Uppma Virdi


culturallyours podcast uppma virdi chai walli interview

Uppma Virdi

Show Details

In this episode, we explore Culture and Entrepreneurship as I chat with Uppma Virdi the founder Chai Walli, an Australian based business that is promoting the Indian culture of chai with signature Ayurvedic chai blends. Uppma is a lawyer by profession but a chai enthusiast who learnt the importance of Ayurveda from her grandfather, an Ayurvedic doctor in India. Today Chai Walli hand blends many Ayurvedic spices in their chai.

Uppma has such positive attitude and so much optimism when it comes to entrepreneurship. She is excited to try different things and looks at everything as a learning experience. Her culture and heritage are very important factors that drive her business. Her goal is to bring the culture of chai mainstream all over the world.

Show Notes

Karthika interviews Uppma Virdi the founder Chai Walli, an Australian based business that is promoting the Indian culture of chai with signature Ayurvedic chai blends. Uppma is a lawyer by profession but a chai enthusiast who learnt the importance of Ayurveda from her grandfather, an Ayurvedic doctor in India. Today Chai Walli is a thriving business that hand blends many Ayurvedic spices in their chai. Having received many awards including Business women of the year and Forbes 30 under 30, Uppma is on a mission to bring the culture of chai more mainstream.

The Transcript

Karthika: Welcome Uppma. Thank you so much for joining me today on CulturallyOurs. I’m really so excited to be chatting with the Chai Walli and I cannot wait to dig into your entrepreneurial journey.

Uppma: Thanks you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Karthika: Absolutely. So before we kind of dig in and hear your story, can you share a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, just sort of to set the stage for this conversation?

Uppma: So as you know, my name is Uppma. I’m a first generation Indian migrant in Australia. We migrated here when I was one from Punjab. I was born in Mannikan and I currently run a business which started as a passion project of mine many years ago. I’m also a lawyer and I’m also a public speaker as well. And some things that I love to do. I’d have to hike, to dance. I like to play soccer and go hiking and paint. And I currently live in Sydney with my partner who I recently got married too, but I grew up in Melbourne.

Karthika: Wonderful. So you said you moved here when you were a very, very young, and you said you were a lawyer. So how did that transition happen from a lawyer to now running your own business?

Uppma: I wouldn’t even know where to start. There are so many different parallels to being a lawyer and running a business as well. But Chai Walli started as something that I wanted to tribute to my grandfather for being an Ayurvedic doctor and making, Ayurvedic teas and chais that I wanted to create for friends and family. So it was a complete accidental business that I just started while I became a lawyer as a side project to keep myself busy on the weekends because lawyers aren’t busy enough. So I was lawyering by day and by night and weekends I would be blending Chai with a pestle and I’d be going to markets and making Masala Chai freshly made for people. And I’d be doing a lot of education. So I’d use social media to really educate people in Ayurveda and the Indian culture around Chai. But not just the Indian culture around chai, but the Indian culture and other things. And I’d use Chai as away to educate non-Indians on what it means to be a first generation Indian migrant.

Karthika: That’s really very fascinating. So I want to dig a little bit deeper into what prompted. Like you said its not just about chai but also about Indian culture and heritage. So what prompted this dichotomy especially since you have lived in Australia your whole life.

Uppma: I guess entrepreneurship isn’t something that I ever aspired to have growing up. And being a first generation migrant, especially from the Indian country, we don’t really raise our children up to want to become entrepreneurs because, because success for us is having stability and that’s why our families moved to countries like the US, Canada, UK or Australia. It’s cause you want your kids to be independent and stable. And that could be through banking, law, doctor accounting. And that’s what my parents wanted for us. And it never crossed their mind to think I would ever become a business owner. I don’t come from a family of business. But there was something really special in the ability for me to be able to be myself completely. And that’s what I got from Chai Walli. It was my ability to really tell the world, this is me. I’m an Indian Australian and this is what it’s all about. This is what I am. And it was a canvas for me to create whatever I want to create. And that gave me joy, that joy and happiness I got from creating things and developing an idea from the ground up is what led me into entrepreneurship.

Karthika: I completely understand. It is very typical I think of Indian culture. I’m from India and growing up in India too, entrepreneurship wasn’t even something I thought about. It was always, go to school either become a doctor or a lawyer, which I did not. I went into computers and that was the other path. So I completely understand. How competitive is your industry and the space in Australia for entrepreneurship and specifically what you’re doing?

