Nepal Tea Collective

Nepal Tea Collective

Metolius Tea has two lifelong dreams: the first is that every tea, spice, and herb we source makes a meaningful restorative environmental, social, or economic impact in their origin countries.

The second dream is that Metolius Tea builds an inherently empowering organizational structure and a human-friendly approach to employment.

Metolius is reaching a stage of maturity where these dreams are becoming - becoming tangible and measurable.

We can see how far we’ve come and we know exactly where we are going.

My sourcing trip to Nepal aligned with this cocoon break-through stage in the company’s evolution. We’ve been nurturing these dreams for so long, and Nepal came at the perfect time and opened them all up.

Part 1: The Dream of a Social Justice Infused Supply Chain - finding our sourcing partner

Nepal Tea Collective contacted me about a year ago, noting that we share a mutual passion for social justice infused supply chains and asked if we might work together. They give scholarships to children of tea workers, are celebrating women moving into leadership roles for the first time in the tea industry for this region, and have a variety of economic impact projects with the overarching goal to lift 1 million farmers out of poverty.

Nish is the second generation owner of the tea garden that his father started in the northeast of Nepal, just across from the Darjeeling border. He’s watched the economic development of this region, seen the generation of work his father did, and he has a vision for what lies ahead for his community.  The Nepali tea farmers are strong, smart, resilient, and capable people. They value education. I met dozens of internationally educated young people passionate about applying their skills and connections to the wellbeing of their home communities. Metolius Tea’s role in this is simply to align with their mission and their work, to enjoy the world’s best tea made by the world’s biggest-hearted people, and to move a significant enough volume to help leverage the work that they are doing.

We started our work together with the tiniest project ever. I think it was 2 or 3 kilograms of tea. I included their tea in our Tea for Good program (a really small subscription program I open up once a year so I can source geeky fun teas and give all the funds to education-based nonprofits). I was really excited about their impact work, but I didn’t see any other place to bring their tea into my line. After sharing the tea through the Tea for Good program, I was just so impressed with their ethos I knew I had to figure out a way to use more of their tea.

I have a very, very specific tea aesthetic, and while their tea tastes amazing, the Nepal leaves I had sourced are just not that sexy.  The primary black tea we sell to coffee shops is called Black & Gold. It is the hand plucked uppermost leaves of the tea plant, grown on the high mountaintops of Yunnan, China. The leaves are processed and dried into large, twisty, gold tipped leaves, and the final cup is deep and smooth with a velvety finish. I couldn’t use the Nepal tea for my Black & Gold because the Nepal leaves were just black and the flavor profile was a little more aligned with a Darjeeling or Assam.  A fantastic tea, but not our signature flavor profile.  After some soul searching and taste testing, I decided to value social impact and flavor profile equally, and I decided to blend the tea into my Black Rose and Earl Grey. The flavor profile was different (not better or worse), and the truth is it really tasted just as good and the volume I’d be moving translated into scholarships, economic independence programs for families, and the honor of having our own dedicated tea garden nestled into the hills of the Illam tea mountains.

I flew into Kathmandu on June 1st 2023, and a few days later took a small plane up to the tea mountains. We hiked out to my tea garden and I got to stand in awe among the leaves and touch the young buds that would someday make their way across the world to our little tea factory in Oregon.  The workers painted my logo on a little metal sign and brought a rock and a nail for me to do the honors of pounding it into the tree.

During my stay in the tea mountains I got to pluck tea in the gardens and process leaves with workers in the factory. I got to meet managers, supervisors, factory workers, and children of the tea workers.  The absolute dearest moment of my life was with the tea children. It was dusk and the children of the tea factory workers decided to give us a lesson in traditional Nepali dance. It was silly and sweet and I fumbled along with a smile. Then one of the people from our group (the bookkeeper’s niece) happened to have a bluetooth speaker and the Chicken Dance song on her phone. She taught us all how to do the chicken dance - and there were actual chickens clucking around on the ground around us as we danced and laughed. The kids went wild and wanted to do it over and over. An older girl came to me with that signature Nepali big heart and big smile and said “happiest day.” And I think, for all of us, it truly was the happiest day.

