Maria Camila Vasco wants to change how we shop, one toothbrush at a time. The 23-year-old is the owner of Boston’s first zero-waste store, Uvida in the North End, which opened last year during the pandemic. In the latest episode of the Globe’s Bold Types video series, Vasco shared the story of how she built her company while still an undergrad at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and how her parents, who both own storefronts in East Boston, pushed her toward a path of entrepreneurship.
Vasco says she became interested in efforts to reduce her plastic use while taking environmental studies classes in college. She considered it an awakening.
“I found myself becoming really passionate about the plastic pollution problem, because I realized that I was personally contributing to that issue,” she said. “Plastic lasts for thousands of years when we only use these items for a few months.”
Vasco began shifting her habits by buying a bamboo toothbrush. Her interest developed further while she was studying abroad in Spain, and encountered zero-waste stores there that specialized in plastic-free goods and refillable products. Inspired, she took her ideas back to campus, where she pitched a zero-waste store to a UMass student entrepreneurship contest. She won, and used the $5,000 prize to launch a website showcasing her favorite products in September 2019.
Vasco was born in Colombia, and the store’s name, Uvida, she says, is derived from the Spanish word vida, or “life.” By making such purchases, she says, “You give life. It reminds people that by reducing your plastic waste you are contributing to life on earth.”
In her senior year at UMass, Vasco juggled classes and hosted a series of pop-up shops on and off campus. She also started an online small business course through Entrepreneurship For All, staying up late to learn about business plans after she finished her homework.
“I was a full time undergrad student working a part-time job at a restaurant, taking three online courses that would help me learn how to start a business and also working on my small business,” she said. “I would be up until four in the morning having the time of my life, but obviously facing the consequences next day for class.”
Vasco said when the pandemic hit, it compelled her to dig in on her business to build out her website. And it got her motivated to open a brick and mortar storefront. Her parents encouraged her to take the risk, and she opened her North End storefront in December of 2020. “They told me take that leap of faith, we took that leap of faith 30 years ago and didn’t look back,” Vasco said.
Since then she’s developed a following, both from her neighbors and from social media, where her TikTok account has attracted thousands of new fans. She says that as part of Gen Z, she’s grown up with the knowledge that climate change will impact her life. She’s glad that through Uvida, she’s doing her small part to inspire others.
“I like to see Uvida as a safe haven where customers can come and talk about their climate anxiety,” she said. “I know I’m doing something positive because I’m helping people feel a bit more in control.”