Esha Chhabra and Smita Satiani are the co-founders of Alaya Tea, a tea company that celebrates communities in tea growing regions of the world and addresses environmental challenges we face through agriculture. Urban Asian spoke to Esha and Smita about their endeavor in initiating this company and how they are giving back to uplift local farming communities in India. Learn more about how these tea entrepreneurs are revolutionizing the way we source and drink our tea in the United States:
1. What inspired you both to become entrepreneurs?
Esha: I’ve been working as a writer and journalist independently for more than 10 years. So I’m used to the entrepreneurial life, in that sense. But I wanted to start a business like this — that aligns with farmers and businesses so committed to improving the environment — because I have spent so much time reporting on these issues. It’s something that I was able to witness first-hand and I finally just wanted to jump in. Alaya, the name, comes from Himalaya: it’s an area that I’ve been able to explore in India and in Bhutan. The foothills and the valleys are beautiful, as are the people working to preserve them. I’d love to be a small part of their story through our tea company.
Smita: I love tea but hated American culture’s relationship with it — rushing, gulping down hot water with poor-quality bags, and not always appreciating the work and nature behind that tea. I wanted to see a company that created a fresher, more eco and worker-friendly option for US consumers. I didn’t see one out there, so decided to build it.
2. How did you both meet?
We met 8 years ago, on a cross-country train journey across the U.S. (the train journey was modeled after a similar train journey that happens in India every year, called the Jagriti Yatra). Smita had been advising the project and Esha was a journalist-in-residence covering the trip. Over the years we stayed in touch as friends, and had been appreciative of each other’s work in the social impact sectors. A few years ago, we came together to create Alaya.
3. What was the inspiration behind starting Alaya Tea?
We launched Alaya in the Fall of 2019, but had been working on the concept for almost a year beforehand. The idea came together over drinks one night in San Francisco, after one of Esha’s many trips traveling the world as a journalist. She had just returned from Darjeeling, one of India’s most iconic tea growing regions, and had spent time learning about what some farmers were doing to actively mitigate climate change’s impacts in the Himalayan region (things like monsoons, landslides, and runoff).
Smita had always wanted to start a different type of tea company, one that paid respect to Indian land and workers, and made quality tea more accessible. As an Indian American, she grew up with tea being a central part of her day, but saw that same obsession with tea drinking that Indians have hadn’t quite translated to Americans. She shared this dream with Esha, and together we thought: can we create a company that brings the concept of tea time to Americans, and in a fresher, more planet-friendly way?
4. Why is the mission aspect of Alaya Tea so important to you? How does your business model involve giving back?
Both of us have spent the last 10 years working in the social impact and sustainability spaces (Esha as an environmental and sustainability journalist, and Smita as a climate and social policy expert). We started Alaya to build a company that respects and invests in farmers, the women that are the backbone of the tea agriculture industry, and the health of tea-growing ecosystems in India.
Unlike much of the tea industry (which has relied on auction houses and traders), we source our teas directly from farmers and tea estates. No middlemen or brokers are involved. This way, the farmers can get a higher price for their crops, reinvesting those funds into their farming practices and the people who work the land. Our shorter supply chain also allows customers to get the freshest product. We think that’s a win-win.
We also work with Fair Trade (or Fair For Life) farms. This means that workers receive benefits like housing, pension funds, healthcare, and educational training. And the estates we work with are not only about the health of their workers, but the health of the planet as well. They are rebuilding soils and combating climate change in their regions through biodynamic and regenerative organic practices: planting trees to protect from landslides and runoff (especially important in hilly areas such as Darjeeling); making their own organic fertilizers using bio waste and local materials; using mulch and covering the soil, and just leaving areas for forestry amidst the tea gardens.
5. What have you learned from developing the Alaya Tea brand?
We’ve learned that if businesses want to make better choices, they can. It’s not going to be easy (we spent 9 months trying to find the most eco-friendly packaging — and we still want to improve it), but it is possible. Yes, there will be increased costs, and yes, it may be a bit harder in the beginning, but we think it’s worth it.
We’ve also found that if you ask for help, people are indeed happy to offer their assistance. Don’t be shy! Whenever we have questions, we seek out the help of fellow entrepreneurs and they’re generally happy to point us in the right direction.
Most of all, just start. We are learning. We will all make mistakes, but just start on the path and you’ll find like-minded folks who are keen to support you.
6. What new announcements should we look forward to from Alaya Tea soon?
Over the process of building Alaya, we’ve had the chance to meet and collaborate with some incredible women and minority-led brands in the food and beverage space, like Poppy Flowers, Back To the Roots, and Gopi Shah Ceramics. We also launched a new, DIY Kombucha Kit during the pandemic — it’s an ideal at-home activity, yields endless gallons of kombucha, and saves you money from not having to buy bottles at the store.
This spring, we’re excited to be adding two beautiful new herbal teas to our menu, and have a couple other partnerships with companies that we admire in the works. Stay tuned by signing up for our newsletter!
7. What’s your personal favorite type of tea?
Esha: I love Darjeeling tea, particularly first flush. You just need the tiniest bit and it produces a beautiful floral cup. Of the herbals, I enjoy tulsi, and sometimes blend it with mint as well to give it a bit more zing.
Smita: It depends on the time of day. In the afternoon, Darjeeling second flush. It’s picked in the second picking of the harvest (hence its name), and it’s a lovely, floral black tea. In the evening, I love our Chamomile Flowers. They are beautiful, calming, and a perfect way to end the day.
8. What advice would you give to an entrepreneur starting a new business?
Bouncing off of answers above to #5, I’d say get started, don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers, reach out to others to ask questions when you feel a bit confused or unsure, and be willing to put in some hard work. And enjoy the journey. It’s not about just hitting benchmarks.