Business goal for the next 12 months: We are excited to be launching two new product lines this year. One is a high-end, hand-sewn cotton tea bag of organic full leaf teas and herbs from around the world called ‘Nspire’. The other is a new range of organic teas and herbs, which will be available to the mainstream market, called ‘Care’.
In addition to this, we are extremely active in the community. Our initiative ‘H2OPE’ works with Charity: Water to bring clean water to the nearly 800 million people in the world who do not have access to clean water. Our products are distributed in 55 countries but we would like to grow further internationally – specifically, Europe, Japan and South America.
We are also working on projects such as ‘OSC2’ (One Step Closer To An Organic Sustainable Community). This is a national community of successful sustainable business leaders committed to driving a positive impact on our industry and our environment.
Advice you wish you had received: Reem: That ‘less is more’. Knowing what I know now, I would say start with fewer products, a smaller audience, and focus in on what you’re selling and how you’re selling it. Make fewer things better rather than getting too stretched with more.
Ahmed: I would go to the mainstream market sooner. We chose the gourmet and specialty route and spent a lot of time building a brand. Looking back, we could have built it quicker through mass markets, but in the early days we turned down Walmart, Target and Best Western; we were very focused on being prestigious. Although we’re growing and on a great track, we could have done it a few years earlier.
Best business decision: We have spent significant time and effort focusing on our quality and values. For us, taste is the most important quality. There is always a new health property coming out about tea, so instead of focusing on the functional benefits, we have focused on enjoyment and flavor.
Our values of high premium quality and organic fair trade have defined our brand and we have stuck to them. We made the decision from the start that all decisions we made would be true to our values so once we defined them, we set about finding the people, the money, and the market around them. We have stayed true to our sense of quality and not played the game of low price and non-organic.
We would add that central to our success has been the team we have built. Many people have been with us since just after inception and have helped to form the foundation of the company. Having a great team in place has allowed us to dream big and hone in on the things we like to do and are good at.
Toughest business decision: It’s around having to let people go. It’s tough as we value them as people and we value their work abilities, but sometimes you have to make the hard calls.
Sticking to our values has also been difficult. We have created a niche of high quality and organic fair trade, and it’s not always easy to find those ingredients and suppliers that can supply our demand; it creates issues with the supply chain, pricing, people alignment, for example. Since we are organic and fair trade, we can’t just grow more if there is a big demand.
Finally, it is also difficult when we make the decision to discontinue a certain line. It hasn’t happened often, but if it’s not working then we have to cut our losses, which is hard since we get attached to them!
Person most admired: Locally, we admire Clif Bar for the culture they have built. Further afield, we admire brands like Patagonia, Apple, and Google, as they emulate excellence and stay true to their values. They know what they do and they do it well. With regards to people, we admire individuals who support ideals such as Rudolf Steiner, Bill Gates, and George Soros.
Like most about job: Reem: for me, it’s creating something from nothing. I like envisioning a product and then seeing it come to life. With my background in design and branding, I enjoy being able to give voice to a product. I also enjoy solving problems and using my interpersonal skills to hear, listen and find a middle ground.
Ahmed: for me, it’s the change we drive in our community locally and globally. We are bringing unique herbs from around the world to the American community. I manage Numi’s product formulations so I enjoy blending ingredients, finding a good taste then exposing it to the public. I also love to travel and my job affords me the opportunity to visit ancient tribes and cultures where tea is integral to their society. Peru is one of my favorite countries.
Like least about job: Reem: I’m a perfectionist, especially when it comes to design and aesthetics. It’s sometimes frustrating to explain what is subjective and may be only in your head. The financial aspect of my role, while necessary, is not my forte and doesn’t really interest me.
Ahmed: there’s nothing I really don’t like, it’s all an adventure and part of the process. If I didn’t like it then it would affect my enthusiasm to be here. Maybe early on there were things, but now I view them as a challenge and opportunity. It’s always a challenge to keep everyone aligned and on the same page—employees, banks, shareholders, investors. It’s a juggling act and it causes the greatest challenges but it serves as a reminder to me to take a breath, release with harmony and continue the journey.
Dream job: Reem: I’d like to be an art teacher but, to be honest, I would probably venture back into medicine. Although I chose to leave it, looking back it was probably my calling. Ahmed: I would be in the botany world working with plants and natural medicines from around the world.
BEHIND THE SUIT
Birthplace: Ahmed and Reem were born in Baghdad, Iraq. Their parents immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1971, where they grew up. Most of their family has since moved from Iraq to many countries around the world but they do have a few cousins still there.
Education: Reem: Initially, I went to college to study biomedical engineering. My father is a Doctor and my parents always wanted me to study medicine. I think as an immigrant there is always a push to try to do the secure thing but to be honest, my heart wasn’t in it.
I have always loved art but wasn’t sure how to pursue it. When I was 20, I was in a near fatal car accident involving 15 surgeries over 10 years and me needing to learn how to walk again. That experience changed everything and, as clichéd as it sounds, I realized that you ‘only live once’ so I wanted to spend it doing what I loved. I thus switched careers and pursued my love of art. I started studying in Boston, and then spent time in Florence, Italy before coming to California to get my Masters in Fine Arts.
Ahmed: I left Cleveland at 17 for New York where I studied Arts and Sciences, with a double major in Psychology and Theater. My passion is travel, so after graduating I spent time overseas, primarily in Europe. I pursued Film Studies in Paris then moved to Prague where I got involved in designing teahouses over the 6 years there. I learned all about tea, tea ceremonies, tea culture, and the trends and health benefits of tea; it helped me develop a palate for blending ingredients. Tea has played well with my heritage as obviously it has a strong Eastern influence.
Favorite book: Reem: Maya Angelou: ‘I know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. It made a huge impact on me when I was a teenager.
Ahmed: Wade Davis: ‘One River’. It’s a journey of exploration and discovery in the Amazon rainforest.
Favorite movie: Reem: I really enjoyed the recent movie Silver Linings Playbook.
Ahmed: Recently, I’ve enjoyed Interstellar and Noah. Both movies challenge new dimensions and make us realize we’re not the only creatures on this planet.
Outside of work: Reem: I live on a working farm, although the animals are more like pets. We have chickens, ducks, goats and a new puppy. They all take time, as does my son. I still love to paint so I do that whenever I have the chance.
Ahmed: I also have a farm, which is in the wilderness of Sonoma county. I spend a lot of time there and dream of what we can create. We’re just starting to plant. I also love to travel and go to remote places around the world. Separately, I’m in a band and we perform occasionally.
Community: We do a lot. As the largest fair trade tea company in North America, we do a lot with farmers, and the local communities where we are present, including the ‘H2OPE’ campaign and the ‘OSC2’ initiative (see above).
The Numi Foundation works with inner cities primarily here in Oakland. It has 3 curriculums – Art, Gardening / Nature, and Social Studies—and these are used in inner city Oakland schools.
As a team we do volunteer work. For example, we support local NGO’s such as City Slickers, Food Bank, community cleanups, etc. We pay our staff volunteer hours and give other in-kind donations such as food to local communities.
Ahmed also mentors younger entrepreneurs and sits on a few non-profit boards.
Family: Reem: I’m married with a son.
Ahmed: I’m engaged to be married and hope to have children in the near future.