To the iconic images of women working among tea-bushes in Assam or serving chai to suitors in their living room, add the last decade’s array of women who have stepped up to open their own tea companies. Their brews are stocked in swanky hotels and restaurants and tucked into gourmet boxes today, and perhaps even more impressive than these fine teas are the women behind them, pioneers who carved space in what was traditionally a male-dominated industry. Meet five tea-preneurs behind your daily cuppa.
Snigdha Manchanda, Tea Trunk
The inspiration? In 2011, I was India’s first certified tea sommelier. My plan was to start a tea school in India because I hadn’t found any academic institution here when I wanted to study tea professionally. But after my return to India, when I started hosting tea appreciation and tea tastings, I realised that people wanted to be able to regularly buy the teas I was curating. That led me to launch just six tea blends in 2013; it took me two years to curate the teas and perfect the recipes. I grew up collecting teas and storing them in my father’s vintage trunk, so I decided to name my company as a tribute to where my love of tea began.
One thing you wish you knew early on? How hard it was going to be to build an offline distribution channel. We were going up against big brands. Listing fees and the attitude of distributors were prohibitive for us in the early stages so we turned our attention to ecommerce, where we bypassed all our challenges and went straight to the tea-lovers.
Hardest part? 2020 was hard. I made a decision to retain 100% of our employees through COVID and paid salaries to all. Almost everyone on our team is the breadwinner for their family. It was hard managing company finances in the short-term but I knew this decision will have long-term repercussions. We doubled down on ecommerce. Over the last seven years we were building a digital-first brand, so we already had the customer-base. Being in Goa, we were in a green zone; we were open with limited staff during lockdown and continued shipping all teas. No salary cuts also meant the team’s motivation was high and all of us put in the hard work while taking all safety precautions to grow our ecommerce revenue 8X during lockdown.
Are there challenges you faced as a woman in the business? Tea has been a legacy trading business run by men for generations. The first time I went up to a tea estate and said I am a tea sommelier, I was given a row of teas to taste and prove myself! However, in the last five years with the brand we’ve built, things have changed. Today I find my biggest supporters and cheerleaders are men from the tea industry, that is, tea estate-owners. They appreciate how Tea Trunk is spreading awareness regarding Indian teas and admire our work on the advocacy and knowledge-sharing. We’re trying to partner and collaborate with as many family-owned tea estates in India as possible.
What change would you like to see? I wish more people started asking “Where is my tea from?” Just like wine, the provenance and terroir plays such an important role in the flavour profile of tea. I hope people realise their choices are powerful tools of change. Every time you buy something you have the power to decide whether your money is going in the pockets of a farmer or a large MNC.
Advice? I talk to a lot of women entrepreneurs who never end up starting because they’re trying to perfect their product before putting it out there or worrying too much how it will be received. The truth is no one knows the answers! You have to take a shot at it. I encourage women entrepreneurs to stop daydreaming about their big startup and start small today by taking baby steps in the real world.
Personal favourite teas? I encourage everyone to switch their teas every season. As we’re on the cusp of summer, my current favourite is Hibiscus Green Tea. It has a touch of fennel seeds which is cooling for the body. We also have hibiscus petals under our Botanicals collection: this is just the pure whole flowers so it’s caffeine-free and can be consumed any time of day. It even makes a great cocktail and you can use it to infuse in your gin or vodka.
Radhika Chopra, No. 3 Clive Road
The inspiration? When I returned from the United States, I realised that despite being the second-largest tea exporter in the world, India did not have a premium, luxury tea brand that was recognised globally. So, I set out to create a brand that would celebrate our tea heritage, allowing us to pause from our fast-paced world. Through a range of classic teas and handcrafted blends, a story was woven, taking you to different regions of our beautiful country.
One thing you wish you knew early on? Making the jump from a boutique brand to a business that supplies to hotels and restaurants, exports across the world and simultaneously scales ecommerce, requires a high-functioning core team that can get anything done!
Hardest part? Convincing Indian tea-drinkers to taste beyond their beloved milky masala chai and develop a palate for single-estate, high-grade classics and refined artisanal tea blends. We have stayed true to our brand values from day one with educational campaigns to share our commitment, elevating tea traditions from India, giving back to the community that supports our industry and creating a product that is proudly produced in India.
How difficult is it for a woman entrepreneur in the tea industry? In our first year, we were knocking on estate-doors and explaining ourselves as a new entrant in an industry that was steeped in reputation and largely focused on export. Today, four years later, estates call us to pre-book their seasonal harvest.
