Goodbye Fast Fashion; Neeka and Leila Mashouf’s Plan for Carbon Negative Clothing

Neeka and Leila Mashouf, co-founders of Rubi Laboratories
Neeka and Leila Mashouf, co-founders of Rubi Laboratories

Is Green the new Black? In SCET’s Fall 2022 A. Richard Newton Lecture Series: A Berkeley Changemaker® Course Berkeley Grad Neeka and her twin sister Leila Mashouf talk about their experience with tackling the war against carbon emissions through fashion as a female-owned startup. 

The story of Rubi Laboratories as a force in driving sustainable change is not only revolutionary for the future of textiles but also in pioneering carbon-negative fashion. Their innovation – cellulosic (or sometimes called natural-mimicking) fibers that are water- chemical- and land-neutral, 100% traceable, and naturally biodegradable  –  is impressive, to say the least – and it’s just the beginning.

“When you look throughout history, our progress as a society is related to the materials we developed. Even the names of some eras are named after materials.” 

Neeka Mashouf

Their journey had to start somewhere, and the story of the accomplished Mashouf twins is nothing if not inspiring. Now an alumna, as a Berkeley student, Neeka earned degrees in materials science & engineering and business administration which prepared her to start her career as a product engineer at Lyft in Silicon Valley. She soon left to co-found Rubi Laboratories as CEO along with her sister Leila. 

While her experiences have been vast, Neeka confessed that she had a uniquely early start working on sustainable materials having worked on research within materials engineering since high school,. Neeka reflected that even at the age of 15 she was fascinated with “understanding the natural world through science, and applying that to new technologies to change the way we do things.”  While Neeka was lucky to find her passion even before coming to college, she found her passion to innovate and invent new technologies was further fueled at Berkeley after working across different research initiatives, including solar and wind energy storage. 

Leila Mashouf had an early start in the field, earning her BS in computational neuroscience at John Hopkins University, helping with pioneering research in cancer and therapeutics. In the course, she shared her personal experience of witnessing a close relative undergo brain surgery to remove a tumor inspiring her with the potential medicine has to make a difference. From then on, her determination and focus on biomedical research in health-focused fields persisted. Leila was completing her last year in medical school at Harvard University when she co-founded Rubi Laboratories as their CFO. Overseeing the development of the products, her role was pivotal in creating the early prototypes. 

“It was a little intimidating switching fields to something I was dreaming of doing for so long, but once I did it just made sense.”

Leila Mashouf

The New Frontier: Decarbonizing supply chains and creating a planet positive industry

Entrepreneurs by nature and trade, Leila and Neeka created Rubi Laboratories during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a time when everyone was working to find purpose, the twins decided to find meaning by tackling one of the hardest environmental concerns: the unsustainability of fast fashion. They recognized its large carbon footprint and wanted to reduce it and make a positive global impact. They found irony in there being such a large carbon footprint in fashion since the products are made of natural materials (e.g. polymers and polyester). Fashion being one of the industries with the largest footprint, and having grown up surrounding the industry, it made complete sense to them to face it head-on. Textiles usually being a natural carbon molecule, there was a gap where decarbonization in design could be found.

Making the most out of your opportunities

Anyone at Berkeley can attest to the difficulties faced through academics and the ambition needed to join extracurriculars, but for Neeka joining extracurriculars was an important and valuable experience. Neeka advocates for an extrospective approach to learning, and feels her experience in CalSol (UC Berkeley’s Solar Vehicle Team) was crucial in understanding the fundamentals of engineering and management. Going through the stages of designing, building, and testing the cars proved pivotal in her journey as she could see the real-life applications of her team’s work. Moving within fields as well as within the team, proved significant in understanding how important each role is to the overall creation of a product – nothing was more fun than her experience driving the CalSol car! 

Besides CalSol, her experience in The Berkeley Group was influential in understanding the business aspect of running an organization, which was a dream of hers. A cyclical and rewarding moment as well as her return to the Newton Series as a speaker after having attended many lectures herself. She expressed her deep appreciation for the lessons she learned from past speakers, reminiscing about some of the advice she had taken that proved beneficial for the past few years after graduating. She recounted a particularly useful lecture where the speaker – Jessica Mah, founder, and CEO of inDinero – discussed how to deal with conflict within your team. Those lessons proved crucial in maintaining a healthy relationship with her sister and partner Leila Mashouf, and she was happy she could return to the Series to share her own insights to pay it forward.

Conflict Resolution – Neeka’s takeaways as an undergraduate attending the Newton Series

Understanding your individual roles

Many times conflict within a team can arise from not having distinctions between what’s considered whose responsibility. Make sure that those roles and tasks are outlined in advance and most importantly that everyone takes accountability for their responsibilities

  • Personal Example: Neeka having a strong drive for entrepreneurship and business took the lead as the CEO, organizing the logistical administrative elements of Rubi Laboratories. While Leila, having a strong background in bioengineering became CTO, leading the more innovative and experimental side of creating the technology.

A partnership is like a marriage

Just like any relationship, a partnership needs to be worked through. If there are issues between partners the whole empire burns down, so maintaining that relationship is key. Going to marriage counselors can actually prove beneficial for partners, improving communication and getting both parties in a state of most effectively working together

Being constructive and communicative

When road mapping goals it’s imperative to be on the same page and know where your partner is coming from. Having a framework for how you collaborate on the formal side of the business can be extremely helpful, especially when that is separate from a general check-up on the goings on between CEO and CTO.

Passions: Are they important?

While juggling a major’s requirements is already tasking, especially as a Haas applicant and engineering student, Neeka shared how important taking classes that interest you are. Is there an example she might have? Why yes! A synthetic biology class taken on a whim actually catalyzed Rubi Laboratories’ conception. Curiosity for alternative proteins and bioengineering as a field actually brought her closer to where she is now. Seemingly a full circle moment that also connected to Leila’s skillset and heavily contributed to what is now a subversive enterprise they both lead together. The Mahrouf twins emphasize how crucial finding your unique interests and following what excites you is to find your sweet spot.

If I’d take away one thing from Neeka Mahsrouf, I would say don’t be afraid, “I always focused on testing out and trying different ventures.” Even if they weren’t multimillion-dollar success stories, it was the act of solving those problems that ignited her spark for innovation.