Helping bamboo farmers and women in impoverished regions become self-reliant while eliminating plastic waste.
If Kathy Ku’s name is familiar to you, you might have heard about her previous social venture in Uganda, Spouts of Water. I interviewed Kathy in December 2016. Kathy and her co-founder John Kye left Spouts of Water, but it continues to thrive.
Around the same time that Kathy and John were in Uganda working on clean water, Dr. Noah Park was volunteering in low-income countries.
“One of our Korean co-founders visited our production site in Uganda seven years ago or so, but we had never met each other,” Kathy explains.
“He traveled to the less developed areas of developing countries and noted that a lot of bamboo was being grown in these areas and wanted to do something about it. He calculated by developing the bamboo industry in Vietnam, he could triple or quadruple the average yearly earnings in an area with 150,000 inhabitants. He’s also a dentist, so he naturally came upon bamboo toothbrushes.”
In the United States alone, over 1 billion plastic toothbrushes are thrown away each year. These toothbrushes are not recycled. They end up in the landfill or floating in the environment.
To deal with these two problems – plastic waste and helping poor bamboo farmers, Dr. Park launched his bamboo toothbrush company in Korea under the Dr. Noah brand. In 2020, Dr. Noah raised Series A capital to move into the US market. That is when Kathy Ku and John Kye joined the team.
About Kathy Ku
“I grew up in an immigrant family and community that always stressed this idea of giving back,” Kathy says. “My mom would tell me, ‘you should run an orphanage when you grow up.’ Now, I look back and think we definitely should have been worrying about our roof over our heads. But this idea of looking to do good and doing well always stuck with me.
“By the time I joined Juni Essentials, they were still trying to figure out the production process. We’re talking like 50 toothbrushes being made a day. I had a manufacturing background and helped ramp it up. We’re now making more than 50,000 toothbrushes a month. We’ll get to 100,000 soon.
“Not a lot of people know about bamboo toothbrushes, and of the people who’ve tried them, I think a lot of people have been turned off by them. They feel different from plastic toothbrushes. And I think this is where we come in.
“Our product is fundamentally made differently from other products out there. That’s why we chose to make it ourselves. Our surface is heat-treated using patented technology that provides this smooth surface - the toothbrushing experience is comparable to that of plastic toothbrushes, so why not switch?
“I think I generally have good intentions, but the execution has been difficult. For example, I want to be good to the environment, and my husband and I compost and try to use compostable Ziploc bags. But I still drive my high school car, a Cadillac, which probably contributes to 50% of California’s carbon emissions. I think bamboo toothbrushes make me happy because it’s an active decision I make every morning and evening when I brush my teeth.”
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