What change would you like to see? I wish that industry trading, auction practices and pricing were more transparent and inclusive.
Advice? Start anywhere! As we did…in a male-dominated industry, we have charted a new path, creating a beautiful brand with ethical practices that firmly believes in great design, transparency and bringing the finest full-leaf teas from across India to consumers around the world.
Personal favourite teas? For me, sipping a cup of tea is about being transported to a time and place. My interpretation of a classic Earl Grey combines Assam tea and bergamot oil with a twist of dried orange, fennel and cornflower petals, reminiscent of the blue pigment which graces the walls of Jodhpur. When I created this blend, I imagined polo players stopping by for tea in the verandah against a backdrop of the majestic Mehrangarh Fort.
Anamika Singh, Anandini Himalaya Tea
The inspiration? It feels genetically passed on as my parents have been in the tea industry forever. I wanted to give it a finer nuance so I created Anandini in 2014. It has been 30 years that I have been working with the sunshine in a cup.
One thing you wish you knew early on? That my heart is always right.
Hardest part? Making the chai-drinking nation appreciate the nuances of tea.
Are there challenges you faced as a woman in the business? Finding the courage to start in a male-dominated industry and retaining my femininity is a challenge that I face. I am still working at it. It is a never-ending process. For me, the change has been there because I feel the brand has proved itself.
What change would you like to see? For people to become aware of the difference between fake tea and real tea. To be real is to be transparent. To pay attention to the source, the estate from where you get the tea is of utmost importance. To be able to work honestly with farmers and support their livelihood. One has to give emphasis to the soil, the natural habitat, that surrounds us without completely depleting its goodness. It is crucial to pay attention to the ingredients that we add to tea blends, which could include flowers, spices or herbs, avoiding any sort of flavours, preservatives or artificial oils.
Advice? The glass ceiling is only in your head! Break through it!
Personal favourite teas? Firdaus, the Golden Needle Tea and the Pinewood Smoked Tea are my favourites! I like to drink them all the time! I spent hours blending teas. So when it comes down to drinking it, I don’t have to think about it, I just add hot water.
Ami Bhansali, Chai Diaries
The inspiration? In 2010, I was doing a refresher business course at New York Business School and our dissertation was a business plan. I thought it would be cool to present a chai café—someplace where mindfulness and great teas meld! My grandfather, whom I was very close to, had passed away a few years ago. Among other things, I was in awe of his entrepreneurial skills. Our family has tea gardens in south India and he pioneered a culture of bringing people together in networking clubs over tea. Sitting in Central Park after class, watching New Yorkers and tourists bustle by, I was reminded of the quiet life on our tea estate and that captivating aroma of tea leaves as I walked our factories with my dad as a little girl. That moment that inspired the dissertation and led to some fantastic meetings that felt like the Universe was guiding me over the years in launching Chai Diaries!
One thing you wish you knew early on? How difficult running a product-based business really is! I had spent a decade in the service business, most of which was entrepreneurial with my public relations firm. The crazy world of logistics, inventory management, customs, shipping, sales data didn’t exist for me! With Chai Diaries, I had to learn everything on my own, in a new country, selling to people I didn’t know.
Hardest part? One of the most challenging times was when I decided to start Chai Diaries. It was launched in India in 2011 and in the USA in 2013 with no back-up. No investment from family or outside. No friends or interns to help with the business. I had taken the last of my savings and gone to New York from Mumbai. I wanted to attend a tea show scheduled in Philadelphia and so borrowed hotel money from my friend (I was that broke!) and took a 2.5 hour bus ride there! I had the concept and design of Chai Diaries but needed an opening to formally “launch”. Luckily, that show was God-given; it brought in an opportunity that finalised our launch.
Are there challenges you faced as a woman in the business? Challenges from my own home all the way to vendors. While my family has a background in tea, Chai Diaries is a specialty tea brand so I had to create my own blends and find my own sources. My dad was skeptical of my business. Vendors wouldn’t take me seriously, always waiting to see if there was a “man in the business” they could talk to or email or discuss costings with! At trade shows where my husband would be helping me, it was automatically assumed that this is his business and I am helping him! Tea is a pretty closely held industry and there are a handful of manufacturers in India–all run by men and their families or immediate circle. My dad introduced me to a few people and that helped break ground, otherwise they wouldn’t give me the time of day as a newbie! There is a lot of incredulity when they see Chai Diaries is a woman-owned brand, a lot of mansplaining in meetings which I have now learned to navigate. There is a tendency to wait for a man to show up for their comfort and to make sense of this crazy girl thinking she can export tea and have a successful global brand! But, these last seven years have changed my skeptical naysayers to cheerleaders wanting to do business with me. And I think that’s great, because not only is it a win for me, it opens doors for so many other young brands and women-led enterprises.
