#167 Sharina Perry, CEO of Utopia Plastix

Sharina Perry is a serial entrepreneur with a long history of starting and growing new ventures. Sharina perfected a patent-pending plastic alternative formulated into compounded plant-based resins using crops farmers plant in regular crop rotations. Utopia Plastix™️ helps solve the problem of plastic waste, carbon emissions, and promoting agriculture. Utopia’s compounded plant resin allows manufacturers to use their current equipment as they produce the sustainable, alternative plastic products that the world is demanding. Sharina founded Utopia Genetics to distribute products made with Utopia Plastix, as well as Utopia Solutions that makes Utopia Plastix™️. Sharina says she invented Utopia Plastix™️ to create solutions, not problems.

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Bigger Than Us #167

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels 00:54

Sharina, how are you doing today?

Sharina Perry 01:22

I’m doing well, Raj, thank you. Thank you for having me on your show today.

Host Raj Daniels 01:27

Sure. Yeah. I’m very excited to speak to you. And before we dig into Utopia Plastix, I have a quick question for you. Tell me about the nickname reroute.

Host Raj Daniels 01:38

A manufacturer locally, he — when I came in, and I introduced the idea of using a plant-based material in creating their film, he said a lot of people come in there to them, and they offer different projects. But as he watched me through the journey, he realized that I would never stop pursuing what I believed. So I was grateful to him because as I would run into challenges, he would be willing to have an authentic conversation with me so that I could really address those issues and resolve it. And so one day I went in, and he talked about “the running circle.” It seemed that every obstacle I ran into, I didn’t see as a stopping point, but as rerouting, to turn around or to just do something different so that I could keep going.

Host Raj Daniels 02:47

I love the visual of the reroute. Where does this drive, this tenacity, come from?

Host Raj Daniels 02:56

I knew early in when I was a young girl that — I never believed that I had any barriers to be able to do what I wanted to do, or what I believed in. I found myself, even as a young girl, extremely convicted. We look at people accomplish great things in our lives, and I kind of had this thing: that could always be me. I never thought that I was limited in some way. So I never put those limits on myself. And I really worked to not allow people to put limits on me. And I tell people, I feel like I always work to challenge myself to my own greatness.

Host Raj Daniels 03:44

Do you feel like this is a personality trait that you were born with? Or is this nurtured by your parents?

Host Raj Daniels 03:52

I think we all have something innately in us. That’s the thing that drives us. I’m not shy to say that I feel like I’m very much in touch with the spiritual person that I am. But I think even what we have in us, it’s important that it is nurtured by the people that are around us, the safe places, the people that speak life into us. When I was a young girl, that looked a lot like my father and my uncles, because here I had great men around me that — I mean, I’m older now. 

But when I think about them, these men are in their 20s. And here, this little girl who would ride in the car with them, and they would remind me how smart I was, how I could do anything. They were kind of like cheerleaders for me. I think that that was an integral part of it. And then my grandfather, even when I was a young girl, would always tell me that I was going to change the world and there was something special in me. He identified gifts and he would use them. Also in my elementary school. I felt like people, when I was a young child, always knew that I needed to be challenged, and they gave me the space to use my gifts.

Host Raj Daniels 05:27

I really appreciate you sharing that. Now let’s switch gears to Utopia Plastix, can you share with the audience what Utopia Plastix is and your role at the organization?

Host Raj Daniels 05:39

Utopia Plastix is the plant-based alternative to your traditional fossil fuel polymers. The key part of it is that there are two elements of Utopia Plastix. Utopia Plastix in our IP has the ability to create a polymer with an extremely high plant load. But there’s also the ability to create, alter, and affect some of the properties of your traditional fossil fuel polymers by adding our technology that then moves to be able to make them more eco-friendly. I am the founder and the inventor of Utopia Plastix. And I’m also the developer of the Utopia model.

Host Raj Daniels 06:29

Now, let’s talk about being the inventor for a moment. I had the good fortune of doing some research. You’re not a chemist, not an engineer. How did you invent this product?

Host Raj Daniels 06:40

Remember, inventions are always by having an idea. It’s a belief in something. That’s how things start. And now we find ourselves in a space where we can find the right people. But I will tell you, I started studying plant material more to develop a health and wellness line of products. I started studying because my nephew was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, too. So there was that element. Fast forward, I was looking at this global issue of plastics, and what we were seeing in my life. I always used to try out, when I was a young girl, solutions to our problems. And I called it my utopia. So when I developed my company, Utopia, it made sense. We would be really solution-driven and work to not create problems. 

So this issue of plastic waste; companies like Starbucks and McDonald’s have made announcements that they were doing away with single-use plastics. As these bans on plastic grow, you will see more and more places implement use of paper. But to me, that wasn’t really a holistic solution. And I felt like we would be solving one problem but not taking a holistic approach because trees help us for the reduction of carbon. So now you have paper products that are now moving in to take a greater market segment, but we’re now affecting our environment in a worse way. 

