Rupali Ambegaonkar is busy. On her mind is a new training plan for her sales team. Then there is this large order from an exclusive Mumbai club that needs to be shipped quickly. That state of the art 30,000 square feet factory coming up in Bhiwandi also demands attention. Behind all this is the humble tea leaf.
Ten years ago, Dr. Rupali Ambegaonkar was a practicing physiotherapist. She had completed her graduation from Sion Hospital and followed that up with a post graduation in orthopaedic physiotherapy from KEM Hospital. The gold medalist then started her own clinic. Her husband – an orthopaedic surgeon – had his own clinic close by. The birth of her daughter saw her taking a 5 year sabbatical. When she returned to work, it was with an idea to offer tea from different parts of the world to a chai obsessed India.
It began with a JCB excavator. Rupali’s father – a civil works and construction businessman – used to source those from a Chinese colleague. When she was on a trip to China, Rupali met up with her father’s colleague. He presented her a box of Tieguanyin tea – a premium oolong tea from the Anxi province. And therein began the journey. The Tieguanyin remains Rupali’s favorite – and the name of her firm – Iron Buddha – derives from a legend about the origins of this tea. She came back from this trip convinced that India would have a market for these flavors and tastes. The company was duly launched in late 2010. Her plan – introduce tea from not just from China but also from Japan, Argentina and South Africa and to supplement the range with educating people on the ceremonial treatment that different cultures accord to simple tea drinking. That became the brand under which their teas are marketed – Tea Culture of the World.
The initial years were difficult. From deciding which estate to source from to figuring out how to manage warehousing of the shipments to designing the packaging of these teas and finally crafting a sales plan. The entire task – done by a team of just three.
Tea Culture of the World (TCW) has come a long way from there. A credit to Rupali’s perseverance and doggedness – her thin and wiry frame hides a soul of steel. She says she has discovered strengths in herself she did not know existed. An early 2011 start means that Rupali and TCW were among the pioneers laying claim on the changing Indian palate for tea. The onus (and thereby the cost) both of educating the market about different teas and of creating a high quality presentation led packaging fell on the pioneers. Two market developments helped – first was a new health consciousness amongst India’s youngsters that forged a market for green tea and the second was the media frequently headlining the new tea wave.
The “did-not-look-back-after-this” moment for the brand happened in 2013. Hypercity – the food shopping giant – insisted that TCW open a shop-in-shop at their Malad branch. Rupali herself manned the shop-in-shop counter for the initial months. The direct feedback from consumers allowed the team to refine the tea selection and customer interactions allowed Rupali to establish a robust sales training regimen. With the real estate worries off her radar, expansion across Indian cities was relatively easier, initially within the Hypercity pan India network, followed closely by the Godrej Nature Basket chain. With a presence across 19 retail locations, TCW now has a pan India reach on the ground. And yes, they reach you in air too. Following a TCW tie-up with Jet Airways, you could find yourself sipping the tieguanyin on one of Jet’s international routes.
With a 108 person team, Rupali is now ready to take on new quests. We wish her the best as we keep an eye out for the soon to be launched TCW’s tea bag range.