Uppma Virdi is the founder of award-winning Melbourne and Sydney-based tea business Chai Walli. Beginning in her family kitchen, Uppma's hand-crafted teas are now sold Australia-wide and internationally.
Uppma and her "Chai Crusaders" work out of warehouses in Melbourne and Sydney, but the teas are sourced directly from small-batch organic farms in the Assam Valley of India. Authenticity is at the centre of Uppma's vision and the teas are prepared in accord with traditional Chai Walli ethical values. It's ancient Indian culture delivered by hand to cafes and homes across Australia.
'Chai Walli' means 'tea lady' in Hindi, and it's a job traditionally held by people in the lower classes of India. As first-generation migrants to Australia, Uppma's parents wanted her to make them proud in the community by excelling as a lawyer. The low status of the term 'Chai Walli', alongside the high risk of starting a brand from scratch, meant that her parents were initially unsupportive of her venture.
"Like most migrant families would, they had a Bollywood heart attack! It was not pleasant. There were a lot of tears, and a lot of: 'Who is going to marry my daughter?', 'What is the family going to think?', 'What is the community going to say? You did a double degree and studied six years to become a lawyer and you are going to throw it all out for the tea business?!"
But after an uphill battle, Uppma's family started to come around. "I spent a lot of time educating my family before they realised that I am on a different journey to them."
Part of Uppma's strategy was to share stories on social media, delighting people's senses and occasionally reversing misconceptions that Australians hold about Indian culture. "I shared stories on social about my family, about my culture, about what it's like being Indian in Australia. And about chai, what chai means to me."
Uppma is a born hard worker, but it came as a surprise when she was awarded Business Woman of the Year in 2016. "I had been doing hard work behind the scenes for years because it came naturally to me. I didn't realise there was a platform that would acknowledge that work. I was just head down, bum up, working really hard seven days a week – lawyer by day, business by night and on weekends."
The award threw her into the public eye, which allowed her to grow her personal brand and reach. We had a chance to speak with Uppma recently about her accomplishments as the Chai Walli of Australia.
Read the full interview with Uppma Virdi from our 'Australia & India. A Dynamic Mix' series.
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