Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Balancing People, Profit & Planet: An Interview with Reem Rahim of Numi Tea

Reem Rahim is the Co-founder and Vice President of Marketing of the Oakland-based green business Numi Tea. She is also the creator of the beautiful cover art on the tea's boxes. In the Fall of 1999, brother and sister Ahmed and Reem had a vision to revive the "serenity, creativity, and comfort that is inspired by the simple art of tea." Now they are the #9 brand in the natural food industry out of about 225 tea companies. Reem talks about how the company balances the triple bottom line of profits, people and planet.

If you haven't tasted Numi tea, it's delish. My favorite is Ruby Chai--Spiced Rooibos. If you click here you can watch a little movie that shows how their amazing flower teas open up when you steep them. Obviously, I'm a big fan (:

Below is a transcript from my interview with Reem from the Big Vision Podcast.

Reem Rahim:
My name is Reem Rahim. I am the VP of Marketing and co-Founder here at Numi. My brother and I started Numi about seven years ago, from here in Oakland, California, and we started in my small apartment up the street, near Piedmont Avenue. It was about 750 square feet. A year later we moved to his house, which was about double the size, and then we moved to a warehouse, which was about 5,000 square feet, and we are currently in this space.

We have been in this space for about three years, it is about 25,000 square feet, and we are actually moving part of the offices to a location around the corner, which is also going to act as a sort of retail/event space, so we're really excited about that. We started just the two of us, and we are about 40 employees currently, from all over the Bay Area.

We started Numi for a number of reasons. My brother had teahouses in Europe, so he was really the tea, sort of, aficionado. He still is. For a long time, in my family, we had discussed importing a dry desert line called "Numi", in Arabic, that we drank as kids in our native Iraq. We had talked about that a lot in our family, so we just, my brother and I, sort of serendipitously decided to do that, separately, and then we talked about it, and so we decided to do it together.

So, we joined forces, he with his tea knowledge and myself. I am an artist and I was getting my Masters of Fine Arts at the time from John F. Kennedy University. We decided to bring both of our strengths together, myself in art and him in tea, and create Numi. If anybody has seen the packaging, all of the artwork on the packaging is my original artwork.

We really wanted to not only import this line, which is called Numi, but really dig into the authentic nature of tea and what it is about. We had noticed, in the market, that there were a lot of sort of, I guess you want to say sort of gimmicky brands, but there wasn't really quality in a teabag; and then this sort of space in tea, in terms of a space to relax, what we call "liquid meditation," wasn't really there, and we wanted to sort of portray a package or portray an essence in our brand that was about a self-reflective space, and what better way than tea and art, and create sort of depth and feeling, in the package as well as in the quality that is inside the bag.

What we introduced, which was very unique at the time, was a full-leaf quality tea in a bag, which didn't really exist. Then, what we did, which is still unique in the market, is we use real fruits. Everything was pure, real ingredients. So we use fresh, pure herbs, real fruits--which is unheard of in the market. So we don't add any oils or flavorings. It is very clean, very natural taste. If you have ever tasted it, which I hope you have and others will, you can really get that authentic taste in the bag. So we wanted to infuse that quality from the inside out, and from the outside in.

The other thing we did is we pioneered unique flavors. My brother, at the time, he was working in Europe, and Rooibos and Honeybush were very popular there and here nobody had ever heard of them. So we pioneered Rooibos and Honeybush to the country seven years ago, and now it's the big craze. Just recently, we introduced flowering teas, which are hand-sewn tea leaves and flowers, and they blossom when steeped in hot water, so that has been a huge hit and people love them, and it's a very innovative product. So if anybody goes on our web site, Numitea.com, you can see them opening up before your very eyes.

Britt: How is Numi Tea a sustainable company?

Reem: Sustainability can range, you know, when people talk about triple bottom line, you're talking about profits, people and planet.

So in terms of profitability, the company has been very successful. It has grown to be the number nine brand in the natural food industry out of about 225 tea companies, so we are very--knock-on-wood--grateful that everybody loves our stuff. Then, of course, when you run a business, it's not that easy, you always have to have cash flow working in your favor, so I think we have become profitable this past year, so that's good.

In terms of planet, my personal belief is that there is too much waste on the planet, so in creating more product you just have to be conscientious of what you put out there. So what we do is we use bamboo, one, in a lot of our packaging, in a lot of our merchandising, and our racks, and our gift boxes, and as I'm sure a lot of people know, bamboo is an extremely abundant natural resource, and it re-grows.

So, we work with a village in China that grows the bamboo along the river, and every two years that bamboo shoots up about 20 feet, and they have a whole way of working with the trees there where they'll just cut them down, use them, and it will replenish itself. So that is pretty much, I would say, 90% of our gift boxes and our merchandising is bamboo.

The paper that we use is at least 85% post-consumer waste, and of course recyclable. It used to be 100%, we haven't been able to source that same paper, so it is 85% post-consumer waste, so whether it is the tea boxes, or our shippers, or any of the box material that we use. That saves a considerable amount. We save at least 3,500 trees, at least 100,000-150,000 tons of BTU in terms of energy emissions--sorry, I don't have the exact numbers.

