Star Talks: Episode 10 with Chi Nguyen: Star Talks is the podcast of small conversations that inspire you to do big things and on this episode Chi Nguyen, the founder and CEO of Purpose Tea, shares how her family escaped communism and immigrated from Vietnam with just the clothes on their backs and how it inspired her to be a purpose-driven entrepreneur. She talks about how to materialize a brand story, how she's been able to execute brand strategies for fortune 100 companies and how Purpose Tea is navigating the challenging waters of launching a consumer packaged good while making a significant social impact in the lives of women tea farmers in Kenya.
You can also listen to the episode with Chi here:
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Sam Smith (Episode Host): LinkedIn
Here's the episode transcript:
Chi, thank you so much for joining the show.
Thanks Sam. I'm so happy to be here with you.
I've really been looking forward to having this conversation with you. I've done a fair amount of research on your background, the things that you've been working on and I'm really, really excited for our audience to be able to have the chance to, to hear about it. You've got a very unique and improbable backstory. Your entire family immigrated here from Vietnam when you were just a little girl with just the clothes and the shirts on your backs. Tell us about that story in your own words.
Yeah, no, it was a, it's an incredible story really. And, and it's one of those things where if me and my first memories are of the United States, and so when I was born in '74 and so when we got here, I was only three or four. And so I I don't remember much about it, but as, as, as I hear my parents, you know, retelling it and my older siblings retelling it, it is a, it's just a crazy story. And, you know, I always say like your experiences, I mean, you are a product of your experience, right? And so this was a a critical thing for our family. It really has shaped not only who I am, but who we are today. And what really drives drives and motivates us is really linked to, and based on this, this whole experience of, of coming over to America.
So I am one of six you know, siblings. And so we, you know, the fall of Saigon happened in 75. I was born in 74. My father was you know, in intellectual in, in Vietnam. And he was, I guess, what would you say like an equivalent to like a superintendent maybe here of a, of a school district is, is what he did for a living. And at the time during the war, that held a lot of influence and power because if, if kids were in school they wouldn't get drafted to serve, you know in the military. And so he had a bit of influence. And so when the communists took over you know, he, he got sent to reeducation camp which is essentially a concentration camp, you know, and so where they try to brainwash you into thinking that, you know, communism is the way and all of these things.
And so he was there for about six months and you know, when he got out, he, he told my mom like, let's just see if we can try to make it work here. And you know, they were both intellectuals. And so when the communists took everything, they expected them to become farmers. Which is, you can imagine you just, you can't do that. Right. I mean, it's like, you know, someone who goes from being an intellectual, kind of using their brain. My mother was a, was a teacher or a high school teacher at the time. And so we just couldn't survive. And so that's when my father and mother had made the decision to escape and to come to the United States. And so that story was really harrowing. My mother was like, you know, nine months, eight months pregnant with my, with my baby sister, and she's our last one, our sixth and final kid.
But, you know, we had to leave in the middle of the night, you know, me being like a toddler having to be quiet and, you know, cause if they caught you leaving, they would, would shoot to kill. And so we ended up going to the Philippines. And we waited until we got, you know asylum approval from the United States. And so we came to the United States because, you know, my my mom's side of the family was already here. And so we wanted to wait until we were able to come to the United States. And, and thank goodness that we did because this country has really, you know, afforded us such great opportunity and given us access to things that, you know, we would have never been able to have and what kind of a different life, you know, that we would've had if we stayed in Vietnam.
And so that experience really shaped, you know, who I am today and is really one of the driving, one of the two driving forces behind. Why I started my company, Purpose Tea. And we can kind of talk about that in, in, in a little bit. But I just knew that growing up, you know, it's, we didn't, we didn't, we came here with, with nothing. We were sponsored by a church. And they gave us sort of the foundational things and helped us with some of the foundational things that we needed, which is, you know, clothing and helped us find housing and all of these basic things that, that you need to live. And so that experience really shaped, you know, my, my worldview, my worldview is this. It's like, you know, no matter who you are, where you live what circumstance you're born into.
