It should come as no surprise that as an emerging cultural hub, Vancouver is home to its share of up-and-coming, innovative entrepreneurs. The kind of visionaries who see an opportunity for growth, a burgeoning market in need of something new, and step in to fill the void. This story from our Autumn issue is the third in a series introducing us to local entrepreneurs, and the contributions they’re making here at home.
“We live in an era where you can go on your phone and you can find any information you want as long as you have the question,” says Tony Yu, co-founder of Vessi footwear, the environmentally friendly waterproof shoe brand that took Vancouver by storm—rainstorm, that is.
The breathable knitted sneaker was an instant hit with Vancouverites when it launched in 2018, allowing people to seamlessly transition from wet streets to dry floors without ruining their socks or staining their shoes. Vessi identified a very local problem and invented a solution.
Yu speaks with the authority of someone who knows the right questions to ask. And he is, in many ways, a testament to what can be accomplished in modern business with the assistance of an internet connection: he believes that innate curiosity can lead people to incredible opportunities, they just have to be willing to seek out problems and do the research.
This approach to life and business has sustained Yu and his partner, Mikaella Go, in their seven years together launching companies. Before the two founded Vessi with friend Andy Wang, they had seven other businesses to their names, including Nanotips, which produces a liquid solution that makes regular gloves touchscreen compatible. Neither had a background in chemistry, but armed with Yu’s undergraduate degree in economics, a laptop, and an insatiable drive to create, the two were able to make 20,000 bottles of the product in Yu’s garage. That gave them their honorary MBA, says Yu. “We learned a lot, from the manufacturing to the marketing to building websites and then distribution.”
He took that experience and ran with it, trading gloves for shoes and a liquid solution for a porous polyurethane membrane called Dyma-tex. Some may call him a serial entrepreneur, but Yu defines himself as a creative. “Or an innovation space,” he muses, “but with creativity and innovation, I think you can branch out and apply it to many different job titles.”
Vessi may be his most recent project, but it is far from his last innovation. He also admits that he and his friends are working on small side businesses that take up little time, leaving plenty to give back to the community with Vessi.
Reinvesting in their communities is something Yu and Go are passionate about. They donated shoes to 2,050 nurses in Vancouver when COVID hit and used sales proceeds to buy and donate surgical masks to health-care workers.
Yu says this is just the beginning. Vessi’s community fund offers micro-grants to people who pitch philanthropic projects around Vancouver, whether delivering groceries to people in need or creating a support fund for small businesses forced to close.
“We can use our company and the products that we make to drive greater community initiatives,” he says. “Make the world a better place, a little bit happier.”
This article is from our Autumn 2020 issue. Read the first entrepreneur story in this series about Juke Fried Chicken co-founder Justin Tisdall, and our second about Indigenous skincare entrepreneur Leigh Joseph.