Uppma: When people ask me questions about competition, I really don’t see it. And the reason for that mostly is because of how different and unique my offering is. And it started as something that was very passionate about and something to give back as a tribute to my grandfather and my family and to kind of leave a legacy. And so I don’t see it as competition. You can have a look at our website and the reviews. You will see that 20 or more people say that it’s the best chai they’ve ever had in their lives. So I’ve never really been swayed by competitors. I know other many other tea businesses exist. People call me all the time asking me to help them start a chai business. But I don’t follow it or I don’t watch it. I don’t see it. I just do my thing. I create my path. And I work on it. So it’s only only good vibes here.

Karthika: Thats a fantastic way to look at it. Having that laser sharp focus and taking your path and going on it. Everything else is just noise and can be ignored. You talked about your sort of a differentiator in a way being that you want to give back, you want to bring out your culture, right? So can you elaborate a little bit on that? How is Chai Walli different beyond like the actual physical ingredients or is it just that, is it the physical ingredients and of course you.

Uppma: When I look at Chai Walli, I look at it as having many facets to it. And the reason why it is different is that because we’re not just selling a bag of tea. We’re not just giving you a packet of tea from a mass manufactured farm. What we’re giving is transparency. So I personally go to India, I visit tea farms. I ensure that they are fair trade or they’re organic. I know who picks my leaves, I know where it gets manufactured, I know where I get, how the tea leaves get oxidized. I then also traveled to really remote places in India to extract stories about chai and tea and what it means to them. I visit chai walls and chai wallies on the street. Then I interview them and I have a Hashtag on Instagram called humans of Chai, where I’m actually spending time with these people, trying to understand where the chai actually originates from and why we drink it. For me, it’s all about the stories and the originality of where it comes from so that we can be experts in the field. So I’ll travel and I’ll create these connections so that I can bring it back here and share it with the rest of the world. Because you’re drinking a cup of chai, but what does it mean? What does it mean to you? What does it mean to the people you give it to and you should have an understanding of that. You should know where it comes from, who makes it, how it gets made and how 1 billion people in India drink it.

Karthika: I love it. And I love the humans of Chai. I will have to go check it out. I am a complete chai addict by the way. You had me right at Chai Wallah. My cup of chai has a lot of memories associated with it. Hanging out with my parents and having a cup of Chai in the morning with my mom. So you’re right, it’s more than just the leaves. It’s like a lifestyle and kudos to you for sort of bringing out that lifestyle. So as a people as a culture, we sometimes don’t always celebrate our successes in life. We are so focused on like one goal and the next task and the next. So perhaps let’s take a moment and celebrate all the successes you’ve had so far in your journey. And so can you share what have been some of your proudest accomplishments?

Uppma: That’s a very good question. Well, a few, a lot has happened in a short span of time for me and you are right, like I don’t actually sit there and enjoy it or celebrate it. So thank you for highlighting that. But most recently I won third place in the World Tea brewers championship and we had to make all these different tests where we had to serve tea and how it served and making a signature drink. And one of the signature drinks I made was I used a smoking gun to actually smoke chai. So the smoke smelled like Chai and I put a cup of tea, a cup of Chai and a terra cotta cup. And I hid that in the smoke so that when you drink the Chai you’d get the smokiness texture as well.

Karthika: Oh my God, that sounds amazing.

Uppma: Which was a really fun competition to do, to get involved with. And so I was recognized for that. And earlier last year I got invited by the Australian government to go to India and represent Australia for International Women’s Day for an entire week. So I was sent two different high commissioners and different consulates and I met the Governor General of Australia and met the High Commissioner of Australia and India. And he invited me to his house to make Chai for him and his family and for food bloggers. And it was a really breathtaking experience to be able to represent Australia and India in that way. And go there, speak to universities and women’s groups and help empower gender parity, which was the mission for last year’s international women’s Day was how do we achieve gender parity between men and women?

Karthika: Oh my God. Oh, Uppma. I’m having goosebumps. That is really an amazing accomplishment. And I don’t even know you, but I’m so proud of you. I mean that is fantastic.

Uppma: That took a lot of energy out of me for five days of nonstop different engagements and going from Chennai to Mumbai to Delhi. It was just coming back from that swing, that energy was really magical. But I do want to finish off on one other success that I think is really important. I get so much gratitude in the ability to actually now be in a where I can create an ecosystem around me and actually if I say what I supplied, when I get supplies from or who I get supplies from and to the ability to support other people or young people in business and invite them to work with me or to get supplies from them. So that’s something that I could never do before when I was starting up. But now it’s just so precious to be in a position where I can actually make a difference and create an ecosystem around me.

