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Leaving her cushy San Francisco management consulting job wasn’t on Cindy Li’s life plan, but the 26-year-old knew she had to get out. Li had always held a love for tea, and the proof was in her college research papers: As an economics student, she spent those formative years poring over academic books and journals to learn more about the history of the colonial tea trade. What she found was a murky history of marginalized groups being forced into slavery-like conditions on tea farms. Still to this day, international laborers are underpaid, and mass production of tea is hurried, leading to low-quality teas steeped with toxins and microplastics.
That’s what inspired Li to make the jump from the world of briefcases and cubicles to be closer to nature in Boulder, where she founded Uproot Teas last year. Mass-produced teas make their way to the aisles of big-box stores like Walmart only after going through big tea estates, an auction house, a domestic and international exporter, and a distributor. Li’s teas are sourced directly from one of her six partner farms, where they are packed by Li and her small team and then sent directly to the customer, cutting out all of the unnecessary shipping and handling that leads to old leaves.
“After talking to some tea farms in the U.S., I learned that the biggest thing they need is greater access to markets,” Li says, “That’s when I realized I wanted to be the person to connect people with fresh, farm-to-cup teas.”
To her surprise, Li found that her teas were flying off of the virtual shelves. Customers began buying bags of leaves before she had even finished setting up her website. It’s no surprise: Li partners with four tea farms—located in Vermont, Oregon, Hawaii, and Kyoto, Japan—which she ensured are independently owned and pay their employees more than a living wage. Her current lineup consists of chamomile, black, green, and peppermint brews, and perhaps most importantly to Li, all of her teas are loose leaf.
“I totally understand the convenience of a tea bag, but they’re typically made with microplastics which release into your drink when it’s steeped,” Li says. “I really want to bring back the community aspect of tea. Brewing a pot and sipping it over a conversation with a friend is really how it should be consumed.”
Despite her entrepreneurial spirit, Li’s journey to success in the field wasn’t easy. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Li says that the food industry is dominated by white, older men, who often cast doubt on her ability to run a business.
“Being a smaller Asian woman in Boulder is interesting, to say the least,” Li says. “When people meet me and I tell them I’m a business owner, I always feel this initial skepticism. It feels like a boy’s club that I’m trying to break into as someone with no connections.”
When starting Uproot Teas, Li partnered with (Included) CPG, a nonprofit that partners with BIPOC food and beverage business owners across the country to elevate their brands. (Included) CPG, in partnership with New Hope Network, sponsored Li to exhibit Anaheim, California, this past March where she participated in Expo West, the largest industry trade show in the United States. As she manned her booth at the convention, industry tycoons scoffed at her company idea, something Li suspects was rooted in sexism and prejudice.
Regardless, Li continues to leap over the hurdles she faces. Uproot Teas is preparing to launch two new teas from her partner farm in Kyoto. While she can’t name them yet, she hopes they’ll land on her webpage in time for this year’s holiday season. Additionally, Li plans to attend New York City’s Asian American International Film Festival in August, where Uproot Teas will host a tea tasting and raffle. Back at home, Li landed a spot at the beloved VegFest, which takes place at RiNo’s Improper City in August, where Uproot Teas will serve refreshing iced tea among Colorado’s favorite vegan eateries.
For now, Uproot Teas’ offerings can be found online and in a few select retailers, such as Boulder’s Moxie Feed and Seed and Longmont’s Brick’s Retail. Regardless of where Uproot Teas goes next, Li’s proud of all that she’s accomplished in just one short year.
“I started this because I wanted to connect with my heritage, and it’s so much more than that now,” Li says. “I want people to know there’s sustainable options out there, and I’m glad I get to share that with Colorado.”