After touring the gardens, bonding with the people, and really getting to know Nish and Amigo as fellow big hearted, mission driven entrepreneurs, we realized we had potential to increase our collaboration beyond the two teas I was currently sourcing.

We met with the manager of the gardens, Enen, and talked with him about shifting the plucking and processing to meet my aesthetic needs for Black & Gold, our primary loose leaf black tea.

In the next spring harvest, they will pick and produce our special, Metolius Tea specific batch. It will be the first time Metolius Tea will have had this level of on-the-ground input in our teas.

We are also looking at expanding sourcing to include other herbs, spices, and teas in our line that will thrive in the Nepal mountains and provide more work and leadership opportunities in the tea community. This includes the tea and some spices we use in our Metolius Chai.

Once we move everything possible to Nepal, we will be privileged to have significant social, economic, and environmental impact in the community, and the company is going to publish an annual Metolius Tea Impact Report to show us exactly how things are coming along.

Part 2: Empowerment at Home

Metolius Tea’s parallel dream is to build an inherently empowering organizational structure and a human-friendly approach to employment.

Metolius Tea has been through several iterations of organizational models. In the beginning nearly everyone was overqualified and underpaid.  Our main attraction as an employer was that we built a culture of kindness and we maintained a value of flexibility and support for one another above all else.  Three employees throughout the years brought their babies to work.  Several moms, yoga teachers, and retired women worked with us because they could integrate Metolius Tea around other priorities in their lives. We didn’t need a ton of systems, structure, or hierarchy, but we weren't paying ourselves what we wanted and needed to thrive.

As the business grew, we tried on a variety of organizational structures for fit, and most of them just didn’t.

After the summer of 2022, when “the great resignation” blazed through our tea factory, the team and I had a phoenix-like opportunity to rebuild the company with a fresh organizational structure. I’d just read Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux and felt inspired to find language, team buy-in, and an organizational model that empowered every member of our team and created a more human-friendly workplace.

We started playing with a few concepts, like starting a profit share, developing an empowered decision making process where anyone in the company can vet and act on their ideas, developing dispersed leadership strategies, cross training, encouraging employee schedule flexibility, etc. The result of these changes were striking: we raised employee pay by over 25%, team members reported higher job satisfaction and more sustainable workloads than ever, and we showed consistent profits for the first time. The company as a whole started to come alive, like a live organism, nimbly sensing and responding to needs and changes and supporting itself in its constant evolution. In a word, we were thriving.

Then I went to Nepal. Nepal underscored everything we’ve been trying to build back home and gave me courage to really lean into our company ethos.

Flexibility is Gold:

Nish, the second generation owner of the Nepal tea gardens, collected our group on the first day and said: the number one skill you need to enjoy the next ten days is flexibility.  Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence, but he wasn’t looking at the two women from Kathmandu or the gentleman from Istanbul. He was steadily focused on the three Americans - the company’s bookkeeper, her niece, and me. Gulp.  Americans have a reputation.  Luckily for me, flexibility is a value I cherish. I've often felt like an alien in contrast to American culture's more rigid style.

In Nepal I noticed people generally “trust the process” more. If there’s an unexpected change, a mistake or a missed detail, people don’t skip a beat before seeking the opportunity within the fissure, or simply moving forward with a big, warmhearted smile.

Before the trip started Nish gave us an itinerary. The days were listed in bold with a description of our plans beneath each.  The last two days listed were Friday followed by Sunday.  They forgot Saturday!  Sure enough, there was a golden interstitial opportunity to discover there, because that turned out to be one of my favorite days of my trip.

Nish and his business partner, Amigo, and I used our bonus day to talk business. We pulled out our spreadsheets and discussed pricing, ingredients, quality requirements, social impact traceability, and developed a vision for a larger relationship between our two companies.  We also compared business notes.  As business owners, we have so much agency in how we use our time. We chatted about lifestyle design, business metrics, which apps we use, etc, etc. Nish and Amigo were inspired by my profit share system, financial metrics and systems I use to track the daily operational health of Metolius Tea. These conversations, especially with founders who have companies of similar size and ethos, bring me expansive joy, inspiration, and a much needed feeling of connection.