Also, if you’re in an area or state or country that depends heavily on manufacturing, then plastics make up so much of the space. What is that manufacturer going to have to do in order to stay in business? He’s either going to have to modify his equipment, or, the worst case scenario, he ends up laying people off, and people lose their jobs. I know this sounds bad, but in my mind, I’m sitting there, thinking. We affect human life to save whales and sea turtles. And while I don’t reduce the importance of saving whales and sea turtles, was there perhaps a solution that was broader, that didn’t have a negative impact on anyone? 

I had been studying plant material. I had learned that there were crops that could be used as an alternative to petroleum cotton in wood and that feasibility studies have been done on them by the USDA that dated back to more than 20 years ago, 25 years ago. And so seeing that, if these studies have been done, there was proof that it was possible. 

So I started doing research and finding out, even though these studies — people weren’t really doing anything about it. So I decided I was going to use this plant material to make a straw in my kitchen. And the goal was, if I could make an impact with this, perhaps we wouldn’t have to use wood. Perhaps we could use plants. But also the crops that were used, there were benefits of it. And so the crops that we use could literally spearhead an economy and create an economic impact for farmers, for local communities. Now, the farmer is growing the crop to make the products that we consume on a daily basis. It seemed to be, as more people would join into that type of model, we could really be sustainable, really have solutions that help our environment, our society, and our economics, the more companies that decide they are going to participate. 

So I made a straw paper straw in my kitchen. And much to my surprise, the straw, when I put it in cold liquid, it hardened. And so if it had that reaction to cold, there must be a reaction to hot. And so I took it over to the pot — I was boiling beeswax because that’s what I had coated it in. And it actually didn’t break down in the pot of beeswax. And I knew I really had something. So fast forward, I reached out to Hoffmaster, who had acquired Aardvark, which is the largest producer of paper straws in the world, and asked them if I had this made it in the paper made to the scale that they needed, would they make it into straws and then do the testing? And my goal was — I knew Aardvark from the article when Hoffmaster had acquired them, that they were having issues with keeping up with the supply and the demand. So this would be an alternative. And I felt like it would be a healthy alternative. That was the paper portion. 

But I also knew, okay, if I could get if they had this reaction on paper, I could also do it in plastics. And so I started working with a local manufacturer. And I was able to be connected to one of the leading polymer chemists in the country to talk about additives to the plant material that were good bonding agents. I had done some research, so I asked them about the ones that I thought about. Working with the manufacturer, I had my ideas of additional binders that would be used. Of course, the manufacturer that I was working with here, the plastics manufacturer, they have a chemist that works with them or an engineer, and they had ideas of the bonding agent. B

ut that bonding agent really didn’t work in the best way. So then I got with a compounder and gave them the formula that I believe would work. And they tested it. And it worked. The only thing is there were some kinks that we would need to address: some things like moisture, abrasion, several things with plant material. With the fibrous, brittle nature of it, there were some things we had to address. So he then connected me with one of the chemists who helped develop the intellectual property with a major petroleum-based polymer company, chemical. I was able to be connected to the right people in the right spaces. And they believed in what I was doing. And so they supported my efforts and got behind me, and that’s how I ended up with a polymer.

Host Raj Daniels 13:55

So you’ve made it sound very easy so far. How long did it take you to get to the first straw?

Host Raj Daniels 14:01

When I made the first prototype in my kitchen, I made it in October of 2018. Then I had some samples of polymers that were basically different types of products, made in March of 2019. And then the paper straw was commercially produced in June, July, of 2019. Then February of 2020, I had developed a compounded resin. 

We then had some other issues that, while we already had a product and were able to produce products, at that time I had a manufacturer that made cutlery, a manufacturer that made a bag or film, I had a manufacturer that made a container, I had a manufacturer that made a straw. Basically, our goal was to prove that our material could be used in applications beyond just using it in an injection mold. I knew I had won a victory when I was able to use plant material in blown film without breaking the bubble. And by August 2020, I received notification from our compounder. And after the final testing, we then had a stable product that was ready to go to market, a resin.

Host Raj Daniels 15:42

Well, congratulations on that. Some of these conversations you’ve had with these major manufacturers — did they take you seriously when you first reached out to them?

Host Raj Daniels 15:52

The good part about it is we were already — sustainability was preceding us. People were looking for alternatives. I will say just in being realistic, I probably have been asked more questions than a person would typically be asked, maybe, if it were a major company, or who they viewed to be the expert in the space. 

