Walk into any supermarket these days, and you’ll have no shortage of options. From exotic ingredients to a full range of fruit and vegetables all year round, the modern shopper is spoiled for choice. There is one area, however, where consumers often have little choice—avoiding plastic.
Sarah Paiji (MBA 2012) saw this crisis that supermarkets facilitate. She became more aware in particular of the microplastics that were contaminating water, after the birth of her son.
“While I could have some impact as an individual, I realized I could have a much bigger impact by exploring ways to give consumers more choice to consume in less wasteful ways,” Sarah remembers.
Blueland, her joint venture with Harvard MBA graduates John Mascari (MBA 2012) and Gina Pak (MBA 2015), was born—a singular mission to eliminate plastic packaging from cleaning products on the supermarket shelf.
First steps into entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship is now one of the top five highest motivations for MBA applicants, with one in five stating that they were considering an MBA in order to set up their own business.
Sarah and John both discovered a taste for entrepreneurship when their paths crossed at Harvard Business School (HBS) in 2010.
As section mates, seeing each other in class every day, they bonded instantly through this shared ambition.
“Harvard was where I really first discovered entrepreneurship as an option,” reveals Sarah, a former McKinsey consultant.
“I came to appreciate that we are living in a time and a place where we can jump in and create something from nothing.”
Gina Pak, another HBS alum and one of Blueland’s founding members, had a similar entrepreneurial spark at business school.
“I saw so many examples of women, of a similar age and experience, who launched successful startups,” Gina enthuses, “It was very inspiring and empowering.”
Gina went straight into a fashion startup after HBS, before joining the Blueland team in September 2018.
A startup with an impact
Much like Gina, Blueland also isn’t Sarah and John’s first foray into startups.
Sarah launched Snapette, a mobile shopping app that quickly accumulated one-and-a-half million users; John founded Bundle Organics, a juice company for prenatal mothers.
They stayed close this whole time—Sarah was on the board for John’s company—bouncing ideas off each other.
Eventually, their ideas and values aligned—and soon they became co-founders.
“Building a company is a huge commitment, so we had to believe in the impact and the mission in order to dedicate our lives to it,” John stresses.
“We wanted to do something more meaningful, to have a positive impact on the world around us,” Sarah adds.
Having launched in April this year, on Earth Day, Blueland’s environmental mission is very clear.
No more disposable plastic spray bottles. The company distributes cleaning product tablets to be added to water in the permanent cleaning containers that Blueland also provides.
“We’re not only changing the way consumers consume, but also hopefully setting a new standard for businesses and the way they produce products going forward.”
They hold fast to their values from HBS—that business can’t just be profit motivated, it should have impact.
When it comes to strategy, the words ‘triple bottom line’ don’t even come up.
“Everything we do is good for the consumer, good for the company, and good for the planet,” John underlines.
The recipe for startup success
Why certain startups hit the big time, and why the majority fail, is a billion dollar question. There’s no sure formula, but there is clearly a wrong way of doing things.
“The classic mistake entrepreneurs make is diving in too fast,” advises professor Tom Eisenmann, co-chair of the HBS Rock Center for Entrepreneurship.
“They have a vision for a solution, and they just start building.”
Sarah and John were sure to match their ambition with the solid business foundations, as well as practice in making decisions, that they got from Harvard Business School.
“You have to make tough decisions with pretty limited information, but still arrive at a recommendation with your class,” John remembers.
“Every day we have to make big decision, and you don’t always have a ton of time or data, but that doesn't make the decisions less important.”
But it was in fact the classroom environment in their section which was perhaps Sarah and John’s biggest takeaway.
“I took away the value of creating a safe space for people to make suggestions and recommendations. At Blueland we want to build a culture where everyone is contributing in a meaningful way—that means taking risks with ideas and with what you are sharing with the team.”