Presdient Andy Hamilton, Antonio DiMeglio, and Echo Chen

Founder and CEO Antonio Di Meglio (Stern ’20) and Co-founder and Creative Director Echo Chen (Gallatin ’20) are current NYU undergrads who established SeaStraws in 2018 with Sophie Kennedy (CAS ’19) and several other NYU students.

SeaStraws provides nationwide distributors and individual restaurants with disposable single-use products that minimize environmental impact. The company’s mission is to transform hospitality through sustainable alternatives.

In September 2018, the University announced several sustainability initiatives, including its commitment to eliminate plastic straws in the dining halls—resulting in 1,140,000 fewer plastic straws in the waste stream annually. The SeaStraws team contacted the Office of Student Affairs to offer their products to NYU's dining services, and one month later, SeaStraws became the official straws supplier for all of NYU’s dining halls. The business relationship continues to this day, and to date, SeaStraws has sold over 5.6 million paper straws. 

Full Transcript

[00:00:14] Announcer From New York University. You're listening to conversations hosted by President Andy Hamilton. In each episode, Andy talks insight, inquiry, and imagination with a leading mind from the NYU community.

[00:00:33] Andy Hamilton: Hello, everyone. Today's podcast is going to be an NYU story about sustainability, innovation, and entrepreneurship. SeaStraws was founded in 2018 by NYU students. And just to set the stage see, SeaStraws provides nationwide distributors and individual restaurants with disposable use paper products that minimize environmental impact—an amazing and important goal. And the company's mission, and we hope it very much succeeds in that mission, is to transform hospitality through sustainable alternatives. We're joined today by the founder and CEO of SeaStraws, Antonio Di Meglio, who is a student at Stern graduating in 2020, next year. We're also joined by co-founder and creative director Echo Chen, who's a student at Gallatin and will be graduating also in May of 2020. Also, other undergraduates, including Sophie Kennedy from the College of Arts and Science and also seven other NYU students, were all part of this creation of the company. Now, this is such an exciting project that’s such an exciting initiative. I want to get the conversation going by, Antonio and Echo, asking you—where did this idea come from?

[00:02:09] Antonio Di Meglio: Well, this idea, its origins are an NYU centric story. Without New York University there is absolutely no way that SeaStraws exists. But let's start the day that the ideation happened. So my background is a bit in hospitality and food service and I used to grow up going to the Jersey Shore, so I was aware of these issues. But one day, you know, in the spring of 2018 or rather the winter, I actually used to play basketball at the Palladium gym with my friend Kevin. And we would stay until it closed. It would be a great way to distress. I didn't run a startup at the time, so I had more time. But we would go and play basketball to close at eleven thirty. And the only place that would be open for us to actually get a snack for a nice midnight snack where we could recap our day, think about our studies and prepare ourselves from the next day, was actually the McDonald's on Union Square. And when we would go there we would actually get a 99 cent drink called the mango pineapple smoothie. We actually used to call it the Aruba because it was a tropical drink and made us feel like we were getting away for 30 minutes we would have it and chat at the McDonald's. But when you got the smoothie, it would come in a plastic cup with the plastic lid and a plastic straw and there would even be a napkin and a paper bag. And it was literally 99 cents. And I looked at my friend one day and I just said, dude, someone is going to change this. Now, Kevin was actually a visiting student from Duke. So he wasn't able to be a part of the full origin story of SeaStraws. But when I came into then starting the company afterwards, I gathered the people that had known the best, which were my peers in my classes. So people like Echo, Sophie Kennedy, Nisarg Patel, I had roomed with three people in Florence when I was studying abroad that actually ended up being some of the founding members of the SeaStraw's team. And although the core members are only four people to this day, at least between 10 and 15 people have been working on SeaStraws since the inception. So it's an NYU story from start to finish.

[00:03:59] President Hamilton: So Antonio, you had that pivotal moment, that idea in McDonald's seeing the trash, the plastic filled trash. But that's simply an idea to go from that then to the creation of a product of compostable recyclable straws. And and more recently, utensils will come onto that in a second. How? That's a very large step. What were the key decision points along that way?

[00:04:30] Antonio Di Meglio: Well, the first thing I did when I wanted to turn this into a full-on business beyond just an idea was I showed the products to Echo. So Echo and I were working at the time at a company called Lux Beverage. It was a coffee company based in Brooklyn. And we were meeting one day at a coworking space.

