Enjoy problem-solving — When you’re building a company, you are solving problems every day on this journey. It would be more enjoyable if you liked finding solutions!
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chi Nguyen. Chi is the Founder & CEO of Purpose Tea, a mission-driven beverage brand that features the latest innovation in tea, a brewed tea made from the purple tea leaf while lifting from poverty some of the most exploited in the business of tea, female tea workers. Her vision is to build a healthier and more just world, one tea bottle at a time.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’m a Vietnamese American and the story of my family emigrating to the United States is foundational to my story as an entrepreneur. I am one of 6 and was three years old when we decided to escape Viet Nam. My parents wanted to give us opportunities they knew we wouldn’t have after the Communist took over, so we embarked on a dangerous journey in search of a better life. We started all over, but we had each other and with strong family values, an unbeatable work ethic and access to opportunity, we were able to improve our lives within a generation. There is a physician, two CEOs and finance and legal professionals in my family. This experience really shaped my worldview, one where I knew that others could also lift themselves up like we did if given the opportunity to do so. I decided to pay it forward, build a social enterprise and combine my passion and love of tea and lifting up others to build Purpose Tea.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I named the company, created a website and product packaging before doing an exhaustive trademark search. When I reached out to a trademark attorney to finally register the name, she informed me that another company had the Purpose trademark in the tea-based beverage category. As you can imagine, I understandably freaked out because I had invested money, time and was attached to that name already. I didn’t want to give up and thought I could negotiate with the company to allow us to use it or purchase it, but after doing more research, we realized the company wasn’t commercially viable anymore which gave us a legal foundation to register the name. We ultimately trademarked Purpose but it came with many sleepless nights. At least we learned from this experience and we’ll do the work upfront. It’ll save time, money and heartache!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure this would be considered funny, but I had initially used a contract manufacturer who was starting out as well. I have the utmost respect for people who are courageous and brave enough to build a company but in manufacturing, it’s important your partner understands and has the highest regard for food safety. They had produced our first run of product and everything tasted great but after a few weeks I had noticed something filmy floating in the product. It turned out to be mold. The caps were not torqued tightly enough and had let in air. Thank goodness none of those bottles of tea were sold. We had to dump more than 100 cases to be sure! It wasn’t funny at the time, but I can laugh at it now. We changed co-packers immediately and learned that we didn’t want our manufacturing partners to learn on our behalf, so we chose another with much more experience producing a brewed tea.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful for so many for where I am today, particularly my family, but one person stands out and that is my sister, Yume Nguyen. Without her encouragement, investment and belief in me and our mission, Purpose Tea would not exist. Even though I have grit, being an entrepreneur can be very lonely and so challenging at times (actually most of the time). While raising capital, we were getting so many no’s and even though I understand it’s par for the course, it took a toll on me. When leading a startup, it’s hard to know who you can be vulnerable with. Yume gives me the space to be completely honest and vulnerable. You need that person if you’re running a startup whether that’s a cofounder, best friend or in my case, my best friend and sister.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I believe it’s a combination of factors: even though we are making progress, there are still societal expectations of gender “norms” which put real limitations on what women and girls can do in business; there is a lack of female role models who represent what CAN be done; and finally, lack of resources and capital for women founders to make their dreams of starting a business a reality.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
It is so important for all of us to realize how we collectively benefit from women and their contributions. Once we can acknowledge that, we should all work together to break down barriers holding back girls and women. That starts at home with how we raise our girls. Don’t treat them differently than how you would treat boys in the sense of their abilities and their potential. Highlight more success stories of women entrepreneurs and role models for our young girls. This requires our media ecosystem to make a concerted effort to share stories about women equitably. Believe me, the stories are out there! Lastly, the private investment ecosystem should allocate a portion of funds to invest in female founders and fund managers. After all, women hold up half the sky and great ideas and great businesses come from diverse backgrounds. It’s a tremendous business opportunity.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Women I know are amazing problem solvers and operators both in their professional and personal lives. Even though women naturally possess the skills needed to build successful companies, that confidence doesn’t always translate into taking the risk to start companies, but when it does, there’s nothing a woman can’t do! Just think about the women in your lives and the major roles they play. Why wouldn’t they be amazing founders?
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?
There is this myth that founders work all the time and that they have to sacrifice their personal lives to be successful. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of work and burnout is real, but there are ways to work smarter, not harder. I believe this is where women founders have an advantage. Because we are sometimes mothers, have a spouse/partner and wear multiple hats, so we tend to be extremely productive and efficient with our time. The benefit of being a founder is that you get to organize your workday to best fit your schedule and commitments.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Not everyone is cut out to be a founder and that is perfectly OK! We need all types of people to make this world go round and there is so much value and contribution in other roles. There are several important traits in order to be a successful founder and the good news is anyone can learn these traits:
- Resilience — You will get knocked down many times when you’re building a business, but it’s so important to learn from it and get back up. Otherwise, every setback or failure will take a toll on you mentally and emotionally
- Growth mindset — This to me is the most important trait. Being a founder and leading your company is about steering the ship to success, but that takes learning from every experience, whether it is good or bad. Missteps and failures are opportunities for growth.
- Enjoy problem solving — When you’re building a company, you are solving problems every day on this journey. It would be more enjoyable if you liked finding solutions!
- Insatiable curiosity — Having a strong curiosity will help you answer “why” in every situation and lead you to a solution or help you unpack a situation or challenge.
- Resourceful — Unless you’re heavily funded, you will always need to be creative with your business and how to do more with less.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Comparison is the thief of joy: You will read about other companies in your industry and the progress they’ve made and naturally want to compare your company and wonder why you couldn’t raise that money in that short amount of time or why you couldn’t secure the same customer. You’ll start to feel down but you don’t know the specifics of your competitor’s journey and how they got there, so it’s energy better spent to focus on what you’re doing and celebrate your milestones. Every successful brand has a breakout moment and yours is uniquely your own.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint: Building a brand and company takes time. You’ll often read about these “overnight” success stories but upon further investigation, it took at least 10–15 years to build. Give yourself grace and enjoy the journey.
Triple the time you think it will take to raise money: Fundraising is a full-time job. Unless you have a team that will take care of operating the business while you fundraise, expect that you will be operating and fundraising at the same time which will extend the time you think it’ll take to raise capital.
When it seems impossible, get some sleep: There will be times when a problem becomes so overwhelming that you think there are no possible solutions. Getting some rest will actually help clear your head and give you the space and clarity you need to think creatively about your challenges.
You can’t do it alone: This doesn’t mean you can’t be a solo founder. I’m a solo founder and it works well for our company. Rather, this means you’ll need a good support system around you as you’re building, and you’ll need a team who compliments your skills and experience. Recognize that you can’t do everything well at work and surround yourself with a team that compliments your skills. Just as important, make sure you have support at home. My husband and family have been a source of steadfast support during the uncertain period of building a startup.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I like to think so. The whole reason why I started Purpose Tea is to use business as a platform for positive change in the world. Not only do I want to empower the most vulnerable in my supply chain, but I want to be a source of inspiration for other entrepreneurs, especially women.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We need to empower women in any and all areas of life and work and I’d encourage all of our male advocates to join this movement. We should give women the tools, resources and capital to build amazing companies. When we give women opportunities, not only do their lives improve, but there is a ripple effect of positive change. That alone would impact the greatest number of people around the world.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
There are so many I admire. Here is just a shortlist! Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, Emma Watson because of their advocacy of women and girls.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.