If their entire country can do it, inside our small tea factory we can create a culture that is unapologetically flexible and positive.  Let there be mistakes (called “learning glitter” at the Tea Factory), let there be spontaneous opportunities, let there be treasures hidden within the unknown.

Lead Like Reeta:

A young woman in the tea mountains, Reeta, is a third generation worker at the Kanjanganja tea factory.  Her grandfather was a laborer and her father was a driver. Her brother is going to college on scholarship and it was time for her father to retire.  Reeta elected to take on a position as a tea supervisor, guiding groups of women plucking tea leaves. Hearing she was the first woman in this position, I asked her what that was like for her, if anyone showed any resistance to her being in this role.  She said no, everyone is happy.  No caveat, just a smile. Shortly after she took on this position, the manager noticed one group was producing higher quality and yield than any other group. Upon finding out it was Reeta’s group, they asked her what she’s doing differently. The answer: I lead with camaraderie and friendship.

After the "great resignation" in 2022, our team and I decided to try a nonhierarchical organizational model. Team members are empowered to run systems, to collaborate, to communicate, and to make decisions in an organized way. Some folks naturally teach, model, communicate, collaborate, and connect in ways that bring us all together, but it comes from the unique, live, and ever changing pulse of the team itself, NOT from top down management.

While the previous, more hierarchical iteration of Metolius Tea was fixated on efficiency, our "ecosystem" model has turned out to be more efficient and brings the team more happiness and empowerment.

Doing Life Together, Doing Business Together:

I was shocked and dismayed when I learned that people in Nepal have a 6 day work week. I asked how they could possibly sustain that, and Nish explained that most people go to work with their friends. It’s not like in the US where there are rigid work-home separations.

Metolius Tea draws in people who have similar values and lifestyles. We have a little bubble of kindness in our tea factory and we take care of each other.  I love that people can bring their whole selves to work and we have so much compassion for each other. As we grow, we are working on making this more intentional and consistently voiced, rather than having an accidentally delightful company culture.

Big-Hearted Human Connection:

One of my bigger breakthroughs on the trip has been sloughing off some resistance to telling my story. Our group was diverse, passionate, and big-hearted, sincerely interested in each other's journeys. At first when people asked “what do you do,” I offered a minimalist and self-deprecating angle of the truth. The next time someone asked, I’d add a little piece, like the fact that we have a hard core team of women brewers making our flagship product, Metolius Chai.  The next time I’d add a little bit about our ethos, our sourcing, or our values. 

I shared how I got started with an interest in herbalism and how my personal desire to drink better Earl Grey and Chai led me to creative breakthroughs that escalated the company. I shared the heartbreaking experience of hiring a best friend and having to lay her off along with the rest of the team during COVID. I shared how having a sleep-challenged baby and falling ill for three months led to a second and even more challenging company crisis, and how after we hit bottom I discovered the resilience and empowerment to resurrect my company and reform it to my vision and values. I shared our shift from a hierarchical to "ecosystem" management model and my fierce protection of both our company culture and financial metrics.  I shared how flexibility, empathy, dispersed leadership, and communication have allowed women (and everyone else) to bring their whole selves to work, and for mothers to work and thrive while maintaining their roles as primary caregivers and homemakers.

The more I heard my own voice, the less I winced at it. I started to experience the “what do you do” question as a simple bid for connection. Telling our stories is a simple and natural expression of each of our humanities. Each time I told my story I felt more empowered and connected. In the end, sorting tea leaves next to a grandma working in the tea mountain factory, making business deals at the Kathmandu warehouse with a woman whose father started a school just so she could attend as a girl, sharing a smile with a local woman tea blender at a shop in Kathmandu, I felt then and feel now a sense that we are all fractals of the same person.  Our story is our humanity, our common thread.

Nepal is a big step on our path building a social justice infused supply chain. Nepal was affirmation that we can build a company culture that is positive, empowered, connected, and alive.

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