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

Stanford Office of Sustainability

What’s next for the “Trash Queen of Stanford”? Despite her “failures” in entrepreneurship, she won’t give up on waste management as a career. It is “in my DNA,” she says. And Stanford has been an invaluable part of that journey.

“I would say GSB really brought it to life for me, so I’m forever grateful for that,” Ling says. “It’s a realization that waste is an important problem in the GSB and, broadly speaking, the Stanford community.”

She has planned some events for her final weeks as a student around the All About No Waste community that she founded earlier this year with Julie Muir, the university’s zero waste systems manager, who “has been a tremendous mentor to me.”

“And so the goal of this community is convene everyone, exchange ideas, and also really elevate the importance of this topic to people who don’t think about waste,” Ling says, “and who don’t think really waste touches on their professional life or personal life. And so there’s a little bit of top-down, trickling-down knowledge, and giving people  platform to exchange ideas — and then a bottom-up cultivating of this culture.”

The culture is well on its way to cultivation.

“It’s funny because I don’t even need to open my mouth whenever I’m in the room — my friends just immediately start noticing, ‘What’s wrong with the trash things?’ and start complaining about trash. Of course everyone complains about trash, but I think there’s a little bit of a social component as well, and I’m grateful for that.”


But she needs think about her career. Not especially eager to put herself out there again in the risky world of entrepreneurship, Ling is looking for opportunities to take her passion to the next level with an established company, possibly a role in operations or supply chain with a company that has a large physical footprint. “So, tangible products like consumer electronics or delivery services, or waste management services, or food and ag companies,” she says. “So across verticals, but looking at roles where it sits in the central unit of the business, where it controls the physical flow and has the most impact on the environmental footprint from a waste perspective.

“So most likely it’s going to be an operation supply chain type of role, because that’s really where the biggest dent is going to happen. That’s where I’m looking next. But also obviously on the side, finishing up school and getting involved in this conversation with our School of Earth department on the School of Sustainability. So Stanford, I’m not sure if you know but we established School of Sustainability back in 2019 or maybe 2020.

And it’s very exciting to me personally, because this is the opportunity for the entire school, all the different talents to come together and address it collaboratively. And it’s such a timely topic because of the UN Climate Summit. A report just came out, we screwed up, as we all know but the report is out and Biden administration is doubling down on the Infrastructure Bill and it’s just a really favorable moment. And I feel proud and excited to be here at this point and there’s just so much more to do.


Caroline Ling wants to share what she has learned with fellow waste innovators and show them they are not alone in the battle to reduce waste. She wants to draw attention to the gaps in the MBA education system when it comes to teaching entrepreneurship to solve planetary and human health problems. And she hopes to use her voice to elevate the importance of this topic among MBA institutions, and encourage MBA students to see the complexity and need for business talents to work on this most important societal issue.

“At the end of the day,” she says, “Stanford GSB did provide the platform for me to go out and try and fail.

“The entrepreneurship mantras, they apply to a certain extent, but they don’t apply equally to every problem that we’re solving, especially if it touches on planetary and human health. There’s more metrics, there’s more dimensions out there that we need to think about, more stakeholders that we need to think about.

“So those are the things that are all evolving theories that I’m trying to grapple with. And honestly, a big part of it is also personal. I was just talking to a group of climate friends and some of us feel this anxiety of being an entrepreneur  — there are all of these downsides to being an entrepreneur. How do we maintain physical and mental sanity when they’re doing all of these things, without feeling too attached to it?

“This is a common thing that happens among entrepreneurs who are working on social or environmental problems, because we are so personally attached to the problem. And one day of not solving a problem is one day of feeling a sense of guilt or unrealistic expectations of ourselves, so there’s that component, too.”

Read Caroline Ling’s story on Medium, 3 Lessons From My Short-lived Waste Entrepreneurshiphere.


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