Origin Story Interview W/ Lili Dreyer, VAER

Origin Story Interview W/ Lili Dreyer, VAER

Brighter Future


May 25, 2022

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #SustainableFashion #UpcycledFootwear #TextileUpcycling #CircularEconomy #textilewaste #Fashion

Brighter Future

Today, we are joined by Lili Dreyer, the CEO and co-founder of VAER, a sustainable startup making upcycled shoes from textile waste.

Hi, Lili! Thanks for agreeing to participate in this interview. Let’s kick it off with a brief introduction to who you are. Where do you come from?

Hi! My mom is from China and my dad is from Denmark. I was born in Denmark and have lived almost my entire life here, with the exception of a couple of years studying abroad.

Making sneakers from upcycled materials is a really cool concept! How did the idea for VAER come about?

Thank you! I completed my Master’s in Sustainability, Entrepreneurship and Design in London, so the idea was really fleshed out while I was working on my thesis project for that programme. The problem of textiles being wasted—and upcycling as a solution—was at the forefront of my mind at the time, and that’s the main thing that led me to create VAER. Upcycling is often overlooked as a solution to the textile waste problem because it isn’t scalable. However, in my thesis, I identified some different ways to potentially make textile waste a scalable solution, which would open up so many options for sustainable products in the future. It was these theories that I wanted to test in real life after I graduated. Shortly after, VAER was born!

That’s a really inspiring startup story—especially for all the students out there working on their own thesis projects! We know that no matter how great the product is, getting any idea off the ground takes perseverance and lots of hard work. What is it about VAER that drives you to keep going day after day?

The main thing that motivates me is saving textiles and giving them a new life. When we produce a pair of sneakers from some unwanted jeans or an old uniform, we know that we are making a tangible difference. That’s exciting and invigorating to me, and it’s what keeps me going day after day. Apart from that, I also want to prove that there is huge potential in textile upcycling. At the beginning of our journey, our suppliers and factory thought it was a cool project, but they didn’t really believe in it. Now they have seen that it is possible, but I want to also show them that upcycling textiles could be really good for business. So, I’m very motivated by making VAER a good business that is profitable and can pay its employees a good salary. I want to show that sustainable business is good business.

That’s super-inspiring! You’re clearly very passionate and knowledgable about textile upcycling. When you think about who is served most by a company like VAER, who springs to mind?

Hmm… that’s a good question! I think the first thing that came to mind was the planet and everyone who inhabits it. So, I guess I’m doing this for Mother Earth and for all those discarded textiles. But, in some ways, I also benefit greatly from VAER because I get to do what I love the most every single day. I’m very lucky in that respect.

In terms of customers, VAER is for those who really care about sustainable fashion and therefore buy our shoes, but it’s also for the people who don’t care about those things. If we really want to make a difference in the world, we know that we need to serve everyone—whether it’s directly or indirectly. We offer our customers a unique upcycled shoe with a lower environmental footprint, but we also offer the world the benefit of a planet with less waste and fewer discarded textiles. Our hope is that everyone, whether they are a VAER customer or not, will benefit from the work we do—and some will get a really cool shoe out of it!

What a great approach! So, it sounds like you were studying hard and had a great idea that could be applied in the real world. It takes a leap to go from theory to practice. Did you reach a specific point in your life when you decided to take a risk and pursue your own dream?  

Yes. In fact, I’ve reached this point a few different times in my life so far. One of them was when I was just about to finish my bachelor’s degree in business administration and project management. I had to figure out what I wanted to study for my master’s degree. I knew that I wanted to work in the field of sustainability, but my education to date didn’t reflect that at all. Instead of following the well-trodden path of doing a master’s in the same university with the same people I had studied alongside for the past few years, I decided to take a risk and pursue that passion. I packed my bags and moved to London to complete my Master’s in Sustainability, Entrepreneurship and Design—and I’m so glad I did! In London, I made some amazing friends, including my boyfriend, and that risk paid off. It was the spark that led to VAER (called Wair back then), and it’s definitely one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

That was a brave move! I’m sure your education greatly contributed to the success of VAER, but it also takes so much more than that to launch a viable business. What aspects of your previous life experience contributed to the success you’ve seen today?