Everyone really wants the same things, right? They want safety, they want security, they want access to opportunities. So with access to opportunity, you know, we were able to do a lot of things. You know, we're, I'm one of six. We have a, you know, a CEO and our family. We have a physician in our family. We have, you know, entrepreneurs, we have folks in the legal profession. And so we really did a lot with the opportunity that we were given when we came to the United States and we didn't want to squander that. And so I know that for everyone else, like if they had access to opportunity, you know, you can also lift yourself lift yourself up and improve your life. And so that experience really shaped just my worldview and what I think about people and opportunity.
Wow, that's quite the inspiring story. CI. So your brothers and sisters, it sounds like really sees the opportunity to, to be whatever they want it to be and really, really go after it. What were your parents able to do once they got here?
You know, it's funny, you know, my mom and dad always said, because when they came here, it's kind of like, you know, they had to start all over essentially. And they were already in the middle of their lives. And so they always told us that, you know, they were doing this for us and you know, for us to make sure that we did something with our lives. And so my father, you know, he worked odd jobs. I mean, he did, you know, he cleaned offices. He went back and got his degree. I mean, he had his doctorate degree in Vietnam, but you know, he came, when you come to the States, you just had to start all over. And so he he worked we doing odd jobs and then he went back to school to get his bachelor's degree.
And with that bachelor's degree, he went into social work and then he ended up doing, you know, selling insurance. And so he kinda did all of these different things, but it was really so he could provide for our family. And my mother did the same. I mean, my mother you know, she, she sewed, she went to, she ended up working at, at Abbott laboratories for the rest of her until, until she retired. But, you know, she did all of these things and she had a master's degree in Vietnam, but here they had to start all over. And they really did that not because they wanted to improve their own lives, but they wanted to give their children, you know, opportunity to do, to do more than they did and to not, you know and that we were just in this great country and that to not, you know, squander that we could do anything we wanted as long as we had access to that opportunity and also worked hard.
So a lot of that, I mean, it's just, you know, you hear about this sort of immigrant kind of, you know, a state of mind and that, that really is, is the reason why I think a lot of folks that were in my situation kind of just work so hard and it's just cause, you know, I knew my parents you know, they almost died. Like we almost died. All of us almost died, you know, coming over here. So they, they risked, you know, literally their life. So we could have a better life. And so that has never, just as never, you left my, my mind, you know, and every day I wake up and it's not like I think about it like the second I wake up, but it's just sort of this, this is driving kind of force that is always, you know, their in, in our lives.
And so we, that that is just such a inspiring and kind of a motivating thing too, to just never give up. Right. And just have persistence and have grit, which has really you know, we'll get into the whole entrepreneurial thing but which has really set a foundation for me to just keep on going and to never give up. You know. Cause the thing with being an entrepreneur is that you, you just have to find a way and you can't give up and you just have to put one foot in front of the other. And so having sort of that, that halo or that knowledge knowing, you know what, my parents risked coming over here to give us a better, better life. We just, you know, that just, it just inspires me and motivates me everyday.
Wow. What an incredible story. Your parents are in incredible inspiration. The sacrifice that they made is really hard to quantify for, for the family. And the fact that your brothers and sisters and yourself have completely taken full advantage of their sacrifice so that it wasn't in vain. And, you know, I, I talked to a lot of immigrants that had come here from other countries and there is a major entrepreneurial spirit in our immigrant community. You know, they, they go after it really hard. They're, they're coming from a place where they didn't have the opportunities that they have here in the United States. And you know, they really take full advantage of the opportunities that they have here and it's just a totally awesome and inspiring thing. And your parents are incredible people.
Yeah. I mean, my dad unfortunately passed away five years ago, my mother still as healthy and alive and kicking and I see her every weekend and you know, she's good. So yes, they are incredible people for sure.
That's totally awesome. I'd like to pivot more into your, your story, how you took advantage of the opportunity that your parents provided for you. You earned a degree in journalism at UT Austin which looks like it had an influence in shaping the first phase of your career as a copywriter and then you became the managing director at on-message. So first, what is on message and, and second, how did your experience, copywriting influence the way that you developed and executed brand strategies add on message?
Yeah, no, it was quite the I mean they're all very much linked, you know, and especially now with like telling stories and being able to tell stories and understanding messaging and messaging that resonates with whoever you're talking to is, is so, so important. That's really, you know, my career has, has really shaped shaped that professional side of my journey. But so you're right, I was a journalism major at at UT, so hook 'em horns. And it did influence my, my career as a copywriter. And you know, I went into journalism because I just have an innate yes, sense of curiosity. Like I always asked why. And I always, you know, whenever things were presented to me, I would, I would kinda just look under the hood, you know, if you will as like, Oh, is this really kind of what it is?
