As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Farah Jesani, founder of One Stripe Chai.
Farah Jesani is the Founder and Chief Chai Officer of One Stripe Chai, a woman-owned South Asian beverage brand that offers authentic, small batch masala chai concentrates and blends, crafted to be enjoyed from the comfort of your home or at your favorite coffee shop. Farah grew up in an Indian household where chai was brewed twice a day, every Friday evening after mosque, and every single time she visited family. Shortly after leaving her job in tech consulting in New York City and drawn to making a big career change, Jesani found herself in the heart of Portland’s coffee culture. As a novice barista, she was disappointed by the average coffeehouse chai — doused with cinnamon or nutmeg yet either flavorless or overly sweet — and set out to recreate the bold, spicy beverage she recalled drinking as a child, leading to the launch of One Stripe Chai in 2015.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Atlanta, GA and attended university at The University of Georgia where I studied Risk Management. My career path after college was quite random. I started working in the commercial insurance industry as an underwriter because I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do. I eventually moved into consulting and was able to live the fast-paced traveling life, but I didn’t feel satisfied. I quit my job on a whim and visited Portland, OR for a summer to learn about coffee in the hopes of opening my own coffee shop. This is when I discovered a gap in the market for high quality options for chai in the coffee industry and One Stripe Chai started as a side project.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My parents are both entrepreneurs. My dad is an accountant and I had the pleasure of watching him grow his firm from a tiny office in the loft of our house to a huge office servicing hundreds of clients today. When I was in middle school, my mom owned and operated a cafe for a few years. I spent my summers at the cafe, learning how to use a cash register, going on Costco runs, watching my mom plan the menu daily and manage her kitchen staff, and interact with customers. My parents always encouraged my sisters and me and to work for ourselves one day.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Something that was very important to me since the onset of One Stripe Chai was that we direct-source organic tea from India, however we couldn’t afford the minimum quantities for something like that. One, because we just didn’t move enough product, and secondly because we didn’t have the cash flow to support large orders. Instead, we used to purchase all of our tea from the Indian grocery store 30 minutes away. This allowed us to buy the exact type of Indian tea my mom used at home. The downside was that in the long run this was inefficient and very expensive. We were paying retail prices, which caused our cost of goods to be sky high! As our production grew, I would end up buying all the tea on the shelves! The cashiers would always wonder if I was having a huge tea party! In early 2018 we were able to make a sourcing trip to visit tea gardens in Assam, India and that’s where we chose our partner farm and started to direct-source all of our organic and biodynamic tea. This was a huge step as buying in bulk helped lower our cost of goods and saved us so much time. We could focus our time on planning and sales, rather than shopping trips to the Indian grocery store. My biggest takeaway was that you do not need to have a giant company or hundreds of clients to create a good product. You can start small in the way that makes sense to you and change as you grow. I think if you are honest and open with your customers along the way, they will also appreciate that!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am absolutely grateful to my dad for always encouraging us to be our own bosses and stressing the importance of financial independence. Over the last few years, he’s helped One Stripe Chai with small financial investments when we were struggling with cash flow. As our accountant, he’s helped guide me with simple things like getting a business registration and EIN number. He’s talked me through large purchases and helped me evaluate whether certain expenses are necessary or not.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I first started my entrepreneurial journey, I had no idea what running a business truly entailed. I studied business in school, but none of my classes taught me the logistics of how to start a business. Sales was one of the hardest parts of the business! I specifically remember one day when my business partner and I went door to door dropping off samples to coffee shops. We were left incredibly discouraged and disheartened. While some people were receptive and open to hearing us out, many shop owners just wanted us to send them an email or were not interested at all. This encouraged me to start learning more about sales, especially in a B2B business.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Our customers loved our product and so did we. I knew that we had created a chai offering that was intentional and honored the traditional chai I grew up drinking. I also loved getting to learn more about myself and my culture through running the business. We try to focus on educating our customers wherever we can, so in turn I’m always learning certain things too! At the end of the day, I knew I was doing something that was truly meaningful to me and something that I truly felt connected to.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