[00:04:47] President Hamilton: Was that a summer, that was summer work in Lux beverage?

[00:04:52] Antonio Di Meglio: Yes. Yes. Summer work and a little bit into that semester as well. But Echo and I had worked together previously and I had showed her these products and I said, hey, Echo, what do you think about these straws? And then Echo can tell the story.

[00:05:05] Echo Chen: Yeah. So we looked at the straws, he presented the idea for sustainable straws to me, and I looked at the straws and was like: Well, if it's gonna be sustainable for the Earth, it also has to be ethical in the manufacturing process. So that's how we came to have our paper straws manufactured completely in the US, because that was something that was important to me and I thought it was important to our mission as well. And then we also decided that we wanted. There's a lot of paper straws that come in different colors and a lot of different patterns that usually see and like target and stuff. But we decided we want to start off with just a few different colors, Black Way and craft at that time, because we really wanted a sustainable straws to be more than just a novelty product to be to become like a normalized part of the food service industry.

[00:05:55] President Hamilton: But you Echo, you brought your artistic background to the to the marketing, to the media, even to the color and the shape of the of the straws themselves. That's an aesthetic that I'm sure is very well considered, very much thought about. Tell me how that process worked in your mind and how you also got the others in the team to buy in to that aesthetic.

[00:06:22] Echo Chen: Yeah. So our brand is quite ocean themed, obviously. Our name is SeaStraws.

[00:06:31] President Hamilton: Tell our listeners what the sea stands for. S-E-A. What does it stand for?

[00:06:38] Echo Chen: So the sea in sea show stands for sustainability, education and advocacy. So those are three of the core pillars of our business. And they are the three very special values to our hearts and sea…

[00:06:54] President Hamilton: But it gives you a nice ocean feel.

[00:06:56] Echo Chen: It also gives you nice thought of the ocean which we thought was important.

[00:07:00] President Hamilton: And also keeping plastic out of the ocean.

[00:07:03] Echo Chen: Yes. So that was one of the core principles of our name and our brand is to remind people of the ocean and the impact that they're making and what they're working to save when they do choose to use a sustainable Seastraws Products, which is kind of the story behind our dolphin, why our colors is blue, why our website has a lot of elements reminding people of the beach at the shore of marine wildlife. Also our four founding members, we all have a special connection to the beach as well. Antonio and I, like both, grew up going to the Jersey Shore. Sophie lived on a she went to an island school, and Nisarg is from Long Island as well.

[00:07:47] President Hamilton: That aesthetic reminding us all that when we are eating and if that eating involves plastic, that there is a an impact on the ocean, potential impact on the ocean. It is a clever part of that design that you've come up with.

[00:08:03] Antonio Di Meglio: Yeah. I mean, it's a huge issue, you know. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than there are fish. That's I mean, that's a crazy statistic. You know, and you know, when things like that are about to happen, you know, we are making all these conscious branding choices to make people aware of the choices that they make every single day, because every day people eat food. And in New York City, for better or for worse, almost everybody eats takeout food every single day. So these disposable products are used by hundreds or billions of people around the world every single day. And we're trying to impact them by giving life to products that are typically thrown in the trash. You know, we're not trying to do what people typically do. You know, our colors aren't green. It's blue. Our logo Isn't that turtle like the turtle video, for example. We don't want to just attach ourselves to one video. it's the dolphin. We're symbolizing life in a way that like hasn't been symbolized before. And we really believe that throughout our brand.

[00:08:56] President Hamilton: And not to take the the ocean metaphor too far. But, you know, there's there's a wave of interest, a huge wave. And your timing seems to be really very, very good indeed to ride that wave and to see that the focus of all of the world on plastic in the ocean.

[00:09:17] Antonio Di Meglio: Yeah. And we were in this whole straw thing before it was cool, you know, for lack of a better way of saying that. I mean, it was before Starbucks made the announcement, before all of the corporate commitments came. And that's actually why our business took off as we were three to four months before You know, all of that craziness happened in the summer of 2018.

[00:09:34] President Hamilton: Now, you began the company focusing on creating compostable and recyclable straws for drinks, but now you're you're moving to the next stage and you're beginning to develop compostable eating utensils as knives and forks and spoons, as well as something that many, many people use, particularly in the summer, which is ice cream spoons. And tell me before we go into the detail As I'm fascinated to find out about the building of the company, tell me what gave you the confidence.