Or why is it like this? And so that sort of sense of curiosity really led me to a degree in journalism and it was broadcast journalism and it was, you know, and if you know anything about broadcast journalism, it's like the first year out of school, you're like literally making no money and you have to go to, you know, a really, really tiny market to start out. And it was just one of those things that it, it wasn't something that I think I wanted to do when I actually got into the practical experience of it. And so I always, you know, really like to express myself in, in writing. And so I ended up going into the marketing side of the world and became a copywriter, which, you know, for me, I wasn't like a long form copy person.
I was more of a kind of creative strategy, kind of figuring out what message, you know, I wanted to get across in any particular piece of marketing or advertising. And then taking that point and kind of, you know, executing that in, in words. And so if you think about kind of that process, okay, that really can be applied to writing, it can be applied to design, it can be applied to business strategy is just, it's just all of that, you know, and so I think a bit more high-level and a bit more, you know, aerial view. And so that really that kind of helped shaped not only how I communicated but how I thought strategically. And then, so that led into a career at on message and on message is a small consulting firm here based in Dallas and their specialty is really honing or helping like fortune 100 clients develop their brand positioning and the core messages that come out of the positioning is so, you know, really defining what you want people to think about your company. And then, and then really defining those messages that really ladder up to that, to that positioning. And so that is all really helped me hone, hone my skills on, you know, what I wanted to do for Purpose Tea and be very clear about, you know, the message and the positioning that I wanted the brand.
So how would you describe the difference between a company and a brand?
Yeah, no, that's a great question. So to me, a company is the operating entity of a business, right? It's, it's, it's the people, it's the legal construction, it's the processes. It's the you know the technology is all this stuff, that sort of houses if you will the products and services that you want to sell. So to me, a company is more of a operating entity if that's, you know, for lack of better a better term. But a brand is really what your company stands for. So, you know, it's, it's, it's your, it's your mission, it's your vision, you know, how do you want people when they think of your company, what feeling do you want them to have about your company? You know, is there a point of view that you have and is it, you know, and, and what, and what do you stand for and what are your values? So to me, that's the difference between, you know, a company and a brand. So a company can be looked at if I can just compare it to, I dunno, the human body. So the company itself is just sort of the functioning parts of the human body, right? But your brand is, Oh, what clothes you put on that day, you know, what is your personality like you know, what, how, how do you view yourself in the context of your surroundings?
So like what does a brand's story, how does a brand go about materializing and telling their story?
Well, I think it's really important to what your brand is. So what, what your identity is and, Hmm. And what a position you want to hold in, in the minds of your target audience. Right? So I think that's the first and foremost thing that you have to do is to figure out what you are and then most importantly, figure out what you're not. And then once you have that, you know, I think it, I think it's a matter of you know, having a clear vision of what that voice is. Meaning, you know, how you want to sound. Are you sassy? Are you serious? Are you funny? Are you not? You know, it's kind of developing that, that voice and then the messages. So the actual points that you want to get across and the actual words that you want to use to get across about , about your brand and about its story.
I think, you know, that should all ladder up right, to this identity or this vision or this positioning around your brand and, and being very clear about it and also being consistent about it. You have to be able to tell that story pretty consistently across all, across all mediums. It's kind of funny because you know, people ask me these things and I feel like I tell myself like, I mean it's like I tell this story about Purpose Tea and myself like a lot and I feel like, Oh my God, it's a sick story. You know? But people don't actually feel that way because they don't, they don't know and they probably only hear once in a blue moon. So that whole consistency piece is I think very, very important. And not to change that, that story in that message all the time because then it starts confusing.
So in 2017 you left on message and you founded Purpose Tea, but what is Purpose Tea and tell us about your startup story.
