While most of us wouldn’t necessarily associate the word “responsibility” with our college years, it’s heartening to see students who aren’t as concerned with the contents of a red party cup as much as the cup itself and the potential environmental impact it presents.
As we continue our focus on women-founded companies, I had the chance to talk to Priya Mittal, one of the founders of fette, a company making more environmentally-friendly cups than the versions used on college campuses for decades. Priya and her co-founder Olivia are tackling important problems with their product, and are bringing their own unique perspective and identity to an industry that has been male-dominated.
Mary Juetten: What’s the name of your company and where are you based?
Priya Mittal: fette is a sustainable-minded business replacing the traditional red party cup with a 100% compostable cup. As a startup founded by two Brown University students, we are predominantly based in Providence, Rhode Island. That being said, we have a team of over 10 people based in New York and Boston.
Juetten: When did you start?
Mittal: fette was founded in January 2020, launched our social media presence in June 2020, and launched our product to students at Brown, Yale, and Duke Universities in a direct-to-consumer fashion in September 2020. Now, we are focused on expanding to other colleges and universities across the country.
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Mittal: Over 8 billion red Solo cups are produced, consumed, and disposed of each year. Apart from Solo cups, there are numerous knock-off party cups produced and sold by other brands. Regardless of the brand, each of these cups have one very harmful thing in common – they are made out of number 6 plastic. This kind of plastic, also known as polystyrene, is chemically identical to Styrofoam and emits large amounts of carbon and other waste during its production process. Not only is it not accepted at most recycling facilities, but it is very harmful for human consumption and endangers animal lives. fette is changing this.
The overwhelming majority of red party cups are purchased and used by college students across the country. Whether it is a casual night in, or a party at a greek house, these red cups have become a staple of party culture. At fette, we believe in making campus culture, and specifically having a good time, greener and more environmentally friendly. Unlike the red party cups which take 500-1000 years to break down, our 100% compostable cups break down in between 40-60 days. Furthermore, our cups are plant based and require 50% less carbon emissions during production than other cups.
Apart from sustainability, an integral feature of our cups is that they are transparent. Currently, there is a large sexual assault and violence epidemic on college campuses which, in large part, is related to many drink related assault incidences. In order to raise awareness of this issue and help students feel more comfortable going out, we made the intentional decision to make our cups fully transparent. In this day and age, everyone should be able to see what they are drinking and what is inside of their cups at all times.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Mittal: Very broadly, our customers are individuals who enjoy having a good time yet care about the environment enough to use our cups. Right now, we are focusing on targeting individuals between the ages of 18-25 who are interested in using a more sustainable alternative to the red solo cup on college campuses across the country. In order to reach these students, we are mainly speaking with the social chairs of various organizations spanning from Greek Life, sports teams, and other relevant clubs on campus.
In terms of outreach, we have been able to leverage the power of personal networks and college communities in order to find people to talk to. Many people have been kind enough to connect us with their friends at other universities and social media has been a great way for us to reach students we would otherwise not engage with.
Juetten: Did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Mittal: I founded a company when I was 15 called GroGreen Tech which minimized the amount of ugly produce wasted in NYC. This experience taught me so much, from the fundamentals of business development, to other skills like networking and sales. I had incredible opportunities such as being the opening speaker for Former Secretary John F. Kerry at Seeds and Chips, the Global Innovation Food Summit in Milan, Italy at 17. I was also named to Crain NY Business 20 Under 20. This was truly my first step into the world of entrepreneurship and I absolutely loved it. The lessons I learned have been invaluable while starting fette.
Juetten: Did being a female have any impact on your decision to launch and during your startup?
Mittal: Absolutely! Founding a venture in the party industry is extremely significant for me as a woman. The whole journey has really made me take a step back and grapple with my personal experiences of party culture on my own campus. At Brown, I have been lucky enough to meet amazing friends who enjoy having a good time in the same way I do whether that is playing beer pong, going to a bar, or having a night in. Despite having these experiences, I recognize that traditionally, people with my identity are not always represented in party culture.
