A tea seller’s path to success: heads down, thumbs up

Uppma Virdi, CEO of Chai Walli, has been making waves in the chai business in Australia

We’ve seen a fair share of chaiwalas who’ve made it ‘big’ in recent times. India’s most famous chaiwala — Prime Minister Narendra Modi — tops this list. Then there is Arshad Khan, the blue-eyed chaiwala from Pakistan who bagged a modelling contract after a photo of him serving chai went viral on the internet.

And last week, news of Navnath Yewle, co-founder of Yewle Tea House in Pune, was trending when it was discovered that he makes ₹12 lakh per month selling chai. Now, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, it is time for a chaiwali to soak up some of that limelight.

Uppma Virdi, CEO of Chai Walli, has been making waves in the Australian chai business with her healthy brews and blends for a few years now. Addressing the students of Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA), the the 28-year-old Indian-Australian spoke about how she chose to give up her blossoming career in law to become a successful chaiwali in a country that isn’t too familiar with the beverage.

How it began

Growing up, like in most Indian households, chai was an integral part of Melbourne-based Uppma’s life. So, when she backpacked across Europe as a student a few years ago, she made sure she always carried spices and tea leaves. “My way of making friends with people whose language I didn’t speak was by making chai,” she explained.

But her love for chai goes beyond this. Chai Walli is a tribute to Uppma’s grandfather, Dr Pritam Virdi, an Ayurvedic doctor who passed on his knowledge of herbs and spices to her. Not only was he a master at blending herbal ingredients, but also a champion for women’s rights. “The women in his village were not encouraged to study. But when his two daughters said they wanted to pursue medicine and psychology he supported them. The other villagers protested outside our house but that didn’t change his mind,” she said.

Having worked in an environment where her race and gender were considered disadvantages, Uppma understood the significance of her grandfather’s actions. “Even at home, my brother was allowed to do things I wasn’t because of my gender.” While she recognises that we have come a long way in terms of equal rights for people, she added that there’s more work to be done.

The right balance

This pushed her to conceive of Chai Walli. “After my Europe trip I realised I have so much to offer as an individual. I also didn’t want my grandfather’s legacy to die with him so I slowly worked towards creating Chai Walli,” she explained. Pursuing her dreams wasn’t an easy job as her family wasn’t happy with her choice. This meant she had to strike the right balance that helped keep her and her family happy.

Though she had been concocting brews for some years, it was only last December that Uppma gave up her job in a law firm to helm her start-up full-time. “I come from a society that told me not to give up my career as a lawyer. This meant I was working full-time as a lawyer, and coming home to work on Chai Walli for many years. When I eventually did quit, the transition was difficult.”

Initially she had no support or funding. Now she supplies more than 20 hand-crafted blends to wholesalers and retailers around the world, runs a website and social media pages, and conducts workshops on the art of making tea.

Advice to students

Her advice to future entrepreneurs is: don’t sit on an idea too long. Start working on it bit by bit, alongside your day job if you have to; that way, there is little to lose. Uppma also believes that life isn’t just about one’s business. “Take time to be the best version of yourself. Everyone needs to create their own path and self-awareness is essential for that.”

She also advised the men to be more supportive of the women around them, and the women to work hard to create change and succeed.