That’s true! It took more than just my college degrees to get VAER off the ground. I think that my upbringing and my life experience have given me a deep belief in myself that has proven absolutely invaluable. I truly believe that I can do anything if I just put the work into it. Although I have never really been exceptional at anything, when I work hard, I always have the ability to become really good at things, whether it’s football or maths. I am convinced that this self-belief has been a major factor in all that I’ve achieved with the business. When I started VAER, I simply believed that I could make more sustainable shoes than the ones that existed on the market. And I worked hard to prove myself right. Having inspiring people to look up to has also been a big factor. When I started my master’s degree, we were told about previous students who now had their own startups, and I knew that if they could do it, then I could do it, too.

Self-belief is essential for entrepreneurs in any field! So many world-changing ideas never make it off the drawing board simply due to a lack of confidence. So much of the startup journey is uncertain, no matter how experienced or knowledgeable you are. We know that nothing ever goes completely to plan. Can you think of a time where you took a different direction than planned?

Yes, so many times things have taken a completely different turn than I had anticipated! I actually thought that I would graduate college and get a normal nine-to-five job. I had spent an entire year in London doing my master’s and basically preparing to start my own company. I had developed the concept for VAER, analysed the environmental impact of traditional sneakers vs upcycled sneakers, participated in startup competitions with the idea, and I even wrote my whole thesis about textile upcycling and how to make it scalable.

Still, I just assumed that, like everyone else, I would go out and get a job when I graduated. However, this did not happen—and not for a lack of trying! I sent so many applications and really put my all into them, but I didn’t get called in for any interviews. So, after a few months of rejections, I decided to start VAER “just until I got a job”. It didn’t take long for VAER to consume my every thought, and before I knew it, the thought of getting a job didn’t appeal to me at all. It was like I was straying away from the path I had created for myself—one I had really wanted to follow. I had been so determined to get a role in my field but fate was like “nope, she shall not get any of those jobs”, which was very disheartening at the time. Of course, now I am very grateful for that. If I had gotten one of those jobs I had applied for, it’s very likely that VAER wouldn’t exist right now.

It sounds like instead of crumbling when faced with a big challenge, like finding a job as a new grad, you were resourceful. You used the knowledge, skills and ideas you had, you adapted, and you overcame it. Failure is another inevitable but educational aspect of running any startup. Have you ever experienced failure, and what did you learn from it?

Failure is always a big word. Personally, I don’t like to see things as failures. Everything I have done or not done has brought me to the point where I am now. However, there are always challenges and hurdles along the way that slow us down and force us to learn important skills. For example, initially, I thought that I could do everything at once. I had no focus at all. Although focus can still be a struggle from time to time, I’ve got a much better handle on it now.

At the beginning of VAER, for instance, I wanted to create upcycled sneakers, develop a DIY upcycling kit and also run upcycling workshops at the same time. I was passionate and excited about all three of these things. There are so many possibilities with textile upcycling, and I really wanted to prove that it can be made scalable with these different methods. Later on, however, I realised that we were just spreading our already limited resources too thin. We had to focus on making the upcycled sneakers a success first. So, we cut out the development of workshops and DIY kits, and we also stopped working on other upcycled fashion products. Today, we focus almost 100% on upcycled sneakers. That’s a lesson I had to learn before VAER could become a success.

I believe this is especially common in mission-focused entrepreneurs because when you want to save the world, you tend to try to do everything at once. Today, I know that letting go of an idea for now doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. I can always come back to it later when I can give it the time and energy it deserves.  

That’s a very common experience among entrepreneurs in the startup phase. It becomes all-consuming and there’s an urgency to help as quickly as possible. Another common but more positive experience is the “aha!” moment—a moment when things seem to click into place and finally make sense. Have you ever experienced an “aha!” moment, and if so, could you tell us about it?

Yes, I have definitely experienced that! I think my biggest “aha!” moment occurred when I watched Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” at school. I was only ten or eleven years old, but I clearly remember being shaken to my core. At the same time, I also had an overwhelming urge to do something about it! So, it was an “aha!” moment both in terms of the serious state that our planet was in and a realisation of my purpose in life. Of course, I didn’t know back then that it was my purpose, but I definitely had a very strong feeling that I wanted to do something to help, no matter what it took. This led to me having a meeting with the school principal about getting solar panels on the roof and creating a recycling system for my classmates’ plastic bottles. That was my big “aha!” moment, and it was certainly an indication of what was to come for me.

