“Living on an island, you’re taught to really take care of what you have on the land,” Yamamoto says. “We need to respect it in order for our communities to thrive.”
She took this early lesson to heart, using it to drive the way she runs her businesses, enlightens her students and sees the world. This philosophy of caring for the environment and community formed the roots of her company, Cropsticks by Cropmade, a chopstick company that aims to leave behind a greener planet for future generations.
“Living on an island, you’re taught to really take care of what you have on the land. We need to respect it in order for our communities to thrive.”
The seeds for Cropsticks were planted on a flight from Los Angeles to Singapore in 2015. With every little bump of turbulence, Yamamoto found herself struggling to keep the chopsticks she was using from rolling off her tray table and onto the airplane floor.
There must be a more efficient design for chopsticks to keep them clean and in place on a table, she thought to herself. With hours left of her flight to mull over possible solutions, she came up with the idea for the product that would eventually become her startup company, Cropsticks.
Cropsticks, which launched in March 2017, focuses on reducing the destruction of the environment. Its chopsticks are made from bamboo, a renewable resource and an eco-friendly alternative to using wood, Yamamoto says. Bamboo is a crop—that’s where Yamamoto pulled inspiration for the name. It grows years faster than trees and requires less space.
“Some people just say, ‘Oh, it’s just a chopstick.’ Well, no, we’re contributing to a mission to do better for the world, do better for the next generation,” Yamamoto says. “We’re trying to cut fewer trees down. We’re trying to innovate a product that hasn’t been innovated in 4,000 years.”
“Some people just say, ‘Oh, it’s just a chopstick.’ Well, no, we’re contributing to a mission to do better for the world, do better for the next generation.”
Cropsticks garnered early attention after Yamamoto was a contestant on the ABC reality television show Shark Tank. Her family huddled around TV sets in both Los Angeles and Hawaii on the night of April 7, 2017, to watch her and her husband, Ron Tansingco, pitch their company to the show’s panel of internationally renowned entrepreneurs worth billions of dollars. The hope was to get one of them to invest in their business.
Although Yamamoto left Shark Tank without a deal, Cropsticks’ sales have grown ever since. Her biggest clients include Disney, Walgreens and Roy’s Restaurant, she says.
She taught her first course—on public speaking, at 22 years old while working toward a master’s degree—and eventually returned as an adjunct professor. She would later go on to serve as a clinical professor and associate director for the Center for Entrepreneurship at Loyola Marymount University.
Leading classes at a young age allowed her to relate to her students and helped her develop a more collaborative approach to teaching, she says. Yamamoto encouraged her students to work together and share their ideas while applying the theories they learned in class.
Yamamoto attributes the foundation of her teaching approach to her professors at Cal State LA.
“They made their students feel seen,” Yamamoto recalls. “They made me feel like I mattered. They made me feel smart, and if I didn’t understand something they would help me find the solution.”
She wanted to be able to do the same for her students.
“Watching her teach, of course, she just takes all those qualities to the front of the classroom,” says Communication Studies faculty member Lena M. Chao, Yamamoto’s professor and later colleague at Cal State LA. “She has command yet she’s not heavy-handed; she’s respectful.”
“They had a great culture in the classroom where people were friends; it wasn’t just a class,” says Barney Santos, a Cal State LA alumnus and the former head of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the College of Business and Economics at Cal State LA. He worked with Yamamoto and her students to establish Startup Weekend. “I was really impressed by the culture that she created and how it extended beyond the classroom.”
A common thread throughout Yamamoto’s life is that she looks beyond the boundaries of her circumstances. Whether she’s leading a class, running a business or just going about her day, she is mindful of how her actions will affect her community, the planet and those who will come after her.
Now she lives in Playa del Rey, a beachside community on the western edge of Los Angeles, with her husband, who oversees business development for Cropsticks, and their 2-year-old terrier-dachshund pup, Amos. She spends most of her time in Los Angeles, but she often travels to Hawaii for business and to visit family.
Her short-term dream is for air travelers to have Cropsticks resting on their tray tables. But her ultimate goal? It’s to see the chopstick market switch completely over to bamboo.
Kaitlin Ragland is a student at Cal State LA majoring in television, film and media studies.