But once they had a conversation with me and connected me with the engineers, I found it very easy to have those conversations, and people began to open their minds. There was an educational element to it because people are used to operating in the rules that surround your traditional fossil fuel polymers. So that was a little bit of reprogramming and training. Imagine using paper now, in your plastic manufacturing. So you’re actually talking about a different type of material. 

Then, once manufacturers started testing it themselves, they were definitely able to see it. We, of course, have a lot of information out there. We’ve been transparent and open about sharing our journey. We’ve had manufacturers who give their report and their insight on how the ease of using our materials. It truly is a drop-in solution. So a manufacturer doesn’t have to make any major modifications. 

Actually seeing the product — but I think that’s going to be the case when there are barriers of entry; exactly what you said in the beginning. I’m not a chemist. I’m not an engineer, I am an African-American woman in a space that’s not typically the representation that you see. So I don’t really try to fight those stereotypes. I learned a long time ago that sometimes you have to just show people that it’s possible in order for them to believe. And I have, throughout my entire career, been in spaces and excelled in spaces where the people don’t look like me.

Host Raj Daniels 18:19

Let’s talk about stereotypes and modes for a second. What’s the journey been like as an African-American woman in the space?

Host Raj Daniels 18:26

It’s related to what we started talking about earlier: was I born with it, was it something that was kind of inculcated in me or that people nurtured in me? I’ve always believed what I could do was possible. So when I would run into people that perhaps gave me pushback, I just always felt like they weren’t ready to receive it. If I kept going, I would find the people that were that understood it. I was always good at explaining my why. I tell people because, as an African American woman, in my family, I am a first-generation dreamer. My parents were workers. 

So to have an opportunity to make an impact, I had to be willing to be in uncomfortable spaces. I had to be willing to not exist in the barriers so that when I got in those spaces, I can leave the door open for the people behind me and perhaps be the reason somebody would dream or believe differently. It was not easy. But again, if I fought that, it would discourage me and could potentially cause me to stop. If you believe in something, and I believe this, if you believe in something you have to stand in believing that void of anybody else. If your belief is through the lens of someone else, you’ll always be discouraged. You’ll always find yourself discouraged. But if your belief is in your work, what drives you, or you are convicted, you’ll accomplish everything you set out to do.

Host Raj Daniels 20:16

Let’s talk about leaving the door open behind you. Can you speak to the extension program you’re working on?

Host Raj Daniels 20:22

So for me right now, in this space that I am in in Oklahoma, I am so grateful for the Oklahoma Innovation Model, members of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, Oklahoma Center for Science and Technology, the universities, for their support. What they did was they came out as a group: Manufacturers’ Alliance. They came and saw a material brand, and they asked me how they could help. And I shared with them my experience, and I asked them to take the baton and assist because there were other people like me that were driven but didn’t know how to find the resources. 

They didn’t know how to gain the access. And if they simply were intentional about putting it out there, those people would come and take advantage of it. We would be able to see an entirely different dynamic of community, of diversity and inclusion, and opportunity. And I’m pleased to say I’m watching that occur right now. I’m taking seats in the right rooms. 

I’m on our Governor’s Minority Business Council that works to help create legislation for access to resources and opportunity for different minorities. I’m on the Council of Advisors for our state chamber to help impact legislation as it’s written. I’m on the board of sustainable Tulsa. We move and we encourage people because sustainability isn’t only about our environment. It’s also: are we creating an equitable space for them, and also this equity or opportunity? We have to be willing to use our voice. 

And so for me, it’s: how can I help that extension? How can I be that bridge? How can I use my platform and my voice to create an opportunity? And how can I make sure I’m in the right rooms to do that? So I accept those invitations. And I make sure that I’m not just there to have a seat, but that I’m really there to add value. And I’m watching the impact in our communities.

Host Raj Daniels 22:49

Sharina, I applaud your efforts. It’s fantastic work you’re doing. You know, earlier, you mentioned your why and your nephew — I think you said it’s neurofibromatosis, is that correct?

Host Raj Daniels 22:59

Yes, neurofibromatosis II. They have not found a cure for tumors. And what I found when my nephew was diagnosed with it was that my sister, his mom, transferred it to him. And my sister got it from my dad as an effect of Agent Orange, or development from what they’re uncovering from Vietnam. So now, today, my father is affected by it, my sister, and my nephew.

Host Raj Daniels 23:34

That’s a pretty strong why for what you’re doing. How does it align with the creation of plastics from agriculture?

Host Raj Daniels 23:42

Because in developing my ultimate goal, Utopia Plastix is a vehicle. And so sometimes when you stand in your why, ultimately, my goal is to create health and wellness centers that allow people who suffer from different things to be able to go into that center and get a health and wellness — say they have an X-ray, they have a report or condition — that they’re able to get a health and wellness product that is customizable to them and to really provide a solution. 

