Herbert Yu started this year as a management consultant, but his career pivoted during COVID-19. Now he’s an entrepreneur committed to giving back.
Yu’s story began in 2014 when he finished grad school and was taking a break to prepare for a professional career. He volunteered to teach English to children in Laos. During his travels to Bangkok, he met a tailor and formed a friendship. He hired that tailor to make suits and shirts for him two to three times a year.
Fast forward to February 2020 when Yu was helping a friend who works in the New York City healthcare system find personal protective equipment (PPE) for nurses and doctors during the early days of the coronavirus. Yu reached out to his tailor friend to design and produce masks. It was perfect timing, as the tailor was worried he’d have to go out of business since there wasn’t demand for formal business attire during a pandemic.
“I thought, why don’t we put these two challenges together and figure out a way to save the tailor’s business by repurposing the factory and to make supplies that people like healthcare workers, essential workers, and then the general public needed?” Yu says.
While that concept seems simple now, back then it was a big deal. Sourcing PPE was tough and people needed the protective tools right away.
Yu established an apparel line — Bonrisu. The name is a play on words from the Latin phrase “bonum risus,” meaning good smile. The irony is that while people can’t see your smile when you’re wearing a mask, smiles are needed more than ever.
“During these extraordinary times, the need for people to respect each other and wear a mask is greater than ever,” says Yu, Bonrisu’s founder and CEO, concluding, “Although your smile is masked while wearing one, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to have a smile on — and let it reach your eyes.”
The company employs eight people across the United States, with most based at its Massachusetts headquarters, as well as the tailor and 30 others who manufacture the masks in Thailand.
“We have been going as fast as we can to really drive as much impact as we can with our community, and quickly start trying to develop relevant products that people need,” says Yu.
The masks, made with three layers of cotton, are tightly woven, yet lightweight, breathable, and washable. The company offers a variety of styles for adults and children.
Yu and his team are focused on creating quality products that people need, creating economic employment opportunities and giving back to the community.
For every mask sold, Bonrisu donates a mask to Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit that helps feed seniors in need. The masks go to the nonprofit’s staff, volunteers, and seniors. So far, they’ve donated over 10,000 reusable face masks to over 180 organizations in the United States and Canada. Those organizations and their volunteers serve over 220 million meals to 2.4 million seniors every year.
“Meals on Wheels, for example, they’ve had to [deliver] 77 percent more meals to nearly 50 percent more seniors, from pre-pandemic,” says Yu. “We’re happy to be one of their partners, and we’re happy to continue working with them to address the issue of isolation and hunger.”
Next, the mask manufacturer plans to engage their customers and staff to hand-write cards to seniors letting them know they’re not alone.
Yu knows consumers have many choices on how and where they spend their money.
“Consumers are continuing to change and rethink how they purchase and consume,” he says. “They’re looking beyond just spending money, beyond label, the product. They’re wanting to learn more about the company, and how their purchase drives positive social, economic, and environmental impact.”
He’s proud his company is socially responsible and calls on other companies to think less about their bottom line and more about how they can impact the lives of others.
“We make masks now,” he says. “But I think, really what has staying power is the idea that a business can thrive by providing employment opportunities and benefiting the community.”