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Decolonizing the Tea Trade: The Story of Uproot Teas

I’ve always loved tea. From a young age, I started drinking tea way more than anyone else in my family.

Having grown up in a cozy, predominantly Asian-immigrant suburb of Los Angeles, I was lucky to never have to experience the “lunchbox” moment at school. While at an academically rigorous high school, I filled my time with a lot of extracurriculars. I figure skated, played four instruments, was the editor-in-chief of the Yearbook, participated in beauty pageant scholarships, had a Youtube channel, led volunteer trips to Peru in the summer, and ran a non-profit online clothing store. 

It wasn’t until I went to college at Dartmouth did I become uncomfortably aware of my identity: a petite, Chinese-American woman from a middle-class immigrant family. I had never thought of myself in those explicit terms before arriving to rural New Hampshire.

I had many identity crises in college. I thought constantly about gender, race, class, culture, family background, etc. Realizing that Southern California is not representative of the larger US was a shock to me. 

Over the years, I would find my own diverse and loving group of friends, but the adjustment to New England was more difficult than just surviving the never-ending winters.

After graduating, I worked in management consulting at Bain & Co in San Francisco. Just to get out of the house during the pandemic, I started volunteering on the weekend at my local farmers markets, packing veggie boxes for curbside pickup. Then I started selling kimchi on Sundays for a local vegan kimchi maker, Volcano Kimchi, and began doing freelance business consulting for them and for a few other small food companies in SF. I realized that I was good at that and it gave me a lot of energy. I wanted to help small business owners transform their big dreams into actionable plans. I loved getting to work with founders I adored and connected with. Coincidentally, they all happened to be Asian women – After years of working with predominately white men, this was a refreshing change.

Then, last summer, right before I was going to move across the country with my partner at the time, we broke up! I was devastated, so I impulsively decided to visit my sister in Boulder, Colorado instead. I fell in love with the energy! I met tons of cool, creative, entrepreneurial people there who encouraged me to also do what I wanted to do, and I decided that it was building Uproot Teas. With the mission of empowering farmers by paying them what they needed to grow sustainable, delicious crops and showing the US consumer what a delicious, multi-sensorial experience tea could be, I decided to then go to Hawai’i to work with a tea farm and learn more about the tea growing, harvesting, and production. It was a dream. It totally affirmed how passionate I feel about the farmer pay equity and agricultural sustainability piece of Uproot.

While tea originated in China, the narrative of tea in the west has been dominated and told by white men. The global tea trade has roots in colonialism and imperialism, which are still apparent today. The ancient crop was capitalized and exoticized, transformed for the western market without acknowledging the deep culture behind it. Tea became commoditized, resulting in widening power & capital disparities between the farmers and the western traders. I truly believe that everyone, regardless of racial or ethnic background, is 200% entitled to enjoy, appreciate and nerd out about anything. Especially in food and drink, culture should evolve and change with time and new circumstances. That’s the beauty of it! However, I don’t believe in misrepresentation – the taking without acknowledging nor attributing, capitalizing while appropriating, and excluding.

As a business owner, I’m in a lucky position to be able to make strategic decisions that align with my values: Uproot Teas is proudly a zero-waste company, as 100% of our packaging is compostable. That matters a lot to me because I care deeply about the environment and I think it’s the right thing to do, even though it is really, really expensive. As a Chinese American tea company founder, I’m excited to use my voice to bring more representation and cultural education. As a petite Asian woman with turquoise hair, I hope to break the expectation of what an entrepreneur “is” or “should be.” 

It’s hard sometimes to feel like a “serious business person” because I know that I’m not what people picture in their heads when they think of one. I had this type of imposter syndrome in my previous jobs even when I did my best to conform to look and act as “professional” as possible. Now, I accept that I may struggle with imposter syndrome for a while, and I find other ways to pep myself up. So, I might as well keep my colorful hair and ditch the heels.  

To be honest, I think my parents are still dubious about Uproot Teas, but they’re supportive. I think similar to a lot of other immigrant children, my parents just never really “got” what we were doing. They didn’t understand when I did consulting, but were impressed by my salary. They didn’t understand mental health, but accepted that I worked at a digital therapy company. They know tea and know I like it, but they don’t get why I’ve made it my career. I believe my mom’s words after my first month of sales were, “Wow, I didn’t know Americans would spend money on tea!”

I have grown so much in the last few months of working on Uproot Teas – I think my biggest takeaway is that I will probably be on a lifelong journey of learning the art of self-validation. I grew up (like many immigrant children) wanting to appease my parents and my community, so I leaned a lot on external validation to feel like I was doing a good job. With building a small business, there are SO many obstacles and haters that if I let them all get to me, I wouldn’t make it very far. At the same time, there are so many highlights and sparkly moments that the highs are higher than I’ve ever experienced at any job. But it’s the moments in between all the milestones, achievements, and low points that make up 95% of the journey, and during those times, I am learning to empower and validate myself!

My vision for the next few years: 

  • Celebrate & cultivate the loose leaf tea experience in the US and create consumer demand for artisan teas & botanicals  
  • Expand into specialized teaware with beautiful designed functional products to help elevate anyone’s at-home tea experience
  • Open brick & mortar Uproot Teas locations as community gathering hubs for tasty and inventive craft tea drinks & desserts (think: tea lattes, tea cocktails, tea cakes… the possibilities are endless!!) I want to host open mic nights, feature ceramics and artwork made by local artists, and provide a slower, softer space for people to connect.  

I’m truly so grateful for this journey and I feel like Uproot has provided me with a canvas to paint the small part of the world that I want to spend most of my time in! 

Cindy is a SoCal native, Bay Area lover, and Colorado resident who founded Uproot Teas to celebrate loose leaf tea culture and empower family farms. When not drinking or selling tea, you can find Cindy roller skating, climbing, dancing, or being the only dog-less human at the dog park.

Want to support Uproot Teas? Order now tea on uprootteas.com. You can go to your favorite local cafes and retailers and request they carry Cindy’s teas. Seriously, this latter one helps so much because everyone know customers are #1.

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