Yeah, no. So I you know, I have always wanted to start a social enterprise, you know, since my, my twenties. Mmm. In, I've come up with all kinds of ideas and, and you know, none of them really stuck. And then of course, life kinda got in the way, right? I mean, I got married and having a child, I was working and I was working a lot. So traveling a lot and just working all the time. And so I just never really went forward with it. And then one day, my brother, who is, has an investment banking background and was like, Hey, you know, whatever happened to this thing that you wanted to do, you wanted to start a social enterprise to help women.
What happened to the, to that? And I said, Oh no, I still want to do it. I just don't, I just haven't honed in on the idea. And so literally it was over a cup of tea that we were brainstorming. And so I, I'm an avid, avid tea drinker and you know, I have a cup of coffee in the morning and the rest of the day it's tea and water. And so unfortunately you know, the business of tea has pretty notorious for you know, not being great or exploitative. They're just a bit exploitative of their workers and their workers are mostly female that are picking the tea leaves. Because of the delicate nature of, you know, picking tea. And so I thought to myself, Oh, you know, what, why don't I just create a brand I'll differentiate on our mission and really use develop a business model that, that not just gives back but really tries to improve and change the lives of these female tea workers who are such a value add in, in, in the whole value chain of our business.
Right. Cause if you don't have the tea, you obviously can't make your product. So why don't we also give them some, some credit as well. And so I knew nothing about purple tea at this point. When I, when I thought, you know, I'll, I'll try and go start this business. The from then on I decided to take a trip to Kenya, Kenya because it's the third largest tea growing region in the world. And it has, but it has the highest you know amounts of small holder farms. So, so the highest percentage of small holder farms, whereas in China and India, there's a lot of tea estates, which are owned by multinational corporations. And I wouldn't be able to do any of my social impact work at, at, at those entities. And so it led me to Kenya. And so when I was there to learn about the supply chain and the workers, you know, my hosts from the ethical tea partnership organization said, Hey, you know, Kenya has this new tea, it's purple tea.
And I was like, what are you talking about? I was like, you know, I drink tea all the time. I've never heard of purple tea. And she's like, Oh no, it's, it's a new it's a new cultivar. We just commercialized it, you know, at that time, it was like five or six years ago. And I was like, Oh, well tell me more. And so then she told me more about purple tea and it's like, you know, really high in antioxidants higher than green or black tea is just, you know, the same source has the same health properties as purple foods, you know, like blueberries, acai, and pomegranates is just very high in antioxidants, has, you know, additional health properties is that no other teas have. And so then I got really excited and I was like, Oh my gosh, well then let me, you know, not only create a brand that differentiates based on our mission, but also has this really, really unique product. And so got back to the States worked really hard, put together a business plan. And we got into market early 2018. So we're very, I mean, we're still obviously a start up, start up. But it has been an amazing journey so far.
So Purpose Tea, as you said, you always wanted to start a social enterprise. So Purpose Tea has a major commitment to making a social impact. Your website calls it seed a future initiative. What is this all about?
Yeah. And so, you know, the women that pick the teas, they make about a dollar to a dollar 50 a day. And so if you can imagine and kind of just do quick back of the napkin math that's not something that anyone can live on. A not even by, by Kenyan and standards. And so they live in, you know, deep poverty. But so what I wanted to do was, was really focus on lifting these women up because they are important to, to the business of tea and to you know, give them credit for, for what they do. So essentially you know, proceeds of our sales goes back to the seed of future fund. And what the seed future fund does is it really focuses on on three areas. One is education and training for these women.
because we have you know, a training for financial management and budgeting. We have training around nutrition, so it arms them with knowledge and what you know of what to eat to even be productive. Cause if you think about this workforce, most of them, Mmm have elementary school education or you know middle school and that's it because in Kenya you have to pay to go to school after the eighth grade I believe. And so, so that's one piece of it. We fund some training and then we also have community support services right now. It looks like we're going to be offering scholarships to these tea pickers, kids to really try to break the cycle of poverty. You know, like I, like I mentioned, you have to pay to go to school after the eighth grade and it's a boarding school culture there.
But even a day school these women aren't able to afford putting their kids through school. And the third piece that is really the most important and I think the most empowering is that we give them access to land. And so in Kenya when I did the research, 95% of the land is owned by men. Because it's typically passed down generationally to a son. So if you were born a girl, by no fault of your own, you wouldn't have access to this extremely empowering asset because with land, you know, you're able to grow additional cash crops to supplement your income. You're also able to get access to credit. You can grow food to feed your family. So really it's just all kinds of things that really opened doors for these women if they had access to land.