[Britt's note: Here are some numbers from the bottom of each Numi Tea box, "By using 100% recycled material made of a minimum of 85% post-consumer waste for this package, Numi annually conserves the below estimates: Trees Saved 2,876, Landfill Reduced 184,9992 lbs, Energy Reduced 1523 million BTU, Water Reduced 1,289,868 gallons, Net Greenhouse Emission 260,145].


We use at least 50% post-consumer waste in all of our marketing collateral. We do a lot of recycling in-house, as much as we can, and try and enforce with our employees, and we use soy-based inks, and we use soy-based peanuts--you know, the packing peanuts. So we try and do what we can. You can't be perfect, but you try and do what you can as a manufacturer that is putting product out into the world. So that is in terms of environmental sustainability.

In terms of people, we have about 17 SKUs that are fair-trade certified by TransFair. What that means is that the workers are provided fair wages, and then good working conditions. On top of that, part of being fair-trade certified is you are giving back a certain percentage of what you purchase, back to a co-operative in the garden that then decides what to do with that money.

So, with full-leaf quality tea, you basically give back 50 cents a pound for the teas that you purchase, which is a much better situation, obviously, for the farmers than if you are buying really poor grade tea. So if you are buying tea dust, you're giving back like five to ten cents, versus if you're buying full-leaf tea you're giving back 50 cents; so that's a considerable difference. This year I was told that we purchased over 150,000 pounds of full-leaf tea, so that is over $75,000 that is given back to the farmers.

So, like I mentioned, of course, the different farms have different unions, and they have a co-operative that puts the money to various projects, and they decide. There is one garden in Southern India, the Utu Garden, which apparently has an equal representation of women to men, which isn't always common. They have put together a project called "Moo," which is that they get cattle, and they will use the milk and things like that for their own resources, and for creating more income for them. They have also put together a child care center.

Another garden, also in India, has put money into either retirement funds, because the government doesn't give that to them, and funds for parents with disabled children. So all kinds of things that really helps improve the quality of their life. We are proud to do that.

I read this article by one of the buyers at Wild Oats, and she said, "What people don't realize, or what people can realize, is that when they are buying a fair-traded product, they are actually helping to end poverty." Which I think is a pretty amazing statement. You're actually improving wages and the quality of life for people who are disenfranchised. You are buying products from that part of the world, which is generally less developed than what we are fortunate to have.

Other things that we are doing outside of TransFair is that, TransFair doesn't work with as many farms as we would like, so part of our challenge has been that we have been working with specific farms for a long time, and in order to get that seal you have to switch farmers, which we don't necessarily like. So some of our other farmers are doing fairly-traded, equitable trading with their workers. The folks in South Africa, where we get our Rooibos and Honeybush, actually have sort of earning rights. They have co-operatives of farmers where they buy their Rooibos from, and the workers can start having ownership in the land.

We also buy our flowering teas from farmers that provide both health care--the man who sort of is the General Manager of the farm--he provides health care, and also gives them land in order to work and grow their fruits and vegetables on.

Then the last is--well, not the last, but one of them--is the bamboo village where we get our bamboo. The workers there had a flood last year, so we have been donating about 25% of our proceeds from our bamboo purchases back to them, so they can rebuild their factories, have better working conditions, etc.

I would say about 75-80% of our teas are organic. The flowering teas, the tea leaves are organic, the flowers are not yet organic, but we have a goal to transition all that in six months.

Britt: Oakland needs more businesses like Numi. Why did you decide to have your business in Oakland?

Reem: Oakland's the place. Well, I moved here to go to school. I could have lived in San Francisco, I suppose, but I needed more trees, and I just love Oakland. I think it has got everything you can want, in terms of, well, it's one of the most diverse places on the planet, I think, and that is one of the main reasons that I love it.

From a business perspective, it's a great hub, I think. Oakland is maybe the second- or third-largest port in the country, so it is a great port to get products, and it is also close to airports and, you know. So it's easy to get around. We have talked about moving to Sonoma so all of us can have sort of a more country lifestyle, but right now we are quite happy here.

The City of Oakland has been great to us, too. We have gotten a lot of support. There is an organization called Inner City Advisors--ICA--that has been very supportive of what we have done. They are amazing. So between that, the Ella Baker Center, I just think that people in Oakland have so much soul, so that's where I think we fit.

Britt: Your training is as a fine artist. How do you balance your art work and your Numi work?

Reem: Good question. I try, I have a studio and I try to go to my studio whenever I can; and then, I have done various art shows here, in San Francisco, in New York, and friends that I have that live abroad have put me in some shows. So whenever I can get time I try to do my artwork, so that keeps me really balanced.

Britt: How do you keep inspired?

Reem: Well, I think the best thing, the most rewarding part of doing what we do, is the people that call us and email us to tell us how we made their day, how their mother who has cancer is drinking the tea and feels much better. I mean, just amazing stories that we get every day, that people that are inspired by what we do, and in turn we feel inspired by them. People write poetry. It's amazing.

