Appreciate the beauty of the world together — Family trips are the best, especially when you can show your children the world beyond what they know and are used to. There’s so much to learn from other people, countries, and cultures, and there are tremendous benefits to being exposed to nature from a young age. As parents, we should encourage our children to keep an open mind and learn from our travel experiences. If international travel is not feasible, there are many ways to “see” the world through local museums and libraries!
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mandy Yeung.
Many people in this world love bubble tea (or boba), the popular and fun Taiwanese beverage made up of tea, milk, and round, chewy tapioca pearls, which add a delightful texture to the mix. Mandy is no exception. However, each cup of boba comes in so much plastic! To raise awareness on how the growing bubble tea industry is contributing to single-use plastic pollution, Mandy founded bobagreen, an eco-friendly online bubble tea company that encourages consumers to think green before they go on their next boba run.
Born in Hong Kong and raised in New York City, Mandy grew up wanting to understand how the world works. She decided to pursue a degree in civil engineering because she was drawn to the complexities within how buildings are built, and she was fascinated by how teams of people can work together to create something so much bigger than each individual alone. Driven by the idea that perhaps she could utilize her skills to make a bigger difference in the world through business, Mandy enrolled at Columbia Business School. Upon graduation, she initially returned to the work force instead of following her North Star, because of the risk averse mentality she held as a first-generation immigrant. However, at six months pregnant, she realized that she needed to be a worthy role model to the child she was bringing into this world. Mandy’s inspiration for bobagreen comes from the belief that a small idea can have a big impact, and she launched the business because one little baby did make a big difference. Mandy lives in New York City with her husband Daniel and their 7 month old daughter, Olivia.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born in Hong Kong and moved to New York City when I was 7 years old. While I loved the beautiful skylines of both concrete jungles I grew up in, I have always been drawn to the water. I love the serenity that warms my soul from just listening to the sounds of waves crashing onto the seashore, so my favorite vacations were trips I took by the North Pacific Ocean (where I got engaged), the Atlantic Ocean (where I got married), and the Indian Ocean (where I had my honeymoon). Whenever I’m stressed out, I calm myself down by taking deep breaths and bringing myself back to the oceans. Incidentally, this relaxation method was key when I gave birth for the first time and decided to forgo the epidural.
I was raised by a single mom who gave up everything she knew in Hong Kong to move us to New York so I could have a better education. My mom toiled in hard labor every single day for 13 years, barely making minimum wage and she never once complained. While we never sat down to talk about money, the need to be smart with my finances was seared into my brain from a young age. Because I didn’t have much as a kid, I learned that I really dislike waste of all kinds- money, food, resources, and especially time. As I grew up, I learned to value experiences over material goods, and to appreciate, reuse, and maintain what I do own, and purchase higher quality items that will last- like the jacket that I’ve been wearing for over 13 years and still lovingly care for. This type of mentality has made me much more efficient with my money, time, and energy.
Despite her best efforts, my mom could not afford to spoil me with toys. I remember being a brat and crying about wanting what other kids had. Truthfully, I was most jealous of friends who were able to buy brand new books at the school book fair. Eventually, I discovered the library, and this has led me down a fortuitous path to a virtuous cycle, where I learned to do more with less, and now I always look for existing and available resources before I decide to spend money on something new. I owe my strong work ethic and scrappiness to my mom and my humble background, and I am determined to pass on these qualities to my daughter as well.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
At 6 months pregnant, I was at a job that was perfect for me on paper, but I felt that I was missing a connection to a purpose and the bigger picture. I crunched the numbers and decided to leave my job because I knew I would not return after maternity leave. I didn’t want to bring a beautiful new baby into this world, only to cloud her vision of life with work stress that I bring home. In the last 2 months before baby arrived, my husband and I said a long goodbye to life as we knew it as a twosome. We went out to eat a lot because we didn’t yet have to worry about packing up a baby or whether the stroller would fit in the restaurant. After each savory meal, we would inevitably want to chase it down with something sweet, so we rediscovered our love of bubble tea from our high school days. I didn’t really think twice about posting photos of us trying out all the new bubble tea shops to my Instagram stories.