[00:10:16] Antonio Di Meglio: So in terms of the utensils, President Hamilton, there is a huge issue in our industry of greenwashing. Greenwashing is when products are marketed as green or eco friendly, but in reality they actually aren't. So there is one material called PLA. It is formed through corn starch or sugar cane. And although it is compostable in, you know, industrial facilities, it is not naturally biodegradable. Less than 1 percent of cities around the country actually have access to industrial compost. But there are these big brands such as eco products, world centric that are marketing this PLA straws and other sustainable products like cutlery as if they are completely biodegradable. And this is a huge problem. So when we came together and Sophie and I sat down one day and we said, okay, we're ready to make the switch. We had the distribution, we have the clients. So we'll be ready for this. What products do we want? It was very, very core decision to our values of the company from the very beginning that we were not going to put PLA products within our product catalog and we were not going to use our science and research and development to develop PLA products. So we chose Birchwood as material for us to use for the cutlery and everything like that. And we knew that because the market of eco friendly cutlery was saturated with this PLA products so far, if we were to come in and educate the consumers, they would say, OK, I want to make the actually sustainable switch to the backyard. Compostable item. And that's what gave us the confidence.

[00:11:42] President Hamilton: And Echo, You've talked very much about the ethical sourcing of materials. tell us about Birchwood and where it's grown and the nature of the of the origin of that wood and its own sustainability in its production.

[00:11:59] Echo Chen: So Birchwood are our Birchwood that our color is made of is made from renewable forestry, which means that it's sustainably and responsibly logged so that you're not causing massive deforestation and they're planting back trees to replace the trees that they're cutting down to make the cutlery, which obviously gives back to the earth. And then virtually it in particular is really durable and it grows very fast and actually uses less water, I think, than the typical wood that we use, which makes it sustainable in that way. So that's why we chose birch wood.

[00:12:37] President Hamilton: And in terms of design, are you able, you know, the utensils, cutlery has a particular function, and that's to both poke with a fork, cut with a knife, and obviously getting an edge on a knife that is usable and will allow you to cut a reasonably firm piece of food. Whatever vegetable or even meat. You can you can do that without a trace.

[00:13:02] Echo Chen: I would say it's much stronger than plastic, like the cutting ability on our Birchwood knife is actually excellent.

[00:13:07] President Hamilton: I'd like to come back to this greenwashing point that you spoke about a second ago. You suggested in your comment about PLA that really there should be there should be greater regulation. You know, the medical profession cannot claim medical properties for for drugs or for devices without evidence and without approval. It sounds like we should be pushing for policy changes and law changes that require eco claims of compostability, degradation in a similar way.

[00:13:45] Antonio Di Meglio: Absolutely. And this is what we're going to continue to push for in terms of, you know, New York City and New Jersey, for example, which hasn't banned any single use plastics so far besides a plastic bag ban that's going to come into effect. But in terms of our products, like the cutlery or, you know, more of those single use items in our bags, they haven't been banned yet. And you know, what's coming up for us at this point is focusing really on the educational aspect and working with even the non-profits to make sure that the government officials and the little companies that are the small restaurants actually, you know, are  aware of these issues. But a cool thing about us is that we're on the ground. Right. So we're kind of like the voice of the little guy, especially in New York City. You know, for example, I visited one of our clients is orchard grocer. They're a small vegan cafe on the Lower East Side. And, you know, I visited them once and they said, hey, Antonio, you know, we had bio plastics, at first, and our industrial composter was not picking them up because they took too long to biodegrade. And now something like that from a small cafe owner on the Lower East Side is not going to be taken to the city governments in any way. And it kind of revolves around a sustainable business to kind of let those voices be heard. And that's what we feel like our role is moving forward.

[00:15:07] President Hamilton: Let's talk about building the company because obviously, again, an idea, but startups need money and in order to turn that to scale and then a product that can be that can be marketed and sold. So talk to us about that stage in the development of SeaStraws financing. Where did that financing come from? How did you make the pitch? We've all seen Shark Tank. How did you make that? Was it just like that? How did you make the pitch to get that early financing that allowed you to begin to grow the company?

[00:15:45] Antonio Di Meglio: Well, the absolute first financing that SeaStraws was ever received was actually the stern social impact stipend. And it was only a couple thousand dollars, wasn't anything too crazy. But when we first started off the company, it was it was definitely helpful in getting us off the ground.