And so we we, we offer them land in a very graduated program to see, you know, how these women do. But we started a freshman class of like 16 women and they get these plots of land where they are able to grow a purple tea bushes to sell them back into the marketplace and then also grow additional cash crops where they can make additional income. So we're really hyper focused on ensuring that they, you know, get some financial independence because that's really what they need. We don't have necessarily any control right now over what we, what we pay them. Even though we pay a fair trade, but because we don't own the full supply chain it's, it's hard to, to make sure that they get paid what they're supposed to get paid. So we want to be able to offer them some other empowering assets through our seed, a future initiative.
Wow. The seed, a future initiative is a really unique and really creative approach to the social impact. Not only because it does have a social impact, but it has a social impact on those in your supply chain. What has been the biggest growth related challenge that has faced Purpose Tea up to this point?
Yeah, I mean, I would, I mean, to be completely honest, I mean the biggest challenge for any small company is, is capital. You know, raising capital has been our biggest growth related challenge only because in order to, you know, building a brand just takes money, right? Making making tea and buying commodities, doing all of those things, take money. Hiring, you know, takes money. So so it's, that has been, I would say probably our, our, our biggest challenge, I mean we have distribution, we talk to retailers and other customers and they are like, yes, great. We want to, we want to take this on and we want to launch in, you know, February or March, how are we going to promote it? So that all takes money. But, but we are in the process of, of raising a seed round for Purpose Tea and we are fingers crossed getting close to closing this, this round of funding. So you know, we'll see how that goes. But really that has been, that has been the, the biggest challenge cause I think, you know, we have we've worked really hard on, on developing and creating a brand that I believe is, is compelling and that resonates with our target audience. You know, we have a great plan to execute. It's just a matter of the resources and the funding to make sure that it gets executed the way. Yeah. We think it should.
Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. I'd love to have you back on the show in the future, sort of as a phase two episode to hear how things are progressive Purpose Tea and how you're able to continue to fulfill your mission. To what do you attribute the success Purpose Tea has experienced thus far?
Honestly, I think it's a combination of things. I think it's a combination of our brand and just sort of the timeliness of, of our mission of making sure that, you know, women have opportunity and access. It's a very female forward brand. So I think from that perspective, I think that resonates and it's timely and it's relevant. I also think the idea of Purple Tea as an innovation in a very mature category, but is, is exciting too to our customers and also intriguing to our consumers. But on top of that, I mean, it's also challenging because , you know, when kombucha first came out, it was like, what the heck's kombucha? And you have this sort of education, you know, challenge for consumers. Cause a lot of people don't understand that purple tea. The leaves are actually purple.
As opposed to just your typical kind of, you know yeah, green tea leaves were all the other teas are produced from, you know what I mean? And so that challenge is, one just requires us really keeping at it a lot of or putting a lot of dollars and resources behind our, our marketing efforts. But yeah, I mean, I think I think having a strong brand and then having a differentiated product as well, I think has really helped. The acceptance of Purpose Tea and just sort of will help us you know, grow the brand in the future.
So you talked about the next step for Purpose Tea closing around a funding so that you can the fill the demand and fulfill some distribution opportunities that you have. What's the next thing? What does it look like in the coming years for Purpose Tea?
So we have even where we have some ambitious plans, we have a huge vision of like using business to to drive change in the world. You know what I mean? So it's like we want to be able to affect and improve the lives of the women who are benefactors, right. Of, of, of our mission. We obviously want to, but in order to do that, we have to be able to make sure that what I call them, the quote unquote business side of, of the equation, that we are successful. And so we have plans to grow distribution right now. We are focused on California and in Texas where we're headquartered. So we are launching in Albertson, SoCal next spring we are also launching in Whole Foods in the DFW, Dallas, Fort worth area here. Next spring as well.
