In this Q&A, Fisher interviews Pitch Day participant, Christina Ramirez, CEO and Founder of PLUS ULTRA, to discuss her business journey, including why your choice of toothbrush matters more to the earth than you think.
Kelly Fisher: Tell me about Plus Ultra— what inspired you to start this business?
Christina Ramirez: My vision for the company started when I was a Global Studies major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I came up with the idea for a bamboo toothbrush as part of an assignment, but it wasn’t until years later while looking over distribution data for toothbrushes that I decided to turn my project into a real business.
From my research, I learned that over 200 million toothbrushes were being bought each year in the United States alone! The image of all those plastic toothbrushes piling up across the planet set me in motion to reduce plastic waste by redefining the conventional image of a toothbrush. This was the beginning of what would eventually become PLUS ULTRA.
KF: Your brand is committed to spreading awareness of plastic pollution and educating consumers about their purchasing decisions. What does sustainability mean to you and how is this woven into your business plan?
CR: As the CEO of an eco-conscious brand, sustainability means taking an abundant natural resource, making a product with it that is closest to its natural form. Then at the end of the product's lifecycle, it can be put right back into the earth without compromising an eco-system. Whether in their backyards, in a compost bin, or compost facility, our toothbrushes are 100 per cent biodegradable.
KF: Your products are on shelves at major retailers like Whole Foods, Amazon and Thrive Market. What can your experience teach other entrepneurs about scaling a business?
CR: Scaling a business takes a tremendous amount of optimism, passion and persistence. But having a great product that people love makes it all worth it! If you have money, that makes scaling more enjoyable and easier to manage. Otherwise, the growing pains can be difficult to manage.
My advice to new founders would be to find investors who believe in you and the product you’re selling.
KF: Why is early stage investment so important?
CR: Starting a brand that’s wholesale focused is cash intensive. In order to grow at the retail level, you have to comply and agree to certain retailer terms. For example, many retailers ask for a "free-fill" which is a free case of product per SKU per store. These costs can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free product, which means needing a cash cushion and extra product on hand-which is nearly impossible when you are at a young stage. Having early stage investments is critical to successful scaling, because if you can't produce these "free-fills", then you won't be able to win the follow-up large purchase orders.
KF: According to research from HSBC Private Banking’s ‘She’s the Business’ report, almost half (46 per cent) of female entrepreneurs in the U.S. experience gender bias when seeking investment. In your opinion, what drives this and what can we do as an industry— and as women— to improve these numbers?
CR: Business and banking are historically male dominated industries and those old sentiments and prejudices have carried through and sadly still exist today. From new mothers experiencing comments on their ability to perform in the workplace when they return from maternity leave, to the level of trust that men have with investing in young, capable female founders...it's extremely frustrating and disheartening.
I think we should provide incentives to VCs and individuals that invest in women-owned businesses. We have tax incentives for "opportunity zones", why not create an incentive to help support businesses founded by females? Even if this is not something we can do on a national level, private banks can set aside funds for women-owned businesses. Whether providing tax incentives or better interest rates to women-owned businesses, I think it would open up the VC world to be more welcoming to female founders.
KF: Tell me about your experience participating in the HSBC X AllBright Pitch Day?
CR: The women of AllBright and HSBC lift me up, and fill my soul! We're all there to help each other grow and win. That's the spirit and community I want to be part of as I grow PLUS ULTRA.
KF: What’s next for Plus Ultra? Where do you see your business in five years?
CR: I am so excited for the future of PLUS ULTRA! We're launching our eco-friendly electric toothbrush heads soon, and will continue to create products that are plastic-free, eco-friendly and utilitarian. Beginning with oral care and personal care, and then expanding beyond.
We're in talks with some mass retailers, so my goal is to make PLUS ULTRA's bamboo and plastic-free products available everywhere that Americans shop for their everyday needs.