Then, my daughter came and totally changed my life. I became more woke- figuratively and literally, going from a minimum of 7 hours of peaceful sleep a night to sleeping whenever I can. My husband and I started replacing “I love you”s with “here, you take a nap,” and I was never more tired in my life but never felt more loved and in love. I started caring much more about the world and the environment because I wanted it to stay vibrant so my baby and other babies in her generation can grow up and enjoy the world’s natural beauty as I have. I started reexamining the bubble tea I was so blissfully ignorant in consuming, not thinking twice about the plastic cups, plastic lids, and plastic straws I was tossing away after each single use. I recycle, so I naively thought that I was doing my part. Once I learned that recycling isn’t a magical system where just sorting your trash properly leads to materials automatically being processed to become reusable again, I knew that I had to do something about it, starting with making small lifestyle changes for me and my family, and ultimately finding my way to start bobagreen.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
No idea is too small. My company specifically focuses on cutting down the plastic used in the bubble tea industry. The global bubble tea market is currently valued at $1.9 billion USD and projected to reach $3.5 billion USD by 2026, so the industry is growing, and any amount of reduction in plastic litter helps! I’d recommend paying attention to the world around you and dare to challenge the status quo, because everything is made up by somebody, and that somebody could be you. Bubble tea doesn’t have to be served in plastic, but it’s currently that way because it minimizes costs and maximizes profits for business owners. Change starts with you, so instead of waiting around for the world to become what you’d like to see, I highly encourage young people to stand up for what they believe in and inspire others to join their movement.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
My company aims to raise awareness on how the growing bubble tea industry is contributing to the single-use plastic pollution crisis. Currently, the industry norm for bubble tea is to serve the popular drinks in a plastic cup, with a plastic lid, and a fat plastic straw. I believe it doesn’t have to be this way, but the bubble tea shops are not incentivized to look for a better way because consumers are not really complaining, and plastic is currently the shop’s way of minimizing their costs. bobagreen offers the consumer a fun way to learn how to make bubble tea themselves and take control of what goes into their drink. You can decide to use less sugar, or even substitute it for alternative sweeteners like maple syrup or agave. Similarly, you can substitute cow’s milk with your favorite dairy alternative. We use high quality loose tea leaves as our drink base, not the artificial powder that some boba shops use. We also include stainless steel straws in our kits to encourage consumers to consider reusable over plastic. Our informational recipe booklet features fun facts on the history of bubble tea and some not so fun facts on what single-use plastic pollution does to our marine life and oceans.
I believe that consumers do care about the environment, but right now the onus is on them to bring their own reusable cup and straw to bubble tea shops. Some boba stores do not accept reusable cups or require customers to use the shop’s own branded cups, which is very disappointing. I hope that consumers will start taking back their power and push the industry to adapt more sustainable practices, because ultimately boba shops need their customers more than the customers need them, and bobagreen is here to support this movement.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
1. Believe that your lifestyle choices do matter and make a difference — Climate change is a big problem. It’s easy to throw your hands up in the air and not try to do anything about it because you’re “just” one person. However, all individual actions do add up over time, so start with committing to shifting your own habits, then influence just one other person to do the same, and now you’ve catalyzed a domino effect that will make a real difference. Climate change is no longer a can to kick down the road in hopes that future generations can take care of the issues. Besides, we don’t want our children and their children to have to deal with the problems we’ve caused — they should be given the chance to enjoy this beautiful world as well!
2. Stop consuming plastic water bottles — The environmental impacts are not worth the perceived convenience and carrying your own reusable water bottle is more economical. More than 80% of water bottles end up in landfills, and the world drinks roughly 50 billion bottles a year! Up to 40% of bottled water comes from municipal water systems anyway. This means that companies are selling you bottled tap water that you’ve paid for already through your tax dollars. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
3. Switch to bamboo toothbrushes — Something so “small” as switching from plastic toothbrushes to bamboo ones can make a big difference. In the United States alone, around 1 billion plastic toothbrushes are thrown away each year, and they are not recyclable, so they end up in landfills and our oceans. Bamboo is a renewable and sustainable resource and bamboo toothbrush handles take only around 6 months to compost, whereas plastic never really goes away.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
1. Encourage children to ask why and to see the big picture — Children are naturally inquisitive and have an innate desire to explore and learn. Parents should nurture this desire for knowledge by encouraging kids to question why the world is the way it is, to empower children to think about how they might improve on existing systems and processes. Parents don’t need to have all the answers- ideally, children would learn to investigate and do research, then share their findings with their parents, because kids can play the role of the teacher too.
2. Lead by example — Children are always looking to their parents to understand what the right thing to do is, so it is really important for parents to model behavior that they want to promote for their children. When we were dating, I discovered that one of my husband’s pet peeves is littering. He scolds his friends and family when he sees them carelessly tossing trash out the car window, and he picks up the gum wrappers they accidentally drop on the floor instead of looking the other way. I have no doubt that Daniel will instill those values in our child without even needing to talk to her about it, because actions speak so much louder than words.