Waiting to hear back from a few other strategic, really big accounts. But once we get word on that, you know, our, our, our charter is to go and grow those divisions and then also build distribution, what I call up and down the street around a lot of these strategic accounts. So then we get the benefit of eyeballs on our brand get the benefit of, of people trying out the products and, and then hopefully getting you know, those repeat purchases that are so important in the world of of consumer packaged goods. So we'll focus geographically there, but then eventually I want to be able to democratize purple tea. And, you know, by doing that we can do more for our mission. So so eventually we want to be able to to be nationally distributed in the next few years. And then I also have a very controlled international expansion into Japan. So we are talking to our distributor there who also owns one of the biggest you know grocery stores there. And so we're in the process of, of getting that up and going to so that is the plan for Purpose Tea. Hopefully you know, we'll be able to execute on all of that. And, and I, I have no doubt that we will.
Awesome. Sounds like you got some pretty exciting things cooking. So if any of our listeners and subscribers wanted get involved, wanted to buy Purpose Tea and want to participate in what you're doing, what's the best way for them to do that?
Yeah, I mean, so the reason why we did a for a used business and a for profit model to fuel our mission is because we want it to be sustainable. We didn't want to have to go out and raise grants and funding to help fuel our mission. And so really the best thing that any that consumers and anyone that you're, that's listening that can do is to buy us, is just to buy the product. Tell your friends and family about Purpose Tea and you know, what we're doing and get them to buy the product. We're sold online now through our website. We're also sold through Amazon, which just launched a few days ago. So we're trying to still work out a few kinks, but but we are selling through our website. We also, if you see us in stores, you know, pick us up and try us out. And so that is really the best way for folks to to help the mission if that's what they're if that's what they're interested in or if they want to, you know, do something good for their body. I mean, obviously pick up and try somepurple tea the next time you see a Purpose Tea.
So I am just as we're recording this putting in an order for some Purpose Tea right now. So I've got unsweetened coconut lime. I've got a hint of sweet lemon bliss. I've got hint of sweet purple rain and I've got unsweetened blood orange.
So stoked to to try those out. So what's the most rewarding thing about what you do Chi?
You know, for me and it just takes a certain kind of person to be quite honest. I think the rewards comes in different facets. One is just sort of understanding that I have the power to build a world that I want to live in. Right? I mean everyone has that power. I mean, you have that power as a consumer, I have that power as a consumer and an entrepreneur. And so, so knowing that, I don't know, that's just to me is, is so it is so rewarding and knowing that I'm going to be able to improve the lives of so many, I'm not, whether through through health, you know, reasons or through the fact that we're trying to lift these women out of poverty, that is really rewarding. And I think the other aspect of it, I think it just, you know, from an entrepreneurial perspective, this idea of building something like, you know, building it from the ground up and, and facing like challenges that you've never based before and just solving them and overcoming them.
Is so rewarding because I, I just think, I mean, I really do think life is, is, is a journey of just learning and growth. And this has really challenged me to like nothing else has challenged me, you know what I mean? And so knowing that I've just achieved so much like personal growth and professional growth just by starting this venture and just taking the risk and saying yes, I mean that, that to me is so rewarding. Although let's keep it real. I mean, it's stressful. It's stressful. Some days are riddled with, you know, anxiety and stress. But knowing that I can just overcome those and just keep going, it's just the most rewarding thing and I just can't describe it. So it's just one of those things , you know, it keeps me going.
So Chi, you're the founder, CEO of Purpose Tea, what's the best way for people to connect with you?
Yeah, no, I mean I think the best, so to get connected to our brand, I mean obviously go to our website, sign up for our newsletters, follow us on on social, we have, you know, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. But for those who want to get in touch with me, I'm, I tried to be pretty responsive on LinkedIn. You know, if, if they want to connect on LinkedIn, I'm, I'm open to, to all of that and, and and a little slow. I'm guilty being slow to responding to messages, but I try to respond to all of my messages as, as quickly as I can. So yeah, they can connect with me on LinkedIn if that's something they want to do. And if they have more questions about the brand or me or my journey, I'd be more than happy to. So spill my guts.
Awesome. Chi, it's been so great to have you on the show. I'd love to, again, have you on a followup episode to hear about the progress that Purpose Tea is experiencing.
Yeah, I would love to thank you so much for having me on the show and I think, you know, if there's anything, I mean even just like inspiring girls or anyone, boys, whatever, to get into business and and, and to chase those dreams. Like if that, if I'm able to just do that for one person, that is super rewarding too. So thank you so much for having me on
Our pleasure. There's no doubt you inspired me today.
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