It’s pretty cool that your school was exposing its students to the realities of climate change from early on—and just look at what that moment led to! You mentioned your original plan to get a normal nine-to-five job. Entrepreneurs often have to make sacrifices that their peers in traditional employment—even within the same industry, don’t. What kinds of sacrifices did you have to make to get to where you are now?

Hmm… I don’t actually think that I have made any serious sacrifices. While there are disadvantages to taking a non-traditional career path, being an entrepreneur, and going the sustainability route with my career, there are also so many benefits that I experience, including benefits to my happiness and wellbeing.

One of the disadvantages is that it’s often very uncertain. There is no financial stability, and there is definitely a lot of responsibility on my shoulders and those my teammates. Still, I don’t see that as a sacrifice because I don’t think more consistent money or less responsibility would necessarily have made me happier. I’d just be more secure and stable. The way I see it is that I can always go back to a “normal” job if I want to. But right now, life as a textile upcycling entrepreneur is what fulfils me and makes me happy. It has given me so much! I’ve had lots of crazy, amazing experiences that I would never have had if not for VAER. I definitely consider myself a very lucky person, and I’m so grateful to be on this journey.

That’s so great to hear! You’re clearly living your purpose, being creative, and having a huge impact. You briefly mentioned the uncertainty of entrepreneurship, which happens to tie into our next question. The world is currently experiencing a period of great change and uncertainty. Companies like VAER are doing their part to turn the tide and make a difference. We’d love to know how you personally envision the future.

I hope for a future where we, as people and as a society, have a more long-term and holistic mindset. One where we do more of what is good—not just for ourselves, but also for others and our planet.

We know that a lot of our current behaviours are harmful to the planet and that these are  habits that have to be changed. It’s not that we don’t want to do the right things. I believe people feel stuck in conformity and are resigned to “how it has always been”. In recent years and months, however, I’ve noticed that world events, like the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, are speeding up the realisation of how urgent the situation is. Politically and individually, behaviours are shifting. It is my hope that this shift is long-lasting. I hope to see more people taking holidays in their own country, consuming less, eating a more plant-based diet, shifting to green energy, etc.  That’s what I hope for and envision for the future. We don’t have long to make the necessary changes, so I hope it happens fast!  

You’re right about that! Time is of the essence. Let’s quickly flash forward past your lifetime. When you are no longer here on Earth, how would you like people to remember you and your journey?

For me, it’s important that the things I do have a real impact. I would love for my legacy to be that I made a difference. My team and I have saved discarded textiles, we changed the system, we proved the potential of textile upcycling, and we made it scalable to a degree where it became a solution to countless tonnes of unwanted textiles. That’s what I want future generations to remember. I want them to know that with passion, hard work and self-belief, a small group of people—or even an individual—can have an impact on the world. And they can change it for the better.  

That’s a legacy worth striving for, and you’re well on your way to achieving it with VAER! Speaking of future generations, there are so many people—young and old—with big ideas and lots of potential. What advice would you give to them as they start out on their entrepreneurial journeys?

My advice would be to lean into your interests. Do more of what you think is interesting and push yourself to explore it further. I really loved fashion from a young age. Sometimes, I would sew upcycled outfits, do photoshoots, and even make my own blog posts and magazines. All of these things taught me skills that I used when I started VAER. There’s a lot of focus on getting a good education these days, but self-taught skills are just as important. What benefited me most when starting VAER was the skills I learned along the way. Not the fancy theories.

This has been such an inspiring conversation, Lili. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us today. Let’s wrap it up with one final question. If there was one lasting message you could share with the world, what would it be?

Uh, that’s so difficult! There are so many clever quotes out there, so I think I will stay away from big philosophical words. The latest UN report states that it is now or never. We only have four years left to turn the ship in terms of climate change. So, with that terrifying fact in mind, my message would be to not feel discouraged or afraid. Instead, harness those feelings and use them as your motivation to do something now. In a way, we are lucky. We have the knowledge to identify and understand what we are doing wrong and what we can do better. We still have a chance to do something. We can still act and change things!

So, my message would be to start now. Start your own personal sustainability revolution in whatever way you like but do it today! 💪


What a great way to end this inspiring interview! Thanks again to our wonderful guest Lili Dreyer from VAER. If you would like to find out more about Lili and her work at VAER—or maybe even pick up a pair of stylish upcycled sneakers for yourself—you can find her at: www.vaerupcycled.com.  

To stay up to date with all of our latest content and interviews with inspiring entrepreneurs like Lili, subscribe to the Brighter Future newsletter here.

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