2020 was an especially hard year since our business was mostly B2B. Most of our clients were coffee shops and, once COVID hit, had to close down for different lengths of time which meant our entire business practically halted overnight. Since our end consumer wasn’t going to coffee shops to drink our product, we had to meet them where they were: at home. We decided to focus on our small e-commerce business and launch more direct-to-consumer products which our customers could use and engage with at home. At the end of 2020 we had grown our e-commerce business by 10x and grown 2.5x from the previous year. Being open to pivoting and shifting focus is what led us to our eventual success.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We like to call things as they are. Last year we decided to launch a product called “It’s Haldi, Doodh”. Haldi doodh means “turmeric milk” in Hindi and it’s a drink I grew up with. Turmeric has gotten so popular in the last few years in forms like “golden milk” and “turmeric lattes”, but to me, it’s all just the Indian drink called haldi doodh. We were nervous about making the name of this product something that many people wouldn’t recognize, but we also wanted to be true to ourselves. In the end, this product has been a huge success and we received so many messages from people letting us know they were so excited to know about haldi doodh and its South Asian roots. A lot of our coffee shop customers carry this blend and call it “haldi doodh” on their menus too! I think our commitment to not being afraid to be ourselves really makes us stand out. At the end of the day, I know that our company is exactly the type of organization I would want to support as a consumer.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t try to do everything yourself. When you’re able, hire people who can start taking tasks off your plate and can ultimately even do a better job than you. This will allow you to focus on the things you’re actually good at and spend more time managing.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We love to get creative with how we give back. In 2020 we really wanted to find a way to give back to frontline and essential workers — and just anyone else that needed a little pick-me-up. We were launching a new product in May and we decided to offer a buy one get one campaign. As part of this campaign, for every unit of our new chai blend that we sold, the customer got to pick someone to send a bag of chai, on us. So many people were pleasantly surprised with a little chai pick up in their mailbox! Later in the year, we wanted to donate money to Fair Fight Action, an organization that focuses on ending voter suppression. For an entire month, we donated money for every sale we had and even got Oatly to match our donations!
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- You have to seek PR, it doesn’t always come to you.
For the longest time, I had no idea about how PR worked — I actually used to think that publications would flock to you to write about you. I was clearly disappointed for a while. Had I understood how this worked early on I would have made it a point to spend more time on it from the get go.
2. Find your weaknesses and hire people who are much better than you at those things.
This goes along with the above story. For a short period of time, I tried to teach myself the art of pitching publications. I spent way too much time and had no results. Last year we hired a freelance publicist and it was hands down one of the best decisions we have made. The investment has been well worth it.
3. Your competitor’s successes don’t mean your failures.
Keep in mind the entire market capacity of your industry and use those successes to drive you to work even harder. The honest truth is that you will all have wins and losses, but you have to keep your eyes on the prize and not get distracted by what others are doing.
4. Your time is worth a lot.
You can’t do every task forever. You need to spend more time bringing in business and planning the next few days, months, and years and you can’t do that if you aren’t delegating your tasks to others.
5. When you find mentors that care about you and your business, make it a point to connect with them regularly.
I have been lucky enough to find a few mentors that have been so impactful in my business journey. These are people that I look up to in my industry and trust with their advice. It’s not easy to find mentors — sometimes you find them when you least expect it! When you do, be sure to keep them updated on what you are up to on a regular basis (and not just when you need their help with something).
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Absolutely! I now value time more than I ever did before. I used to feel that as the owner of the company I should do as much of the work as possible. I’ve slowly learned the power of delegation, which has given me so much more time to focus on sales and marketing. That’s also forced me to learn how to manage my employees better. If I value my time and their time, it’s important for me to put in the work to make sure they have all the tools they need to succeed.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
Ultimately, I don’t think knowing is enough. Sometimes you have to make the mistakes to truly understand that something needs to change. I always heard that promotions at grocery stores are vital when it comes to new products, but I could never justify the spend. It wasn’t until a trusted local grocery buyer urged us to participate in a large sale that I finally understood the power of promos. That one promo had a lasting impact on our sales for months and now I find myself planning promotions regularly, especially when we enter new markets.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could start a movement that would spread good, I would start with food. This year, we ended up growing a lot of vegetables in our small backyard. I never realized how easy growing your own food can be if you have the tools and access to education about how to do it. Access to simple and healthy food is lacking in communities across the world. I think a movement that gives communities access to affordable and locally grown produce and teaches people how to grow their own food is vital.
How can our readers further follow your work online?