonging. We create an environment that fosters transparency, trust, empowerment, and empathy.
Spiffy: That sounds wonderful. Please share an experience when you faced failure and didn’t give up. What did you learn from it?
Uyen: Early in my career, I learned a valuable lesson when the material I chose for one of my designs wasn’t natural fabric, it was polyester fabric. Ultimately, the style was produced in 1,000 pieces, which contributed to textile pollution since the polyester fabric is not biodegradable for years. When I realized what I had done wrong, I immediately took responsibility. From that mistake, I always choose natural and sustainable fabric over synthetic ones. After realizing the impact material has on us, I switched my career to textile design with the vision of creating more sustainable materials.
Spiffy: What is something you’ve unexpectedly learned from someone recently?
Uyen: My nephew taught me that there’s no one right way to do things. The fact that kids learn how to do things on their own often leads to them finding better ways to accomplish their tasks. This is a simple but comprehensive lesson that can be applied to the startup world, where I had to adapt by adopting growth mindsets, learning new skills, and embracing flexibility. I believe that the world would be a much more refreshing place if we all had more childlike mindsets.
Spiffy: Wise words, Uyen. Thanks for speaking with me today—it’s been an honor!
Uyen Tran is a textile-material researcher and designer originally from Viet Nam and now based in New York, who aims to establish a viable and complete system of biodegradable material products. Her goal is to create an eco-friendly, sustainable business model grounded in zero-waste and zero pollution. Uyen is passionate about innovating technology and concepts through a groundbreaking material revolution. (Nominated by Julie Wolf at IndieBio. First published on the Ladderworks website on January 14, 2022.)
© 2022 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy’s Corner here.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.