[00:15:57] President Hamilton: Every journey starts for the single step, and so that's an important point.

[00:16:00] Antonio Di Meglio: Yeah, it really does. And, you know, we're able to you know, we did pretty well that first summer in terms of growing ourselves and being able to grow our business. But like any growing startup, you have to make investments in long term things. And we realized that we needed financing. And my other co-founder, Nisarg and I actually did a pitch, a Stern Club event. The club was, It was a social impact oriented club in Stern. And we pitched to them and somebody in the audience actually said, hey, I'm interning for this VC they're called Quake Capital. They're running a college student program. The pitch is next week, we would love to have you guys on board. And it was a nationwide competition basically to become a part of their accelerator program. We did our first pitch with them online. It was us and other teams all doing online video pitches. It was Halloween night. So, you know, your junior year of college, most people are doing other things on Halloween night. But that's SeaStraws. That's what we were doing along with nine other really good teams of college student startups around the country. And we ended up being, you know, making it to the final round after that. And we ended up securing their investments and a place and their accelerator program and starting from January of this past year. So it's been almost a full year since we got our first investment commitment. And the company has been going very strong since then. But, you know, it's always baby steps for us because we're not selling our business on a product. We're selling it on the mission. We sincerely and I was saying this to Echo the other day, if we don't do this, I sincerely am not sure who is going to bring these products to the masses. And that's the story that we tell investors. Of course, it had something to do with, you know, having good pitch. And we ended up winning the 300 K challenge as well. And, you know, that was, you know, a 50 K grant, which is very helpful. If there are any entrepreneurs listening that are NYU related and alumni or current student, you should totally do the 300 K challenge. It is super helpful. Would have been incredibly helpful for us even if we did not win. And you know, it was a really good opportunity for us to continue moving forward.

[00:17:56] President Hamilton: So I think that point you make it's such an important one. The purpose of those challenges, I always make the comparison whenever a student or a faculty member writes a research proposal to a federal agency, even if you don't get the funding first time you learn so much, you focus your ideas. You develop experience of how to pitch the product so that the next time you're more likely to be successful. So talk now about the next step, you you're in the early stages. It's a very exciting time in the life of SeaStraws, you’re supplying small cafes in the Lower East Side, you know? Have you got your sights on McDonald's? Are you beginning to explore that next dramatic step in scale up of the concept?

[00:18:50] Antonio Di Meglio: Yes. So that is the next step for. So our current target market. You know, the next step is universities and branded chains. So we're lucky enough to have been onboard with two brand chains very recently. One is a decent sized one.

[00:19:05] President Hamilton: Can you say what they are.

[00:19:06] Antonio Di Meglio: Yes, I mean, one is, you know, a small New York City based barbecue chain called Mighty Quinn’s. We are also onboarded with Earth Bar, which is a 50-plus location juice bar chain in California. And, you know, those were two brands that chose us.

[00:19:19] President Hamilton: You know, let's give them free publicity.

[00:19:23] Antonio Di Meglio: They would love that. They chose us because of our sustainable value proposition and because of our brand value, you know, a dream statistic that I have for our business that we're going to I know we are going to be able to present to a Burger King or McDonald's, one day is that is that having SeaStraws products actually results in a return on investment. If you look at the way that like Burger King, for example, talked about their partnership with Impossible Foods and marketed that or Dunkin Donuts with the Beyond Sausage, we actually believe that if those kind of products, which are also, you know, lifeless, could have an identity or mostly actually that people have negative perception of the meat industry and everything like that, if those who have a positive brand feel, we believe that the products that surround them, especially with the sustainability involved, could also have a positive brand feel as well, so we're building up these smaller chains as a case study so that one day we're able to present that to them.

[00:20:12] President Hamilton: That sounds really exciting. Now tell us about how on earth you manage this incredibly exciting project you've got going that is real. You are working with sales. You're connecting to restaurants and chains. You are working with suppliers. How do you balance that with your studies? We're not the timing of this conversation, We're not very far away from finals. And so how do you balance it, Echo? What's the secret for other NYU students who are listening?

