From Stanford’s ‘Trash Queen’, Lessons About Startup ‘Failure’

GSB Startup Garage

MBA students working together in Stanford’s Startup Garage course. File photo

For entrepreneurs, Stanford GSB is the place to be. The B-school in the center of Silicon Valley’s ecosystem has long been the most desirable place to network, nurture, and launch new business ideas. Of the 100 startups that attracted the most funding from angel investors and venture capitalists over the past five years, Stanford stakes claim to 39, including ventures that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars.

None of those 39 startups tackle the homegrown problem that Ling wants to see addressed. It’s not a question of whether Stanford, like all business schools, isn’t doing enough when it comes to waste management practices, she says; it’s that the school is missing opportunities.

“I really want to create this community and become the beacon or the voice of the waste industry,” Ling says, “and to draw more attention from the elite institutions and all these MBAs and business students. I want draw their attention to the waste industry.

“Let’s work on this together. It’s all-hands-on-deck time, we need all the talents we can get to address this monumental problem.”


Back in California after spending weeks learning the ins and outs of waste management in St. Louis, Ling began working on her ideas for better waste management on campus — ideas that were born of the mentorship of hundreds of waste operators “who got me to where I am today.” She tried working in software and hardware solutions, but realized she didn’t have the right people on her team to take those ideas forward.

Eventually, she landed on the idea of reusable milk containers. Milk is something most people use, whether in cereal or coffee or as a baking ingredient. Milk cartons are plastic and have been since around the end of World War II, when home-to-home milk delivery began to wane. Ling’s idea was called Silica, which is the chemical compound for glass, “where we revive the milkman model.” It involved getting local dairy producers on board, as well as a couple of kombucha companies and a sauerkraut maker.

The plan was to buy directly from the producers, then deliver the milk. Ling herself signed up the first 12 “beta” customers at farmer’s markets. “We basically got their orders on Friday, and then Sunday is the farmer’s market, so we go and pick up all the bottles and jars of kombucha and sometimes sauerkraut, sometimes milk and sauerkraut, and all of this stuff and then we package them in a cooler, and we deliver it to their door,” she says. “And then the next week we do the same thing, but while we deliver the fresh beverages, we pick up the empty bottles from last week and then we return it back to the vendors. Simple as that.”


People wanted what Silica offered. But there were problems.

“For example, not enough SKUs (stock-keeping units), not enough selections,” she says. But one problem loomed over all others. “It’s really them doing something to feel good at the end of the day, or making me happy at the end of the day, as opposed to doing something that is not making a compromise. They still need to go to a farmer’s market, they still need to go to their grocery store to get the rest of the stuff, and they are limited by the selections — as much as they love this idea.

“I don’t even need to sell them on this idea. But even with the most friendly users, I see some hesitance in keeping the service going. And then the bigger problem is really the tech, the viability, the business side, which is the delivery costs, the door-to-door, last-mile delivery costs. They are prohibitively high.”

Ling explored partnering with grocery delivery services, but couldn’t find a partner — partly, perhaps even mostly, because of the ongoing pandemic. “Can you imagine during Covid, in the thickest of Covid, and we’re asking these grocery delivery partners to tinker with their model?” An even bigger problem: lack of infrastructure for washing and sanitizing the milk bottles.

“That’s actually a bigger pain point, which is really the bottleneck because there’s no commercial bottle washing facility existing in the Bay Area,” Ling says. “In fact, there is a national shortage of those bottle washers. It’s $10,000 or something and it costs a fortune.

“At the end of the day, landfill is cheap, single-use is cheap for a reason: because of the tons of dollars in investment that we already invested in the plastic industry and CPG industry as a beneficiary of that.”


Certainly, Ling says, she “got a lot of learning out of all the entrepreneurship classes and resources at GSB.” But she also saw ways the school could improve. In her Medium piece, she writes that while Stanford GSB offers multiple startup classes, “I would like the GSB to draw in more diverse perspectives on entrepreneurial leadership. For example, I wish there could be more case studies and training programs on how to become an effective intrapreneur who can influence executive level decision-makers, source fundings from corporate VCs, design and prototype ideas with limited human resources, and develop workarounds for legal restrictions.”

Further, “I wish I learned how to pitch different value propositions to a non-business audience.” Ling writes that she was involved in the petition process for a California Assembly bill around reusables, but “I could have been more confident and skilled at navigating such situations, if I had learned and practiced techniques to engage diverse stakeholders for system-level change — e.g., how to interact with government officials, how to create industry alliances for lobbying, and how to mobilize local constituents to advocate for policy changes.”

Finally, she writes that GSB’s “all-in mentality” is not always the key formula for success that the school makes it out to be. “The constant stress of wanting to take on this insurmountable beast from an outsider’s perspective, coupled with the loneliness of not having a co-founder, cracked me,” Ling writes. “I didn’t build in the time and space to take care of myself.”

Stanford did offer many helpful resources, Ling says. One of the most important to her was a peer support group put together by Russell Siegelman, a lecturer in management. The group met biweekly “to celebrate wins and discuss challenges,” Ling writes, “and I feel lucky to have had informal GSB mentors and peer groups to support me along my trash journey. I would like the GSB to offer a more formalized, structured space for topics such as slow burnouts, mental health, and identity issues faced by future change makers.”

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