Karthika: Absolutely. And it comes back to what you said earlier about giving back, not just about making Chai, it’s about that culture of giving back that heritage and you’re taking it so many steps further. Now like anything in life we have ups and downs. So what are some of the challenges that you’ve faced up along this journey and how have you really overcome those?

Uppma: I’ve never ever looked at anything as a challenge or something that has brought me down. I’m very much an optimist that always goes forward. And I think that’s a really good trait that I’ve got in running a business and being an entrepreneur is that I always look for a solution and I never let things bog me down. But there are always challenges and I think my main challenge has just when it comes down to, it can be myself. Like it’s just me, a challenge to myself. And that can be in ways of clarity or self competence or my ability or me not being able to fully understand my abilities. So what I do to kind of overcome my own self doubt at times is to do a lot of self work. Being running around, running a business and being an entrepreneur is difficult. And I’m not the kind of person who is the 24 hour hustle, hustle, hustle, because I don’t think that’s healthy. I think that you need balance and I think that you need to be able to fuel your energy and the rest it so that you can go in each day and have the energy to make amazing decisions and be creative because you’re wearing 10 different hats. You’re controlling each department. So it’s so important to give your mind rest. And that’s why I try to give myself clarity and structure. The main thing it always comes down to is why am I doing this? And I do need to ask myself that on a monthly basis. I need to have time to myself to be like, okay, go back to square one. What’s my purpose? Why am I doing this?

Karthika: That is so true. I think a lot of it is, you know, like you said, a lot of self work and always asking the question, why are we doing, why am I doing this and that? And I’m so glad you said you don’t believe in like hustle because I think that’s such an overused word at times. It just makes us as entrepreneurs feel like, oh my God, if you’re not 24×7, you are doing something wrong. But that’s not the case, right? I mean, we need that downtime. We need that time to ideate and just kind of even not even think about this and just live life.

Uppma: Right.

Karthika: Now as an entrepreneur, sometimes we are alone at the helm. We are kind of navigating our ship both mentally and physically. Have you ever felt that way or do you have a support system and people that you can rely on who really gets you and kind of help you along the way?

Uppma: I think entrepreneurship is just a massive learning journey about yourself and your limits in life. So we go through all sorts of emotions from ups and downs, highs and lows and feeling isolated at times. It feeling overwhelmed with people at times. And there are times that I have felt that you’re isolated, you’re alone, but you just need to remind yourself why you’re doing it. And I think it’s really important to have people around you. And that’s something easier said than done because you are doing this and you’ve chosen that career for yourself. And when I’ve tried to seek a tribe around me, I failed. I think when you seek that, you don’t get it. But I’ve learned that I let my intention be this is what I need. And somehow the law of attraction’s people that are meant to be in my life find themselves in my life for a reason at the right time. And I’ll give you an example. I moved to Sydney a year ago and I’m got a new warehouse about two months ago. Last week I had to get a big delivery of shelves. And racks and commercial grade pallets. I didn’t have anyone to help me set it up and it was meant to be a two man job. It got delivered this morning and it wasn’t a two man job. It was 4 man job. My neighbor was walking by and he came into the warehouse and he asked me if I needed any help. He called three of his friends and they all work together to help me set up the racking and that if that isn’t a law of attraction, I don’t know what is.

Karthika: Definitely those are guardian angels looking out. I believe that too. People come to your life for a reason and everything happens for a reason, so that’s amazing. How is the business and the entrepreneurial landscape in Australia and specifically in Sydney? I mean, do you have a lot of like a community involvement, government programs, mentors. Do you have access to all of that as an entrepreneur and maybe particularly as a woman entrepreneur?