[00:20:51] Echo Chen: I think it's really keeping a tight schedule and sticking to your schedule. I think when things get busy with SeaStraws and it coincides with being busy at school. My Google calendar is like planned to the minute. And I'll say like that from here to here, like I'm doing stuff for school and I just won't touch anything for work unless it's like a level 10 emergency. And then I say like, oh, like from like here to here, I'm doing just SeaStraws stuff. And I won't get myself distracted with anything from school. And I think that way it helps me compartmentalize different things and just be focused on the things that I'm doing, which helps streamline everything as opposed to being like all over the place. Like try to study on one side and try to do work on the other. I think also having a great team is integral to be able to juggle school and startup life and everything else. I think our team takes really good care of one another. We're always checking in with one another to see if there's anything we can take off each other's plates. Like how we're feeling with the school work balance. I think we're also surrounded by a lot of people who support us here at NYU, like our professors, like our mentors at the E lab whore always just giving like great advice on how to manage everything and encouraging us through it all, which really means a lot.

[00:22:09] President Hamilton: You're both young. You're both early in in your careers, your lives. You're still students, but you're clearly already planning those next steps after graduation, next May. Now is being young and an entrepreneur in this area. Is that a good thing or is it is it a detriment? Do you find the the benefit of your relative youth actually helping you in your interactions with the people who you you must persuade or does it work against you?

[00:22:52] Antonio Di Meglio: So I would say that being young isn't particularly good. It isn't particularly bad, but it is an opportunity. And people will look at you differently because you're young, you know? I mean, to be frank, you know, and that's not always easy. Like at an events two nights ago, somebody saw me and Sophie, it was an investor, and then they said, oh, they were adorable. Their presentation was adorable. That insinuates that he didn't take us seriously. Right. Yeah. And, you know, there's nothing wrong with that, I mean, clearly, we are young, you know, and that is what it is. Right. But it also proves that we can be the face of a generation for a product, a great group of products, rather, that are not that do not have a life attached to them right now. People typically just throw these products in the trash. You know, we have a very simple part of our deck where our presentation deck that just has the text: imagine a world where this didn't exist. And it's just your typical picture of a New York City trashcan with a bunch of food service packaging items, disposable items all around it. On top of it and littering the floor. It's a very simple problem that we're trying to solve. And given our generation's ability to really put climate change to the top of the national conversation, people will look at us as the experts of this because they know that we're just into this problem and we've researched it and we believe in climate change more than the average person does. For better or for worse, I spend a lot of my time talking to people every day that are between 40 and 60 years old. That's the level of people that's usually the age of people that own restaurants or like our in the C-level roles at these kind of chains. And that's just the fact. But they actually because sustainability is our core value proposition. It does benefit us because people will say, OK, these guys actually do know what they're talking about here.

[00:24:35] President Hamilton: When you approach potential clients for the sea straws products, do you do an analysis? Are you knowledgeable of the profile? The age profile in particular, the generational profile of those who go to the restaurant. And certainly I would imagine not based on evidence, but I would imagine that that many fast food outlets, there is a very strong, younger clientele rather than older clientele. Is that true or not?

[00:25:09] Antonio Di Meglio: Well, it is true that young people tend to go out to eat more. Right. I mean, there's not a lot of disposable income. But if we're talking about fast food specifically, you know, those are the places that are pretty frequent, hit a lot by high schoolers or by, you know, ccollege students that want to be cost efficient. With that being said, though, for the restaurant owners, it is always important to balance like their beliefs and purpose with their beliefs and profit as well. And you know, our products, for lack of a better way of explaining it, are more expensive than plastic products. that's just the way that it is. Right. So our value proposition and the kind of crazy thing that we're adding to the food service industry is the concept that disposable products can have a marketing value for your industry. It's not just the cost. We're looking at them as an investment if we're able to convince people and we get more raw data around it, I think that that would be a great statistic for us to show. But as of now, we're still in the early stages. We're lucky we have regulation behind our back. That's going to help us. But, you know, we're excited to educate people. You know, sustainability, education and advocacy are three core pillars. And we anticipate being able to serve those forever.

[00:26:15] President Hamilton: And now running a company and having employees in the company, founders of the company clients who are depending upon you to deliver the product, know that that brings with it significant stresses and responsibilities, crises. Have you had crises, I'm sure you have. Echo, a few moments ago you talked about a level 10 emergency that suggests that there are at least nine other levels of emergency you guys contemplate and maybe there's a level 20 emerges. Echo, How do you manage crises? Have you had crises? Have you had to pivot? Have you had to find a new supplier quickly or else you might lose a client?

