You must take breaks to cultivate creativity, and in the case of business, strategy. In running a business we need to have a lot of things to do and a lot of hats to wear. But I have found that when I don’t save time in my week to think creatively, I end up waking up in the middle of the night because my brain is telling me that I need to focus on creativity. all of my best ideas have come in the middle of the night while my brain is racing, or while I’m driving, because I don’t have anything to distract me.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Belinda Lau, CEO, Elims.
Belinda Lau is a life-long entrepreneur with over 15 years of experience working for a Fortune 500 medical device company. Inspired by a desire to combine her background in Medtech and passion for social responsibility, Belinda left the corporate world behind in order to launch Elims, an oral care company rooted in effectiveness and sustainability. Belinda holds a Master in Business Administration from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. As the daughter of first-generation immigrants and entrepreneurs, Belina learned how to operate a business at a young age, applying what she learned to open several web-based businesses over the course of her professional career. When not working, Belinda enjoys spending time with her three young sons and her husband, Casey.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
My story in entrepreneurship started at a very young age. Before I was born, my parents moved to Vancouver, Canada (where I was born) from Southeast Asia with just $14 in their pockets, and they started a life in a new place on sheer hustle. They opened up a small gift shop in the city, and that is where I grew up. Have you ever been to a restaurant or a convenience store and there was a kid behind the counter doing their homework? Well, that was me. And that was my early taste of running a business. When I was a teenager, my dad started a luggage manufacturing business, eventually employing over 400 people. He was a true entrepreneur and I was lucky to learn from him how to do things in business at an early age. Soon after I graduated from college, my dad passed away from cancer, and I made a few promises to him that I have since fulfilled, like getting my MBA and starting my own business.
You are currently leading a brand that is focused on making a social impact that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your company are trying to change in our world today?
Our mission is to help people’s health and create a solution to solve the single plastic waste in all of healthcare, and we decided to start with oral care. Given our backgrounds, we knew we could make an impact in the oral care space. For example, 1 billion toothbrushes that are thrown away in the US every year cause an extreme affect on our environment. We are committed to sustainability by creating products that are made responsibly, are safe and effective for us and for our planet. It is with this mission that I set up our company with my husband, dentist Dr. Casey Lau as head of dental care, Pradnya as head of sustainability and myself as Founder and CEO.
My background is in engineering and marketing for medical devices, and I’m deeply passionate about protecting the planet, especially after having kids. My personal mission is to leave the world better for them. I also wanted to combine my background (what I know) with my passions (environmental health) so I came up with ELIMS, a company that is at the cross section of healthcare, sustainability and really cool design.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My husband (and co-founder) Casey is a dentist, and we have seen the excessive amount of waste that is both accrued in the dental office and at home. At home, for example, our three young kids use floss picks every day, so that’s 3 pieces of plastic that are thrown away everyday! It pains my heart, and we knew we had to do something about it.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
It was a combination of things: feeling unfulfilled for many years at a corporate job and feeling the need to make a more meaningful impact. I spent 15 years at a Fortune 500 company creating life saving medical devices, which was incredibly rewarding, but it was difficult to make any changes or pull off any new ideas. One of my products even won Time Magazine’s invention of the year in 2015. Even still, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to have a different impact on the world.
So one day, I was driving down the 405 highway in Los Angeles on my way to pitch a totally different business idea, and I was listening to a podcast about how Toms (the shoe brand) got started. At that moment, I thought “I need to do something like this…”, and then the idea for ELIMS struck me like a lightning bolt! I knew this was how I could change the world, from my small corner of it. So I pitched the idea to Casey, and he immediately loved it. Then I asked my friend and business school classmate, Pradnya, what she thought. Pradnya comes from many years in manufacturing and very passionate about environmental causes, and she felt like we could do it. That’s how I knew we were the right team to make this happen.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new company and especially launch a consumer brand. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get started?
I wouldn’t say that I knew what to do to launch a consumer brand, but I did launch several medical devices in my time at Medtronic, so I had a framework of what needed to get done, even if I didn’t know exactly how to do it in the consumer space.
When I had the idea for ELIMS, I started by researching the problem of oral care in waste, the market and the solutions available. I found that over 1 billion toothbrushes are thrown away every year in the US, and found that the market is quite large, since essentially everyone on the planet needs to brush their teeth. But I also discovered that the solutions currently available may be (somewhat) good for the earth, but they were terrible for actually keeping up your oral healthcare. I knew we needed to do something about this. Our biggest validation early on was that we were accepted into the Cleantech Open, the largest business accelerator for clean technologies in the world, and that set us on the path to help establish our business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading ELIMS?
In one word: COVID. We had been working on the business for 10 months before the pandemic hit and the world shutdown. Everything slowed down. Suddenly I could not fly to my supplier and knock out our product development in a few days. Instead, samples had to be sent back and forth (which pains my earth-friendly heart!) and it took MONTHS with the back and forth. And now that we are receiving our products from suppliers, there is a massive delay in shipping around the globe, so even though I wanted to launch my business in the beginning of the year, I had to let go of dates and focus on being flexible. You get what you get, and you don’t get upset!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you have made so far? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
The funniest thing that has happened since I began leading ELIMS is related to starting a business during the pandemic. In January 2020 before the pandemic hit, we were talking to several manufacturers for our products. Not surprisingly, they didn’t really want to work with us because we were a small start-up. Some of these suppliers even ghosted us, which I find to be super unprofessional. I felt like no one would work with us!
