During almost 11 years as a tea entrepreneur, I have met many others in tea and have found our stories to be both very personal and extremely passionate. Ours is not like other industries, in which one goes to college to become a programmer, a doctor, or a teacher – tea finds us and holds us, sometimes captive and sometimes like an easy friend, but always keeping us in its fold. Tea has a spirit, and once that spirit enters us, there’s no going back. It can be this way for enthusiasts and aficionados as well as growers, blenders, and importers. It’s a lifestyle of changing nuances in flavor, of mystery, and of wonder.
How tea enters our lives as entrepreneurs is fascinating, and once we are over our sometimes big egos about whose tea is better (remember: 95% of tea companies do not grow, pick, and process tea with their own hands, but cup and buy others’ artful harvest!), we can get to the core of our being with tea.
The essence of tea is not about doing, but about being. It’s not about having, but about experiencing. Sometimes we let the business of tea overshadow this spiritual voyage, and get wrapped up in it; but at its purest, tea is a way of life that speaks to us of quiet, calm, and sharing – all things we need more of in this very challenging world.
My story is not as wondrous as many of my colleagues in tea, but it was hugely challenging for me and it made my son, Sage, and me and our little brand what we are today. When I started Zhena’s Gypsy Tea, it was to support my son and me. At the time, we were in dire straits. He needed an operation and I was a single mom with no obvious means of ensuring he got it. Back then, I was a writer, tea enthusiast, and herbalist who had had a little success in aromatherapy by creating the scents for a popular beauty product line, for which I was paid with free shampoo – obviously, I was not a business woman!
We knew Sage’s condition required an operation within a few days of his six-week birthday, but we had been turned down by health insurance and had to muscle through the clinic and welfare system in California to get him the operation he needed. Through this process, Sage was treated like a second-class citizen and I was openly shamed for the situation I was in as a young, single mom with a child in need of surgery to save his life. We were victims of a lack of resources and a system that demanded expensive insurance.
Only a few weeks after this humiliating experience, an importer I knew told me about Fair Trade-certified teas and how they helped to guarantee health care for those living in developing countries. He gave me some teas from the three gardens that had been certified at that time. With more research, I learned that in some tea fields, infant mortality rates hovered around 70%, something I could not bear hearing. I related to this at my core and I decided that I would focus my energy on helping to remedy this situation once Sage had healed.
It was difficult for me to grasp that a beverage we find so much pleasure in often came to us at the expense of the workers in the fields – generally mothers and their children. I needed to care for Sage and I needed an income to do so, so I borrowed some money and bought an espresso cart, wheeled it into my girlfriend’s store with Sage in a baby carrier, and started going about serving, blending, and learning how to source teas exclusively from Fair Trade-certified gardens.
After almost losing my baby, I found my life’s mission through the simple cups of tea I served and drank while practically living at UCLA the first few years of my child’s life. Tea comforted me through Sage’s operations and carried us in its arms through our hardest times. It gave me the strength to be there for him and to fight for him. And then when I learned how to source Fair Trade teas from gardens in India and Sri Lanka, tea gave me the strength to fight for the women and children affected by poverty. Being in poverty myself, I became dedicated to ending it for the women in the tea fields.
When Gypsy Tea started to get into stores like Whole Foods, it was the mission that was unique to buyers, so they bought it. Fair Trade coffee was known, but Fair Trade tea wasn’t. We were the only entirely Fair Trade-certified line of tea at the time (Choice Organic was the very first, and had a few Fair Trade options), and our story of Fair Trade inspired buyers to participate and help. The story of the tea workers and my own story helped us grow, not because it was a well-developed brand-manager-type story, but because it was a sincere story from the heart – something buyers identified with and were drawn to. Little by little, we were able to make ends meet and Sage healed over time. When the product started to sell, I was able to start paying off our medical bills. The success of the product was synonymous with the health of my child and my ability to ensure he stayed healthy. Tea saved the day.
What happened was the mission carried me, the tea itself nurtured me, and the blending became a way of life for my son and me. Tea wasn’t a job, but a calling; it compelled me to keep going when I didn’t know what else to do. Thus the tagline for our tea – The Original Spirit of Tea. It isn’t my ego that is in this to win, but my heart – and the stories of women in the tea fields – that makes me want to do all I can to help ease these women’s struggle. The fact that my baby needed an operation drove me to tea, and tea, in turn, redeemed me and lifted me out of poverty.
My dedication to tea is at times an obsession. I pretty much forced my husband to elope to the tea fields of Sri Lanka with me, where we had a three-day wedding with our tea pluckers. And when I asked him to spend our honeymoon at a tea factory, jokes abounded. It’s not the money anymore as Sage’s health is great, he is healed, and I was able to pay off the medical bills. Now it’s about staying true to the mission, growing the movement, and accepting the challenges of life selling to mainstream stores. So many brands today have gone the Fair Trade route, and in my own little way, I like to think we helped pave the way.
My tea story is one of many out there. If you have a story about how you came to tea or how it came to you, please share it! I want to share our love for tea and show the world that there can be a spirit in a product – something that is authentic, not a slick ad, but a true tale. My next post will take us to Sri Lanka!