Uppma: In terms of support for running a business? I think these Australian government does have a lot of initiatives in place from a small business vans that go around to different suburbs to give advice to online resources. And they also provide mentors as well. And when I first started Chai Walli, I did utilize some of the initiatives that they had, but I realized quickly that applying for grants and going through all those programs that they had, I really wanted to just do the work and get it done quickly rather than wait for a grant to come through because sometimes I’m impatient at the pace of business. So I bootstrapped it from the start and I knew that there were programs in place, but there were things that I knew I could do myself and to date, I’ve done everything myself. Which is I wouldn’t change how I did that because I learned a lot by doing it that way. And I would love to meet and collaborate with other people like myself. You don’t find a lot of young Indian women in business in Australia, which is what I’ve found. So last year I realized that I wanted to see more collaboration of Indians in Australia or in Australian people with an Indian background. I thought there was a lack of integration in terms of business owners or entrepreneurs from that space, so I set up a organization called young Australian Indian business network and we’re still in the embryonic stage, but this year I hope to launch it. We’ve had meetings and the first meeting was completely sold out in Melbourne. We had 50 people registered to attend and it was just a night of buzzing energy and I think it’s really important to see more initiatives like that.

Karthika: That does sound very fascinating. How do you balance all this stuff?  You have a thriving, successful business. You have a family, you have this other initiative. How do you juggle all these things? Business and life.

Uppma: I don’t know how to say this but I need to do two things to do do one thing properly.

Karthika: I totally get it. I think there are a lot of people and me included, I have to be doing multiple things. I’m a project manager by, uh, by education as well and by career. So I have situations where I have had to do multiple things at the same time and that has bled into my business as well. So if I’m not doing like five different things at the same time, I’m like, wait, what’s going on? How come I am I feeling bored.

Karthika: Let’s talk specifics for a change because I know a lot of people really love details so that they can kind of relate it more to their own situation. So if you don’t mind and whatever you’re comfortable sharing, that’s totally fine. So how long have you been in business and how many of those kind of years have you been profitable?

Uppma: I can’t really put a time limit to my journey because I was working as a lawyer and I didn’t look at it as a business from the start. When people ask me how long I’ve been in business, it’s really difficult for me to answer because when I first started it, it was a complete hobby side project for fun thing on the side of being a lawyer. And I was doing that for about three to four years on and off while I was a lawyer. But I left law last year and I’ve been running Chai Walli full time since then and I’ve bootstrapped it from the beginning and it’s been profitable from the beginning. I never been in the negative.

Karthika: That’s amazing. Have you pivoted in kind of what you originally envisioned Chai Walli to be and to what it is now? And if so, how do you decide when to pivot? Can you walk us through some of that ideation process?

Uppma: I think it’s really important to be open and adaptable to the fluid market and change. And because it wasn’t a big business plan or great idea that I had that I was going to create a massive business from, I’ve always just said yes to everything and I wanted to know what my abilities were. So I would do all sorts of things from, we’ve done catering to running workshops for communities to bring cultures together to supplying corporate hampers. And there’s so many things like we now make chai candles and chai soaps and chai chocolate. So there’s many things that we’ve done and I’ve explored just to understand what works and what doesn’t work. And I think that’s the beauty of startup or running a business from the ground up is you don’t have that structure in place that a business might have that’s been around for decades. This is what they look like. These are their offerings. So I’ve always pivoted and we’ve got the core things that we do, but I know that in the future I’m always open to new and innovative ideas. It’s a lot of experimenting and just trying out different things.

Karthika: I love it. Do you employ others and if so, what does that process look like? I mean, how do you go about finding the right people?

Uppma: People finding recruitment is always a tricky one and I’ve never really put ads up properly online or ad seeking websites because I’ve always found that people have come about at the right time when I need them to. We employ, I had in Melbourne this team of about three to four people. And since I’ve moved to Sydney I need to find people in Sydney as well. So what I’m finding here is a lot of word of mouth. A lot of people I’ve come across and trying to actually first tap into my circle and people that I know personally cause what better opportunity is it then to invite people that you already know and care about into something that you’ve created and make them a part of it so that there are other things that I do to kind of explore as well. One of my best friends is my creative designer and she does all our design work as well. So it’s been a privilege to be able to make things with her.

Karthika: I think that’s a great way to kind of get people on board, especially if you know them and you know, they share your vision, they share your passion for your project or your business.

Uppma: Yeah. If I’m going to pay an external person, why not pay someone that I care about?

Karthika: Exactly. Now, where do you as in Uppma, whether you invest a lot of your time, is it in the marketing? Is it in the sales? Is it in ideation? Is it an actually producing?

Uppma: All of the above. It’s everything like currently I’m doing all the legals and drafting employment agreements and talking to intellectual property Australia and trademarking things for the future. It is a lot of everything from social media marketing to building relationships with buyers in stores to product development, to setting up the warehouse, like logistics and inventory and it’s a bit of everything. And when you’re at this phase that I am currently at you need to do everything.

