Burning Man. Coachella. Lightning in a Bottle.
My love for the shared sense of community, freedom of thought, and the general nonexistence of judgment at these festivals runs as deep as the ocean in me.
So, how does a festival-loving mermaid end up entangled in the red tape of a government institution? And what takeaways from that path ultimately led to running a multi-million dollar business without crushing the party girl in me?
Well, despite my lifelong reluctance to conform to the status quo, upon setting out after college to find employment, I fell directly into society's sticky net by taking a position in waste management at Los Alamos National Labs. Higher degree, check. Gainful employment, check. Total lack of freedom to express my personal creativity, double-check.
Instead of spending my days by the ocean de-trashing the beaches and bettering the environment, I found myself up to my eyeballs in something (in many ways) equally as off-putting: government-issued "trash." I was completely adrift. To put it bluntly, it sucked. But thankfully I was able to tread water and endure it long enough to gain some perspective that would ultimately help shape my personal and professional belief system to this day.
The lab was systematic and rigid. Everyone implicitly understood that they existed to fill a slot in the deep-seated and "time-honored" hierarchy, and no one dared step out of line. But constrained daily to crossing the i's and dotting the obligatory t's, ensuring that signatures were strictly executed in the proper order of seniority, I began to feel horribly claustrophobic. It became clear to me that I needed a change, and fast. Enter the festival world.
Burning Man could not have been more starkly contrasted to the lab if it tried. It was an experience grounded in the authentic expression of self through the creation of art, music, food, and dance. The magic of the community coming together to immerse itself in this environment allowed all of the walls that we fortify ourselves with to fall away. It was actually shocking to me at first to see how incredibly talented we are as humans; and at Burning Man, the full extent of this human capability was exposed for all to see. For me, that was it. I promptly quit the lab, packed my skis, and headed to Whistler, intent on utilizing the crisp air and fresh powder to clear my head and allow me to consider my next step.
But best-laid plans often have a way of going sideways, which is precisely what happened upon my arrival to my mountainous escape. I found myself immediately entrenched in the development and launch of a new company — FinalStraw, the world's first reusable, collapsible, "totally badass" straw. I was completely unprepared for its instant success. And in April of 2018, when the product's campaign went viral, my life changed forever. I was the CEO and Founder of what would become a virtual juggernaut. And this was just the start.
The purpose of the product was clear. The mantra and mission statement behind it, a no-brainer. It was everything I had always been about.
But establishing and running the business side of things quickly brought back the memories of a lab and its inherent tedium. And that was not a trap I wished to entangle myself in again. So with the festival-inspired perspective fresh in my mind, and the cold, Canadian air filling my lungs, I endeavored to discover a way to infuse my deep-seated belief system into both the creation of the company as well as the development of its culture and team.
As for the core principles of operation, I began closely contemplating what I'd learned at the lab and comparing it with the philosophy from "the burn." In a sense, it was a virtual synthesis of opposing theories.
In the desert, there was a heavy emphasis on freedom of expression, a need for self-reliance, and a tremendous amount of mutual respect for one another. Whereas the lab — as dry and bureaucratic as it was — relied on a system of coordinated functions and a hierarchy that reliably worked in concert with each member of the team. As "lifeless" as it was, it produced results, and undeniably predictable ones at that.
And so it began: a systematic establishment of the business model and a scientific approach to inner workings and infrastructure. While at the same time, and in direct contrast to the lab, a company culture that emphasized creativity, radical inclusion, autonomy, mutual respect, self-care, and civic responsibility — all mantras that had become deeply ingrained into my daily life and work. And all of this, of course, approached with a modern-day mentality that would support the free-spirited, globetrotting girl in me.
As one who innately seeks alternatives to the norm in everyday life, it was a natural progression for me to build a team that values imagination and independent thought, where every voice of every individual on the team is given equal consideration, and where a bit of wit, a hint of humor and sass is not only welcomed but encouraged as we address our deadly-serious mission to reverse the damage to mother Earth.
But perhaps the most important realization from my years attending festivals like Burning Man is the idea that we have to be present and appreciative of all that we have been given to the fullest. Because as cliché as it may sound, the reality is that it just may not be there one day. And that's something for all of us to consider.
WRITTEN BYEmma Rose Cohen