3. Appreciate the beauty of the world together — Family trips are the best, especially when you can show your children the world beyond what they know and are used to. There’s so much to learn from other people, countries, and cultures, and there are tremendous benefits to being exposed to nature from a young age. As parents, we should encourage our children to keep an open mind and learn from our travel experiences. If international travel is not feasible, there are many ways to “see” the world through local museums and libraries!
4. Volunteer Together — There are many ways to give back through environmental volunteer jobs and local cleanups. Search for them online or partner up with an organization and plan one yourself! It’s a fun and rewarding way to spend time with children, giving them a hands-on opportunity to give back to their community and take pride in the results at the end of the event.
5. Stop mindless consumption — A lot of environmental damage is driven by our consumerist mindset and the desire to buy new instead of trying to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Despite what advertising tries to tell us, buying more things and having more stuff will not make us happier. Instead of showering children with toys and adding clutter to the house, spoil them with your time and attention. Shared memories provide true happiness that materialistic substitutes simply cannot match.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
I believe businesses have to become more sustainable and more environmentally conscious if they want longevity and to be able to stick around long enough to increase profitability. Consumers are waking up to the fact that they hold the power in influencing companies in becoming more green. If you’re a company that hasn’t started paying attention to your environmental footprint, you may well find yourself having a lot of catching up to do once your customers start shifting towards more eco-friendly competitors. In my ideal world, bubble tea shops would require customers to bring their own reusable bottles and straws, or pay to “borrow” a reusable cup and a metal or glass straw, refundable when the customer returns these items back to the store on their next visit. This would eliminate the cost of plastic cups, lids, and straws for store owners, provide an additional source of revenue if customers end up not returning their items, and bring customers back to the store when they return their borrowed cups and straws.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband and my mom are my two biggest supporters. As new parents, both my husband and I have a lot to juggle and learn at the same time. He is always there to cheer me up when I feel overwhelmed and just want to quit, and he is my life partner in every sense of the word. Not only do we share household responsibilities equally, he is also a very hands-on dad and I couldn’t have asked for a better father for our baby girl Olivia. As a new mom, I would not have been able to start a company without my husband being there to take care of our daughter and myself. We like to joke that we take turns being “the man and the woman” in our relationship, because we believe in doing what’s best for our family, not what’s best for our own individual interests.
Without my mom, I would literally not be here, so I am eternally grateful to my mom for everything she’s done for me, and for instilling in me all the qualities I appreciate the most about myself- my resilience, work ethic, and ability to think independently. In hopes of giving me a brighter future, my mom dropped everything she knew from her life in Hong Kong to move us to New York, where she did not speak the language and had to turn her life upside down to adapt. Any time I face a hardship, I just have to think about my mom and everything she was able to do for me with the few resources she had to encourage myself to go back to the drawing board and keep going.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I believe this world would be a much better and happier place if we could spread compassion- not just for fellow human beings, but for all forms of life. We all have our own problems and issues to deal with, but this doesn’t give us a license to be rude and unkind to others. I find it much more helpful and productive to interpret the actions of others as a reflection of themselves instead of projecting their actions to be about me. For example, the internet is full of angry people who hide behind the anonymity of a screen name. Instead of engaging them in an escalating war of words, I just wish them a good day. I imagine that people with a lot of hatred inside have a lot of issues to deal with, so I don’t need to add more negativity to their life. I am lucky that I can simply turn off the screen and focus my attention on my loving family- it’s important to remember that not everyone has that in their life, so the lucky ones should spread love and good vibes. Similarly, I believe in having compassion for animals and respecting their natural habitats. I believe humans should be sharing the world with all the other life forms, not taking it over. Plastics are man-made materials that have no place in the ocean, inside the stomachs of unsuspecting sea animals, and we need to consider how our actions affect the lives of others, with a goal of minimizing negative impacts and maximizing positivity.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
There’s a Chinese proverb that translates to, “The best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago. The second best time is now.” At 31 years old, I sometimes feel like I’m really late in trying to help the environment through an eco-conscious company. Why did I pick now to start, when I’ve already got my hands full with a baby as a new mom? Why didn’t I pay more attention to the planet when I was in high school, college, or business school? Climate change can seem like such a big problem at times and it’s discouraging to think of all the hard work ahead in trying to make a difference as one little person. However, I have to try. Because now that I’ve woken up to all the man-made environmental problems facing the world today, I can’t look the other way anymore. Time only moves forward, so I will always look back and wish I started earlier, but the important thing is just to decide to push forward and keep going. I bet that ten years from now I will be less worried about starting “too late” and more grateful that I started at all.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
I can be found on Linkedin.
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thanks for having me!