Karthika: Absolutely. I think as entrepreneurs we are all these different hats and you know, part of it is like, we also want to understand, we want to kind of dip our toes in it and see what it’s like. At least I know I am. And it’s like I’m very curious and I’m like okay so financials somebody explained to me, I’m not very good at it, but somebody explained to me how this is done or you know, like the marketing aspect of it or even just kind of looking at the website. I think we want to do so many different things.

Uppma: Yes. And I had training last week with a guy who is a Google ad words SEO God and he’s from Canada and it was like a whole other language that he was speaking.

Karthika:  I completely get that. How important is a social media for you or do you still rely on traditional sort of forms of marketing or is social media kind of marketing king?

Uppma: I think that traditional form of marketing is now social media. It has become the norm. And when I started the business, that is how I started it. I set up a Facebook page, I set up an Instagram, I started doing posts on Instagram posts and Facebook and festivals, just friends liking it. And then it was, you know, external people finding out about me that I didn’t know. And I remember when I first got a hundred followers on Instagram, I was the happiest person alive and now we’re on 10,000 plus. And it’s just amazing to know that people, I don’t even know around the world know about Chai Walli ended drinking blends that I was drinking with my grandfather or my family and something that I’ve created. Like, it just brings me so much warmth to know that. And that’s happened from the start. The key was social media.

Karthika: That’s amazing. And yes to go from a hundred to over 10,000, I think that speaks so much to what you’re doing. Just the brand and the fan base you are building. Thats wonderful. All right, so let’s perhaps wrap this up just in the interest of time with a few more questions. Some fun questions in there too. So what has been like the most important part of your entrepreneurial journey so far?

Uppma: I think the most important part of my journey as an entrepreneur has been learning my abilities and what I’m capable of and knowing where my tether point is. When you think about entrepreneurial journey, it’s a journey into yourself as well. And the ability to understand what you can do, what you can’t do, what you need to delegate, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at. To create an ecosystem around you where you can give those other tasks to other people.

Karthika: Yeah, for sure. If you could go back in time to when you first started knowing what you know now, would you do it all over again and would you change anything? And if so, what?

Uppma: That’s an interesting one because I am the kind of person that doesn’t look back. I don’t think I would change anything. I think everything’s happened for a reason and I would definitely do it all over again because of what I’ve learned in running a business and doing things the way I’ve done it all myself. Basically. I didn’t learn in the six years that I studied commerce and law and majored in finance and then did a post grad as well. So I didn’t learn those skills doing those.

Karthika: Yes. Nothing like on the job training. So what do you do for fun? How do you unwind after like a really long day or a particularly kind of challenging situation.

Uppma: I have so many extra curricular activities. I can’t even start. I think I have way too many. I love to play soccer. Like last night I had a soccer game. I love to cook. I make a killer curry that my mom has taught me. I’ve always been around food and spices and cooking and my mom is Punjabi and we always have food made at home. So she’s always taught me or I’ve learned through osmosis because I never actually listened to her. I love to read and write. I do spoken word poetry. I go hiking, I go to the beach sometimes. I have a lot of things that I do for fun and I love it all.

Karthika: I am married to a Punjabi so I can completely relate to that affinity for food. I am a terrible cook unfortunately. But I know when we go home to India, food is something that is around all the time. Especially a well cooked meal and we always gain weight when we come back.

Karthika: So what lies ahead for you Uppma? Are you sort of fully living your dream or what comes next?

Uppma: I think there’s so much more to do. I still feel like I’m at the start of my journey and there’s so much more ahead of me that I want to do and I want to really just create, continue creating and continue growing and creating a legacy for myself, for my family, for the people around me, and to be able to work with people who have aligned visions as well. I really want to launch Chai bars and give the community in Australia something that I’ve been talking about on social media for so many years, actually give them a place to go to experience the Indian culture of chai.

Karthika: That sounds fascinating. I think chai bars is, has a really sweet vibe into it and I cannot wait to hear all about it. Well, thank you so much Uppma. This was such an amazing conversation and so inspiring. I think your journey and your story is very motivating to a lot of people and I really thank you for taking the time to come on CulturallyOurs.

Uppma: Really grateful to be able to share it. And I’m glad that there are podcasts like yours that actually share these experiences to allow other people to continue with the journey as well.

Karthika: Thank you so much.

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