[00:27:00] Echo Chen: What's our favorite crisis? What's our choice of crises today—there's so many.

[00:27:06] Antonio Di Meglio: Well, I mean, there are ups and downs, you know, to every business. Of course, you know, running a supply chain is often the forgotten part of our business. You know, to be honest, I run it very closely. And, you know, I focus and during the daytime and during meetings and talking to people and interacting with investors and things like that. So honestly, it is kind of like this passive work that happens at night, mostly out of my own hands. To be honest. But you know, when I do need to get involved, it does get a bit. It does get a bit tricky. Right. So when a customer, for example, you know, even. OK. So NYU, for example, a couple days ago, you know, just reached, you know, their main partner for their dining services reached out and said, hey, you know, we need some cases to be delivered to Sidestein—you know, the Weinstein dining hall, Sidestein, by a week from now and then we would say, OK, we have to go and then make it happen. You know, there are those kind of urgent requests that are always there. I will say that, you know, it's important to balance customer experience with customer relationships, though, you know, because the thing is, I know, so the contact we have at NYU, her name is Mona Lisa. She's wonderful. So if Mona Lisa called us that day. And I said, actually, you know, we're having a supply chain issue. We can't do that in one week it actually would have been OK for us because the customer relationship is so good. And our moats literally is the concept of, you know, the love almost that these customers have for our products, for our mission and for our company. And, you know, we believe that although there are always issues, as long as the customer relationship is there and the trust is there between us and our relationships with our distributors, you know, restaurants, any type of person, end user, an individual that buys a straw on our website. If any of those people have an issue with us, we're going to contemplate it. We even got a customer service message in the morning of Thanksgiving, somebody who didn't receive their straws in time. And, you know, although it was already in U.P.S., we couldn't do anything about it. It was just one day late because of the holiday. We just had to explain that to the customer. But we have issues. Yeah. You know, all the time.

[00:29:04] President Hamilton: And that's the nature of running a business.

[00:29:06] Antonio Di Meglio: Yeah.

[00:29:19] President Hamilton: I love the part of your origin story where NYU, of course I love that part particularly at NYU Florence. Talk a little bit more about that. Were you in Florence as well, Echo?

[00:29:37] Echo Chen: I actually wasn't at NYU Florence. But it's funny because I took a gap year. So three year graduate. And during my gap year I was in Florence. And then when I met Antonio, I realized that him and Sophie had met at NYU Florence. So the three of us had all been in Florence.

[00:29:56] President Hamilton: So There was a connection. And I'd just like to hear, you know, a little more about the role that NYU played, because obviously the story of SeaStraws is a great story. And we are very keen at NYU across the university to have a Gallatin student and a Stern student here today is a great example of that, to encourage entrepreneurship, to encourage students with the vision, the idea, the energy to create something new and particularly something new that will change the world for the better. And I know the experience that you had in that dorm room at NYU Florence, could that dorm room have been anywhere? Was it being in Italy That was special. That threw you all together. How was it that NYU connection really came to pass.

[00:30:53] Antonio Di Meglio: So being abroad together with, you know, some of the people that founded this company was essential in SeaStraw's story. Without a doubt, Sophie and I were on the first cab ride out of the Florence Airport together. We were not on the same flight. We were not even in the same line. We did not even arrive at the same time, but we were on the same cab and we talked to each other and we ended up living in the same dorm and in Florence. And there was absolutely no reason for that to happen. Zero. It turned out we had one class together, which was a marketing class. So we ended up and kept talking there. We kept talking there. We did a marketing project and one of our classes for international marketing where we actually open it was to open a fake business, of course. It was a I think it was an institution in Florence for study abroad with one of the professors there. One person in our group, Nick Ceccoli, he ended up becoming CFO of SeaStraws as well. Okay. But furthermore, Sophie and I actually did one program together in Florence that was essential to the creation of SeaStraws, and that was called the EU in focus program. This program was a selective program out of NYU Florence that you had to apply for in which I think around 10 or 20 people were chosen out of the applicant pool and you got a free trip to Brussels to be able to go there, speak to the people at the EU. And guess what we worked on-- climate change. So we presented research in a group together on migration and climate change at the EU in the fall of 2017. And this was our first experience not only working together as a team, but also working together to do something that was way outside of what the typical college student is able to do. The opportunity to work in a group and go to the EU and present it to actual commissioners of the EU in Brussels on a trip that was a beautiful trip funded by NYU completely. That level of opportunity does not happen at every institution, and that set the boundaries for you know, me and Sophie's relationship to this day was that one.