What change would you like to see? I really wish doing business in India was easier, that vendors delivered by the timelines committed and communication was easier. I genuinely wish more people understood the importance of entrepreneurship and were willing to back small businesses.
Advice? As a small business owner, you need to be your own best cheerleader. It is easy to spin down the dark alley of self-doubt and loathing. You need to trust you are doing something bigger than yourself. You are providing a service and helping your community. That is what kept me going, I wanted more women to accept entrepreneurship as a way of life. As a mom of two, it is a constant juggle of roles but somehow we find the strength to do it. Don’t get threatened if you are the only girl in the room, stand tall and proud and let your voice be heard. It gets overwhelming, but you break each problem into a smaller challenge, and you remember to celebrate each win. I remember being disheartened after a retail meeting and a friend gave me the best advice ever. She said, “Take the emotion out of it.” What that meant is that a “no” isn’t a “no” forever, it’s a “not right now”, and that changed the game for me. I followed up without my ego getting in the way with vendors, suppliers, customers, networking associates until they heard me. That is one of the biggest challenges I overcame for Chai Diaries to finally catch a break.
Personal favourite teas? We have Tulsi Green and Good Moringa immunity-building teas for the morning. Everything is Mama is a tea to help with lactation, which I created when I was nursing my baby during lockdown in India. My toddler loves to sit with me at tea-time and that inspired our Sweet Like Chocolate rooibos-based tea that is rich in minerals and caffeine-free so it can be enjoyed by kids. I love to drink the organic Bombay Masala Tea straight, with no milk or sugar. Sometimes I crave coffee so I make our “dirty chai” with our instant vanilla premix and a shot of nespresso. There is so much fun to be had with tea–as a cocktail, iced tea, salad dressing and now you can use it as a mask too!
Isha Mehta, Satori Tea
The inspiration? I took a break from working in advertising, to do something for myself. I always loved tea and wanted to learn more about it so I signed up for a course in tea tasting and marketing at the Indian Institute of Plantation Management, Bengaluru. After my first day in the lab, I knew I was in the right place. I decided to promote orthodox Indian-origin teas within the country. Satori was founded in 2017. We source from tea estates mainly in south India and Assam; our ingredients are region-specific, such as orange from Nagpur.
One thing you wish you knew early on? The number of processes and the time it would take to ensure an optimum-quality product for the customer. From the tasting of the leaves and ingredients to the packaging collaterals, it can be time-consuming for a start-up. I had all the help I could get from my friends and family with the inventory.
Hardest part? Being able to bring Satori to life with the vision I had in mind. We had to ensure that the website and every collateral speaks to the customer of mindfulness, of an alternate way of living.
Are there challenges you faced as a woman in the business? There were no instances of gender discrimination in my experience, however, there is a lack of gender representation. Just like many industries, the tea industry is predominantly male. While the buying, auctioning and tasting happens by men, the plucking of leaves is allocated to women specifically for their nimble fingers and that’s where the role for most women ends. We work with some estates that are actively trying to change this generational role and assigning women higher roles along with more responsibility. While things are slowly changing, we have a long way to go.
Advice? Do everything you do with love. I add a thank-you note to each box of tea as my way of connecting with the customer and hoping the tea will bring a little bit of joy.
Personal favourite teas? I have a weakness for Hojicha, Golden Twirl and Lavender Dream. A hot cup of Lavender Dream—a silver needle white tea blended with Himalayan lavender buds—soothes my nerves. For the hot summer days ahead, I would love to recommend a cold-brewed Lavender Dream: take 2.5gm of tea leaves and place in an empty bottle. Fill the bottle with 1L of filtered water at room temperature. Cap and place it in the fridge for five hours (don’t over-steep the tea). Then strain the brew with a strainer and serve chilled. You could also make it a cocktail by adding gin and topping with dried rosemary leaves. Don’t throw away the tea leaves, they can be re-used three times more.