But after the pandemic shutdowns, suddenly these suppliers were very happy to pick up the phone and work with us. How the tables had turned! It was a reminder to always be kind to others; you never know when you will need them!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
There is absolutely no way I’d be here right now without the mentors who gave me advice along this journey and my incredible support system of friends and family. Casey, my husband, has been my biggest cheerleader since I came up with the idea for ELIMS and I wouldn’t have taken this leap without him!
As for mentors, I’m literally talking about at least 50–60 people who have spent time out of the goodness of their hearts to lend me their advice. There’s one mentor I have in particular (who really likes to keep private so I won’t mention his name) is the chairman and founder of a very successful hair care brand. I met him through a CEO leadership development group, that he led, and he has since guided me through many ups and downs. He also gave me some hard advice, advice that I didn’t necessarily want to hear, but that I needed to hear and it made all the difference in my business.
I literally am not here without all of these people, and I try my best to pay that forward by helping other budding entrepreneurs who have a dream.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The main way that our society and community at large can help with issues of sustainability and consumer products, is by expanding recycling and compost programs. Even in California, where we are very proactive about recycling, the recycling programs only handle certain materials and certain quantities of those materials. For example, sometimes yogurt cups are not actually recycled because they are too small, and recycling facilities prefer large items like milk jugs. So the smaller bottles and products that we put in our blue bins at home, often end up in landfills anyways. We need to fix that. We also need to have a public compost program that allows residents to put their food waste in a bin where that can be processed in a publicly-funded facility. I’m a huge advocate of composting at home, which reduces my garbage waste by at least 50%.
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?
In the consumer products space there are a lot of ways that you can be more sustainable and still turn a profit. We are lucky that technologies in sustainable packaging and goods have increased significantly in the last 10 years, which means these products are getting more affordable. You may need to do more networking and research to find the companies that make these products, but we found several and we can still turn a profit.
In addition, marketing will be really important. NYU did a five-year study between 2015 and 2020 on consumer products, that showed that products that were marketed as a sustainable group 7.1 times faster than their counterparts that weren’t marketed this way. An example for us is that we try to reduce our product packaging and weights as much as possible, but some things just simply cannot be reduced. For those things, we partner and invest in a nonprofit called the Carbon Fund, and we invest in reforestation projects and renewable energy projects with them. This is important to us to help offset some of the car that is produced simply by running a business.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Here are the things that no one told me before starting a business:
- Not everyone’s going to be happy for you. I found that some of my family and friends simply weren’t happy for me when I started my business. I think initially they thought I was just working on a cute little project, but when I gained more momentum, I found that they’re passive aggressive comments really were targeted at cutting me down instead of lifting me up. I don’t know if I will ever get over this.
- Things will take way longer than you expect. So plan for that. We started with our hero product, the toothpaste in July of 2020, and after a lot of back and forth we finally wrapped up product development in February of 2021, and it still took 12 weeks to produce the products and receive them at our warehouse. I never thought that it would take that long!
- Your personal characteristics, whether good or bad, will be amplified when you start a business. One of my weaknesses is being impatient, and that has certainly been amplified. On the bright side, good attributes come out in full force too, like my ability to build relationships and have great communication skills has helped me pitch my business to complete strangers and gain powerful allies.
- Networking is the key to success. I have gotten most of my partnerships, vendors, suppliers, etc. through the people in my network. It is so true that business runs on relationships/networks and key relationships that I built very early on in my entrepreneurship journey have certainly paid dividends for me as I move forward. Because of this I’m very conscious about helping other people by extending my network to them. That’s the only way this entrepreneurship culture will continue to thrive, by helping others.
- You must take breaks to cultivate creativity, and in the case of business, strategy. In running a business we need to have a lot of things to do and a lot of hats to wear. But I have found that when I don’t save time in my week to think creatively, I end up waking up in the middle of the night because my brain is telling me that I need to focus on creativity. all of my best ideas have come in the middle of the night while my brain is racing, or while I’m driving, because I don’t have anything to distract me.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Ditch the “all or nothing” attitude towards sustainability. You just have to start anywhere, even if it is the small stuff. Many people tell me that sustainability feels overwhelming, and I agree. There’s so many things that you can do to tackle such a huge problem like climate change.
My best advice is to start small, and do little things around your life and your world because all of it helps. Here are some examples of what I around my house: we compost at home, I air dry my clothes after washing them instead of sticking them in the dryer, everyone in my family uses a reusable bottle every single day so we don’t waste water washing multiple cups, and we put solar panels in her house to be able to harness the energy of the sun to power our home. You don’t have to do huge things to help!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is, by Bruce Lee “Don’t pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one”. To me this is what life is about: doing hard things builds strength, endurance, and the courage to keep going. This has been very true in starting a business as well, which is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I never thought starting a business would be easy, and knowing that struggling and hardships is part of the journey has helped me get my mind right. I know that many people would have stopped long ago, but I keep on going, despite how hard it is!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would love to have some time with Serena Williams. I admire her strength and perseverance, and her work ethic. In fact when we were thinking about the personality of our brand, I thought about Serena as someone that would embody who we are. Someone who is inclusive, socially conscious, and just simply trying to do the right thing.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/belindaleelau/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!