[00:32:49] President Hamilton: So that your first experience of pitching an idea was to the European Union. Not bad. That's not a bad place to get started. It's fascinating to hear that because it really does reinforce something that we all at NYU know is the the benefit of the global network. Yes, of course, it's exposure to an international culture, a new culture, a new language. But it is also taking NYU students from across the university and mixing them together and having them work together and working through the kind of academic problems and challenges they have.

[00:33:28] President Hamilton: So here you are at NYU, your families, I'm quite sure, thought you were spending all of your time in the library studying. What's been the reaction of your friends and families at home? When you go back and tell them that actually, in addition to studying hard, you've also been creating something very special.

[00:33:49] Antonio Di Meglio: So for my friends and family, it was defintely a huge shocker. I mean, they're aware that I love the food service industry and I really like sustainability. Right. But I did go to NYU Stern. And there is a kind of stereotype, of course, that You're going to go there. You're going to go into finance, consulting, investment banking afterwards, something like that. And candidly, I do think that that's what a lot of my friends and my family did expect out of me after going there. With that being said, and you know, that wasn't my experience at all. I did not feel pressured at stern to do something like that. But what happened was I just felt like this was the right time for SeaStraws. So when I told my family, I focused on guys, if we don't do this now, I don't know when this is going to happen. And of course, there's a risk. There's no guaranteed income in starting a business. You know, you're in school. You know, you want to make sure that your time is allocated properly. But of course, it was shocking. But I think as of now, they're able to see the impact that were having not only on, you know, a bunch of different restaurants, hundreds of restaurants around the country. We've sold five point six million straws. So far, it's not about that though. It's about the impact on our local community. And I know my dad feels very nicely about NYU, and he loves the school and he loves the fact that I go here and he wants me to make sure that I have a real feeling of pride on the university, he loves to wear his NYU hat, sarf and everything like that.

[00:35:07] President Hamilton: Well, let me reinforce what you said about Stern, because of course, Stern has had a tradition of strong connections to the world of finance But boy, for many years it has focused a lot of attention on entrepreneurship. I think of the Berkeley Center for Entrepreneurship, the relatively recent Endless Frontier Lab, which is encouraging students, MBA students and undergraduate students to get involved with other members of the NYU community in starting companies, in creating business plans and thinking through what those next steps can be. Echo What was your experience when you went home to tell everyone that you were now following the the the the path of Steven Jobs as an entrepreneur?

[00:35:54] Echo Chen: I don't know if we're following the steps of Steve Jobs, but I think my family and friends are proud. I think my parents, my parents love NYU. I think that's what they expected and wanted to see out of my time here. That i would be taking that opportunity That is like being in this city and being surrounded by so many different brilliant students from different schools, especially being Gallatin, being focused on collaboration and different trains of thought. I think there were like, yes, like this is what was supposed to happen, to go to school in New York, study, obviously, but also really take advantage of all the different opportunities that this university has to offer and the city has to offer. I think I have loved the environment since I was a little kid. And I obviously have a background in art as well. So I think it didn't come as a shocker to anyone, but I've just been blessed by a lot of support from my friends and family.

[00:36:52] President Hamilton: Well, I'm so pleased to hear that they're proud of you because they should be proud of you. You've achieved a great deal. There's lots more to come we know. Here in front of us today, we have a Stern student and a Gallatin student, different parts of the university, the potential for medical school students and engineers, for social workers and economists. You know, the potential for cross connection from students with different backgrounds, different areas of knowledge and expertise. But when they come together, something much greater than the sum of the parts results. And it's quite clear that Seastraws is a good example of something much greater than the sum of the individual founders has been created.

[00:37:39] Antonio Di Meglio: Absolutely.

[00:37:40] President Hamilton: Well, let me thank you both very much for participating today. It's been a great story. And let me wish you the very best of good luck in the next months and years for seastraws. I am looking forward to walking into a McDonald's and seeing Seastraws utensils there. Keep focused on that. Thank you both very much indeed. Thank you.

[00:38:03] Echo Chen: Thank you.

[00:38:03] Antonio Di Meglio: Thank you so much, President Hamilton. It was an honor to be here.

[00:38:09] Announcer Visit NYU.Edu/Conversations to subscribe to the podcast and learn more.