This story is part of a series featuring each of the fourteen startups in the CYstarters 2021 summer cohort. Each team has the opportunity to focus on their startup or business idea while receiving $6,500 or up to $13,000, along with mentorship, accountability, and educational sessions on how to build a business.
By Samantha Dilocker, ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship
Founded by Iowa State University grads, Cole Schumacher and Isaac Meyerholz, Renew Bamboo is helping to promote a more sustainable lifestyle while empowering women entrepreneurs in India by providing handcrafted bamboo products to an international market.
Education: Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Master of Business Administration from Iowa State University
Passionate about: Helping others, family, and faith
Most recently I: finished two degrees in 4 years
Education: Bachelors of Science in Supply Chain Management and Business Analytics from Iowa State University
Passionate about: Conscious capitalism, sustainable business practices, friends, family & faith
Most recently I: started the second half of my co-op with Collins Aerospace
Currently working on: Renew Bamboo
When did you start working on Renew Bamboo?
Isaac: Over winter break, I met a friend helping export bamboo products out of India. We were like, “Wow, we should totally work with them and start a new sustainable business that helps people in India; we can open up a broader market for them.”
Cole: In January or February, we started our LLC in Iowa, and we were still figuring out what we want to order, placing the order, and then all the production and shipping and stuff like that. It took a lot longer than expected because India had such a huge spike in COVID, so that has been kind of like crazy, a little scary, but we just got our first shipment in to our apartment last Friday. We’re looking to start selling this week.
Have you always seen yourself starting something?
Cole: I’ve always enjoyed creating things. Even in high school, I was a bit engineering-minded and wanted to build things. In high school, I got some friends together after one of our physics classes, and we literally bought supplies, and then we built our solar panels in my garage. Isaac and I were roommates freshman year of college. We met a few other guys, and we all had different degrees that we were going for. I was like, “Dude, how awesome would it be if all of us started a business together after we graduated, just got together and see what we could do.” It’s just Isaac and me right now, but starting something has been a thing that I’ve been thinking about for a while.
Isaac: I used to sell carrot cake at the farmer’s market. That was the beginning of my entrepreneurship journey!
Why bamboo straws?
Cole: Starting with straws was recommended to us by Kendall, our associate in India. It seemed like there was a market for that; the demand for reusable straws, in general, seems to be growing, and it’s a market that is somewhat easy to enter.
Isaac: For now, we’re just doing straws, but in the future, we hope to open up to utensils, bamboo cups, and even some furniture, but right now, we’re strictly just bamboo straws.
How have you grown since you started?
Isaac: I think we’ve grown a lot in our critical thinking and self-evaluation skills. Since beginning CYstarters, I think we realized previously we had the most negative mindset or were thinking of the worst-case scenarios for our business. A lot of people see what we have and are super excited and impressed at how far along we are, so I think balancing realism with positivity has been something we’ve been growing in.
Cole: There have been multiple times where something has happened with our business, and we’re like, “Dang, we’re going to have to give up,” and then we talk to other people about it, and they’re like, “This is so awesome!” They’re excited about it, they want to invest in it, they want to be part of it, and so we’re like, “Oh, okay, we’re doing better than we think!”
What future milestones would you like to hit?
Cole: One of our goals for this week is to get the website up and running to the point where people can make purchases through that. We want to secure partnerships with different organizations in Ames or India because we want to promote the people there.
Isaac: Next month will probably be our first sale, and then sometime after that will be our first donation back to an organization helping underserved people in India. That’s probably one of the most satisfying moments when starting a small business.
What is your biggest challenge you face each day?
Isaac: One challenge would be the work/life balance. Because we are roommates as well as business partners, we’re together basically all the time. It’s hard to know when we should stop working and talking about business and fun ideas we come up with because it’s just 24/7. If anything pops into our heads, we’re bouncing ideas off each other, which is probably one of the greatest blessings of being able to work together, but it also can be a detriment.
Cole: Something that even came up today that we were thinking about, obviously we are two white men from America who have a lot of inherent privilege just from the position we’re in, and one of the main goals of our company is to promote Indian women and the people who are living there and give money to people who need it a lot more than we do. One of the things we want to do is do some donating, like a percentage of profits to nonprofit organizations in India, helping people living in poverty because there are so many people who need help there. We want to make it clear that it’s not about us; it’s about the people we’re trying to help. Taking the time to care about the people we’re working with and learning about what they struggle with to best support them has been a challenge and will continue to be a challenge moving forward.
How has entrepreneurship at Iowa State impacted you?
Cole: Iowa State has given us the opportunity to do anything we could dream of. I had this idea of like, “I want to start a business with my friends and do something!” and then through the pitch competitions and now through CYstarters, and my time here, Iowa State has just promoted me, both of us, in being able to actually make something happen. They’ve given us the capital, some of the vision, training, and teaching that we needed. There are so many people that just genuinely care about us and want to help. The people you meet at the Pappajohn Center especially are phenomenal. When I first met Judi, she was like, “Hey, seriously, just call, talk to me any time. I want to help you.” The first time we met Tom, he gave us like a plane ticket with his name on it and was like, “Call me, I wanna help guys, I wanna be a part of this.” The people here especially, and just the University, in general, have made it so accessible for us to explore what entrepreneurship looks like.
Isaac: Three months ago, we were in the pitch competition pitching our business as a “business idea.” By the end of the competition, they had moved us into the “existing business” category. They helped us out financially and with so many connections and ideas, so Iowa State Entrepreneurship has been hands-down amazing in making something that seems like a really cool idea that could be eco-friendly and help people worldwide into incredible reality, so we’re very thankful.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student?
Isaac: Go to Iowa State!
Cole: It seems like a generic thing to say but obviously, try hard on your schoolwork and everything, but also try to focus as much as you can on making connections. Get into a club, or if there isn’t a club that excites you, go and start one yourself. Find groups of people that are going to encourage you and give you the energy and resources that you need to be able to live your best life.
Where are you headed? And how would you invite others to join you?
Cole: We are headed towards making the world a better place. We invite people to join by either joining in on our company and our vision of what we’re going for or going and finding a need somewhere else and starting your own company or starting your own way of looking to solve that problem. When we visited India, we saw this huge problem, and we’re like, “How can we do anything to help with this?” but now, we’re starting to make an impact and see our vision of how we can actually change the world, that we can actually help people. We would invite people to join in with us or, you know, catch your own vision and do something with your life as well.
Isaac: If they want, they can buy a pack of straws! Great for the world, great for the environment, great for people in India and here in America.
Cole: We’re saving the world one straw at a time!