I mean, I hardly ever write a company, and we must get at least five emails a day that are, I mean, at least five emails that are very particular, that love the tea, have switched from coffee to tea because of our teas. There are general emails that come in and say, "Where can I buy it?" and this and that, but it is amazing stories of people that we have helped, in some way touched their lives, and I think that makes it all worthwhile.

Britt: What is one of your favorite stories?

Reem: Well, that one that I mentioned, where a man's mom had cancer, and he bought the teas, and she felt much better. There was one woman who emailed us that said, she said she was 65 years old, and she said, "I don't get very excited about much these days," but she had the tea in a coffee shop or restaurant, and then she took the bag home, and she threw it away, and then after drinking it she had to dig back into her garbage to find that bag, to find out who she was going to call. Anyway, that was pretty amazing.

There was one person who wrote that said she loves water, and she liked what we wrote about how tea enhances water's unique potential, and she felt like she met a brother/sister duo that was sort of her soul mates. I mean, just quirky things. That is what is amazing, is the amount of quirkiness that we receive, I just love. It's great.

Britt: What is the biggest challenge of your work?

Reem: I think, quite honestly, because we haven't run a business before, it is probably our biggest challenge. We are really, my brother and I are really smart, I have to say, for being able to do what we do, but at the same time the lack of experience in actually running a business has probably been our greatest challenge or obstacle.

We have now gotten to a point where we really want to bring in some experienced folks that don't necessarily come from that young entrepreneurial spirit that we have, but they know what they're doing. I think that's of big benefit to our business.

Britt: What are some of Numi's future plans?

Reem: Well, one is more flavors, more unique, authentic flavors, both hot and iced. That's one. I think we want to bring the world a healthy, natural beverage, as well as something that is healing and that brings an experience. We want to create an authentic experience. That is one portion.

The other portion that we want to do is, we want, mostly for the city of Oakland and this community, to enhance creativity as much as we can. So in this new space that we are going to be moving into, we want to create events where, musical events, or poetry events, or art events, and have Numi really be that space where people can express themselves, and just sort of be heard, and share their creativity. So we haven't totally figured it out, what exactly we are going to focus on, but it's one of the things we want to create.

Britt: I read somewhere that you had a car accident that was part of what brought you to this work. How did it change your life?

Reem: I had a car accident when I was 20 that really changed my life. I almost lost my life, and well, I almost lost my legs. Then I had to learn how to walk again, and I had about fifteen or so surgeries in the past, about 12 years.

I was studying biomedical engineering at the time, sort of on the track to be this sort of bio-doctor-engineer thing, and after the accident I, well, I finished school, barely, and then I moved into art. So that, I think, was the beginning--not the beginning, but really a jump start to my spiritual quest, and then that led me to Numi. Without it, I wouldn't have started this business.

Britt: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Reem: Well, one, I would say, is: follow your heart, and believe in yourself, because I think one of the things that my brother and I, having not had business experience before, I think one thought never entered our minds, which was failing.

I mean, I know one out of every three businesses fails, or one out of every three businesses succeeds, or whatever the stat is on that, but I think one of our benefits, one of our assets, was that even though I said one of our challenges was that we were inexperienced, one of our assets was that we were a little bit clueless, so we did what we believed.

One of the things I didn't talk about, in terms of our growth, is, my brother is currently on this big, I don't know what to call it, but he is on this journey to create a lot more fairly traded organizations, communities, looking at standards from the ground up.

So, it is not a divided platform, it's not a divided view of what makes something fairly traded. It is sort of from soul to soil, so you are not only good to the earth, but you are good to the people that work the earth, and then you are good to the people that are then consuming, because of course we have lost so much touch with--you know, when you buy the box, or when you buy whatever it is at the grocery store--to where you got it from, and to the people involved in that process.

So, he is really trying to work with some other folks to create standards that take the whole fair trade, organic, sustainable vision or philosophy to a whole other level. So that is kind of in the works, and what his big passion is. My passion too, but he is really focused on it.

So, I would say for people to stick to their beliefs, and then just be a sponge. I think that is another thing, is when you don't know something, you know you need to know, so you can't be arrogant, or you can't think you know it all when you don't. You just have to be a sponge to learning, make friends with people that know more than you do, whether it is at a show, or just depending on what specific people are looking into, and bring in consultants if you have to, to help you along the way.

Then, also, have a business plan. It is smart to know what you're doing, where your money is going, how much money you are spending. Have a cash flow model that works, that is in real time. Be organized from Day One. I'm just rattling off everything I can think of.

Because we were organized from Day One, and you are just building on that system, so you are taking an organizational system and then you are making it more and more complex as you go, just the way organisms work anyway. So if you start out a mess, and your desk is a mess, then that is what you are going to be if you are making $100 or if you are making $100,000.

Britt: Is there anything else you want people to know about Numi Tea?

Reem: Well, it's delicious. It's the best tea in the world, if I can say so myself. It is a really amazingly delicious tea. So if anybody hasn't tried it, please try it. People love working here--I didn't say that--because we try to create a vibrant space and diverse space, and a creative space where people can do their work with creativity. So we are happy to do that.

For more information about Numi Tea, go to NumiTea.com.

Transcribed by CastingWords.



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