Upcycle Hawaii: Nav’s $10,000 Grant Winner

Upcycle Hawaii: Nav’s $10,000 Grant Winner

Upcycle Hawaii: Nav’s $10,000 Grant Winner

“As the ‘Lead Trashionista’, I love that I get to make a positive impact on my community through my small business. As a result of  my work at Upcycle Hawaii LLC, I’ve added jobs to my community, diverted landfill from local landfills, and educated students and clubs on the importance of a sustainable business,” said Mattie Mae Larson, founder and owner at Upcycle Hawaii LLC. “This grant money will be imperative to the Upcycle team’s development and growth over the next couple of months. It will allow us to focus more time on thorough training, invest in new tools and equipment, and lessen our stress surrounding our growing expenses this next quarter.”

Upcycle Hawaii LLC has been repurposing trash into useful items since January of 2016, but upcycling has been a lifelong passion for Mattie Mae Larson. As a child she’d visit what the locals called “Plastic Beach” where piles of plastic trash would collect with the surf and sand.

“Starting the company,” she says, “is a result of a combination of my passion for the environment, creating, and the fact that I have always wanted to own my own company. I had the proverbial lemonade stand and sold my hand wares as a young elementary schooler.”

She adds, “Looking back on my life, I guess I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Once she recognized that she could make quality products out of the trash she found in her backyard and on the beach (and with the encouragement of others in her community), she realized she could create a business and promote the idea of sustainability.

Starting a Business in the Middle of the Pacific

Larson acknowledges that starting a business on the ‘Big Island’ of Hawaii, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, makes for a very unique lifestyle, but spending a lot of time out in the environment throughout her life exposed her to the impacts of marine debris and the plastic pollution that degrades that lifestyle. 

“I’ve literally watched our coral reefs, beaches, and parks decline over my lifetime and I knew I could help creatively address some of those issues with waste management environmental conservation right where I live,” she says.

Upcycle Hawaii LLC is based out of Hilo, Hawaii and employs five people (including herself).

Turning Trash Into Treasure

Manufacturing beautiful and useful products while working exclusively with post-consumer, reused, and repurposed materials makes Upcycle Hawaii truly unique. “We literally take local trash and turn it into treasure,” she says.

Approaching 30,000 feet and 500 lbs of sheet plastics diverted from local landfills is no small task, but Mattie Mae Larson and her crew of “Trashionistas” are proving you can build a profitable business and help the environment at that same time.

Starting a Business in Hawaii

“Admittedly, Hawaii is one of the hardest and most expensive states in the country to create and run a small business,” says Larson. “For the first four years I literally used my own money and racked up the balances on my personal credit cards to get things off the ground and keep going.”

Fortunately, thanks to some exposure in a local pitch competition, she was able to secure a $10,000 zero-interest loan from microlender Kiva, which was supported by a local non-profit. Since that time, she’s been able to secure additional funding and has been able to pay off all her personal debt associated with starting the business.

Like many of her small business peers, she’s turned to business loans when needed and recently secured a business line of credit, with the help of another non-profit. She attributes her success in securing financing to participation in the pitch competition where the Upcycle story resonated with the group.

The Future of Upcycle Hawaii

Currently experiencing rapid growth, Upcycle Hawaii will use the Nav grant to help train new employees and invest in new tools and equipment to support two recent hires. Larson feels the additional capital will help put her growing business in a “comfortable” financial position and allow her to focus on growth knowing she has some extra cash flow.

Current plans are to scale production of their current product offering to meet demand. Over the next 18 months, they’ll be moving into a larger facility and plan to invest in equipment to process harder plastics.

“The Nav Grant does a lot to validate years of late nights and hard work,” she says. “As any entrepreneur knows, the road to starting a business is long, tiring, and often very lonely. Winning this grant prize means that our hard work is paying off and fuels our fire to keep it up and make everyone proud.”

All of us at Nav are sure proud of what she’s doing and honored to contribute to Upcycle Hawaii’s mission.

Advice for Other Entrepreneurs

When asked if she had any advice for others with an entrepreneurial inclination, “Start,” she said. “I didn’t think I could do it at first, and gave myself every excuse in the world. There is always a reason not to do something—just like there is always a reason TO DO something. If I could show you my first craft fair setup, I would literally be embarrassed by it. But, I’m really happy now with where it’s taken me.”

She also recommends reaching out to your local support system. “I would NOT be where I am without the support of my local SBDC and business community,” she says. “The SBDC forced me to look at my business as, well, a business. They have provided me with tools to succeed and asked the hard hard questions when they needed to be asked.”

In fact, it was her local SBDC advisor who introduced her to Nav and the Nav Grant. She’s since become a follower of the Nav Blog and makes sure to regularly visit to stay up to date for new information and tips.

She also believes her customers are a great source of feedback on products and designs.

This article was originally written on April 29, 2021.

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