From successful lawyer to Chai Walli, and now Businesswoman of the Year - Uppma Virdi’s story is the ultimate reverse-Slumdog-Millionaire.
When Uppma Virdi walked into SBS Melbourne office in November last year with a wire rack full of tea cups in her hand, there was not a hint that she would be known as a renowned community and business leader.
Yet, just one year later the 26-year-old has won the title of Business Woman of the Year at the 2016 Indian Australian Business and Community Awards (IABCA) at a glittering ceremony in Sydney last week, after turning her passion for Indian tea into a successful business in Australia.
While doing her day job at a law firm,Uppma started her tea business 'Chai Walli' which literally means a female tea seller, a little over two years ago. But she inherited her passion for tea from her grandfather, a doctor specialising in herbs and spices.
“My grandfather is an Ayurvedic doctor and he used to make this Ayurvedic tea at his medical dispensary. He taught me the art of Ayurvedic tea."
“Wherever I go I make tea… My parents' number one request is 'Uppma, make some tea.' When my brother got married, I think I would have made a thousand cups of tea for all the guests. Even when I went overseas to Austria on a scholarship, I used to make tea for everyone. It was a way of bringing people together," she says.”
Uppma said because the tea has a huge significance in the Indian culture, she wants to share it with the people everywhere.
“In the Indian culture people come together through tea. Whether it’s a happy occasion or a difficult moment, tea is all pervasive. I tried, but couldn’t find many good tea places in Australia.”
That’s when the business idea was born.
"I decided to take it into my own hands and start my own tea business to share the Indian culture of tea.
“I started going to markets to share our family tea there. We always sold out and that’s when I realised, I had something special in my blends that I wanted to share with the wider Australian community,” she says.
Uppma prepared the tea blends that she learned from her grandfather. The first few packets went to her friends and family. Then she began her online store and started wholesaling to a few local stores. From there, the rest is a blur for Uppma as her business just flew in the last two years.
Now she runs her business like a business is supposed to be run.
“I have grown the business through relationship building, social media marketing, hard work.. lots of hard work.”
More interest in coffee that tea in Australia was never an impediment for Uppma.
“Interest in tea is growing in Australia as more and more people are seeking alternatives to coffee.. It was coincidently the right time for me.”
“My real aim is to educate the Australian society about the Indian culture through tea,” she says.
Chai Walli has a dedicated online store for retail purchase worldwide and it also has a wholesale division to supply the special Indian tea blend to gourmet supermarkts, health food storres, cafes, restaurants, yoga centres etc.
Uppma also runs “The art of Chai” workshops to teach people how to brew the perfect chai.
Her day job is still as a lawyer. She doesn’t say if she is now ready to make the complete switch, but she chuckles while recalling how her parents were strongly opposed to her becoming a ‘Chai Walli’.
“My parents and family were totally against it.. they said I was a lawyer, why did I want to be a tea seller? I said I wanted to show that tea sellers can do something. All the chai walas and chai walis in India are doing something entrepreneurial even if they are not well educated, at least they have a business spirit,” says Ms. Virdi.
Does she feel there’s a bamboo ceiling?
“I know that there are still a lot of cross-cultural issues about young women in business. When I go to India at times the suppliers and businesses don’t take me seriously, being a young Indian-Australian woman.. There’s still a long way to go,” she says.
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