I do believe that the solutions for mankind exist on our Earth. I believe that we can find out and uncover what those are. But like with any health and wellness product, for you to be able to make claims, for me to be able to do what I desire to do, there has to be some economics associated with it. I have a dear friend that passed away not long ago and his name was Bret Rodriguez. His family is the Bacardi family and Bret Rodriguez had an organization, babyheart.org, and I’ve had a lot of time to spend with and talk to him. He was a major encourager and mentor for me. And he told me, “Sharina, never be afraid to make a lot of money. You can be philanthropic and profitable because you’re going to need a lot of money to do all the good that your heart wants to do.” And I understand that. And that also means there have to be vehicles that help create the resources to make the impact that I want to do, ultimately, for our communities and our society. 

There are four driving factors that I feel should never be compromised if we move to a healthy society and healthy communities. That’s our family, our health and wellness, our education, and our economic development. We must stay focused on those four elements. So ultimately, that’s what drives Utopia is the sense of community, the holistic approach. And I am grateful that something that can make an impact, like Utopia Plastix, on a global scale could help be the vehicle that drives me to what my heart wants to do.

Host Raj Daniels 26:21

That’s an exciting vision. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about yourself on your journey?

Host Raj Daniels 26:26

The most valuable lesson that I’ve learned about myself in this phase of my journey, is that it really is my race. In our lives, we have our race. We have something in us, that we don’t compare to somebody else, that we pull out of ourselves. And that thing, when you arrive at the place in your life where you really feel purpose, you really feel conviction, I can look back in my life, and see how every peak, every valley, every win, every loss, every struggle, and every challenge prepared me for where I am right now. And that’s been more of a revelation. It’s also very, very sobering and humbling because people see one thing. I tell people, “I’m watching God.” I’m watching, in this stream of time, some amazing things happen. And I’m happy and grateful that he chose to use me.

Host Raj Daniels 27:34

I love the idea of running your own race and looking back. Let’s move forward. It’s 2030. If Newsweek, Fortune, or Businessweek were to write a headline about Utopia Plastix, what would you like it to read?

Host Raj Daniels 27:47

I would like it to say, We Can Create the World We Want to See — If We Just Believe It’s Possible. And we understand that we’re better together.

Host Raj Daniels 27:57

Better together. It’s a beautiful thought. Now, one of the things I want to ask you about, also, is a new, upcoming CNBC series, can you share with the audience what that is?

Host Raj Daniels 28:06

So CNBC has a network series, Advancements TV. On the 24th of September, they’ll be here in Oklahoma, filming for the Advancement TV series that will air the fourth quarter of this year. And it has been identified that Utopia Plastix truly is a sustainable alternative or solution to address our plastic waste. And also, the model that we have in place is truly a sustainable ecosystem model. So we’ll have an opportunity to talk with manufacturers. I’ll be there on the series as well. And it’s an educational series to talk about how agriculture — crops — can be used to make an impact, not just only in the plastic space, but in other developments for our future.

Host Raj Daniels 29:04

And do you have some idea when the show will air?

Host Raj Daniels 29:07

We’ve just been given the timeframe that it’ll be the last quarter of this year, so we the fourth quarter is when it will air. And again, we record here in Oklahoma on the 24th of September.

Host Raj Daniels 29:20

Good luck with that recording. Thank you. Now, last question. And if people have been listening, you’ve already shared quite a bit of advice. But if you could share some advice — and it can be professional or personal — with the audience, what would it be?

Host Raj Daniels 29:33

You’ve got to always keep in focus what your goal is. Be open to not being so narrowly focused that you’re not paying attention to the broader opportunity, but also not being so broad that you’re not seeing where you might be being guided or directed. You have to be paying attention to changes, paying attention. 

If I’m going to give advice from the business world, people that were stuck and weren’t paying attention to the market that they were in or the industry shifts, things like COVID and lack of resources in their supply chain, created challenges for them, and their business did not know how to pivot. Avoid doing that by constantly paying attention to the information in the market segment that you’re in or the industry that you’re in. Also, this is the best time for young people, minorities, people who had felt disadvantaged. This is the perfect stream of time and place in time to be able to make an impact. 

And I encourage you to tap into what’s inside of you and not believe that there are these barriers that will prevent you but use the free information that’s given. We have access to a lot of information through the internet, now, through social platforms. I encourage you to to tap into those things to create the tomorrow that you want.

Host Raj Daniels 31:23

Tap into what inside of you. Great place to end. Sharina, I appreciate your time today, and I look forward to catching up with you again soon.

Host Raj Daniels 31:31

Thank you so much, Raj.

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nex

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If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send Raj Daniels an email at BTU@NexusPMG.com or contact me via our website, NexusPMG.com. While you’re there, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter where we share what we’re reading and thinking about in the cleantech green tech sectors

Raj Daniels

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