Women often feel the need to look or act a certain way to fit into party culture. In the media, women are oftentimes depicted as not having agency over their bodies. This is dangerous because it reflects the massive sexual assault epidemic on college campuses across the nation. According to RAINN, 1 in 4 college-age women will be sexually assaulted during their time on campus. These things must change and thankfully, other students agree.
I strongly believe that my identity as a woman of color has been my biggest advantage in running this business. Not only has it enabled me to view party culture in a way that challenges the status quo, but it has led me to recognize the importance of placing inclusivity and transparency at the forefront of our brand. I hope fette reaffirms to the world how important it is to bring more color to the party industry, and party culture specifically.
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Mittal: All the funds to run our business came from a combination of our Social Innovation Fellowship money, various student and small business grants, sustainable business grants, and family and friends generous loans.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?
Mittal: My favorite company is Parade, a “self-expression brand that makes creative basics,” as founder Cami Tellez once said. As a fellow consumer goods founder, I am forever inspired by how they built their brand from the ground up and really leveraged the power of Gen Z communities to spread word and create their inclusive brand. Cami built Parade at 21 years old and used online communities and a micro-ambassador program to lead the company to over 70,000 pre-orders before they were even launched. I think Parade in particular really stands out to me because we have used a lot of their past marketing strategies when thinking about how to best meet our audience. It goes to show you that this generation in particular really cares about being heard and being involved in the creative process of building a brand.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Mittal: In the context of entrepreneurship, success has always meant building a product that has the power to connect people together and make them feel seen and represented. For fette, our #fettefam program connects students of all backgrounds and interests over a shared love of sustainability and having a good time. Whenever someone tells me they met someone from the program or feels inspired to follow their passions from seeing two diverse founders, I call that success. When it comes to the cups specifically, many people have told us that our clear cups helped them feel more comfortable and safe going out with friends. To me, that is the biggest success.
I have always admired founder Sarah Blakely and her journey of founding Spanx. The fact that she started with $2,000 and still owns 100% of her company today is so unbelievably impressive. Her company is successful not only because it is worth so much, but because the product helps people gain confidence and feel comfortable in their own skin. Creating a product that has that much of a personal, positive impact makes it that much more successful in the end.
Juetten: Tips for early-stage FEMALE founders?
Mittal: Do not waste time speaking with people who do not believe in your idea and do not see your potential. You are not going to change their mind and there is no point feeling discouraged over such people. 99.9% of the time, you and your idea are probably just far ahead of their time and when you succeed, they will see it.
I cannot count the number of older men, and adults in general, who called us “little girls,” who told us not to pursue fette because of our age or what we looked like. Know that your age has nothing to do with the likelihood of your success and that your diverse background is what will propel you forward. Listen to their advice, thank them for their time, and move on with a clean slate.
Juetten: What’s your next milestone and any long-term vision for your company?
Mittal: fette’s main goal for the next year and 5 years is the same: to expand to as many other campuses as possible. We have been receiving a ton of positive feedback from students who recognize the importance of sustainable cups, but also believe in supporting a female, POC, and queer-founded and led brand. We are here to shake things up and bring some color into this industry!
To get more into the nitty gritty, within the next year, we plan on expanding our micro-ambassador program to cultivate a community of students who care about the environment and wish to bring fette to their campuses. In terms of our 5 year goal, we hope to cover as much of the college market for sustainable cups as possible, and continue building upon our brand partnerships. And who knows! Maybe we’ll be reaching a whole new target audience as well.
Thank you to Priya for sharing her inspiring story. The combination of fette’s purpose-driven vision plus the idea that both the environment and humans can benefit from the new transparent cup is definitely a game changer. As my kids have their college years almost behind them, I imagine that a new target market could be parents of the students! #onwards.