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The Future of Tea: Aureal Ojeda from Outwoken Tea

Mar. 28, 2022 at 1:16PM

Aureal Ojeda doesn’t drink tea every day. For her, tea is something to be savored. It’s a ritual. Brew it slowly. Tend to the leaves with the respect they deserve. For Aureal, tea is a facilitator of connection—a dynamic beverage that plays wingwomen when you invite the people you know and love over for a meaningful conversation. Yes, she’s running a business, Outwoken Tea, an enterprise she refers to as her “baby,” but she’s doing so much more than making a buck—she has a vision for a more equitable and sustainable world with tea as the impetus for achieving it.

When you meet Aureal, her passion for what she does comes across immediately, as does her empathy. I met her last fall when a mutual contact connected me, a food photographer, with Aureal, a tea company owner in need of new website photography. She patiently worked through the process with me when some new contract software I was using fell short, and reassured me when discussing attribution that, as women, we’ve gotta look out for each other. So here we are, months later, and I’d like to pay back the favor and provide Aureal space to share her story so you can all see what I see.

Aureal owns a tea company, but she’s also changing the world. 

Like any consumable product, how we engage with tea tends to evolve over time, reflecting both changes in our lives and society at large. Aureal’s relationship with tea started early and has transformed over the years into not just something she drinks, but rather something she does.

Rookie Error: It’s a Tisane

Aureal’s relationship with tea started at home, where meaning often takes up roots and lasts a lifetime. Her grandmother would create a concoction of ginger and cinnamon, steeped in boiling water to yield an earthy, nourishing brew perfect for distilling warmth. 

For the novices in the house, we call that a tisane as it contains no leaves (and no caffeine) from Camellia sinensis, the tea plant. That distinction is important to Aureal, and it’s a mistake she notes many burgeoning tea connoisseurs make. To fully immerse yourself in the art of tea rituals, you have to know what’s in your cup. Brewing tea—legitimate tea—is a very different, sensitive process compared to throwing some herbs in a cup.

Aureal’s living situation changed, and she stopped drinking her grandmother’s tisane for many years. It wasn’t until she had her son at 17 and needed a salve to get her through life as a young, single mother—at times struggling with homelessness—that she returned to tea. She would purchase cheap tea—you know, the stuff that looks like swamp water and tastes like dirt—and dump a pound of sugar into it to make it palatable. Instead of comfort born out of grandma’s recipes, it was sustenance to help her survive.

But tea has many faces, and it shifted form once again for Aureal. 

When she lived on National Avenue on Milwaukee’s near southside she found a reminder of the meaning tea can bring to life. Her neighbor was from Laos, where tea ceremonies have a deep history, and tea is a facilitator of connection with those you love. With a backyard saturated with fresh herbs, the tangible relationship her neighbors had with the earth piqued her initial interest. 

As she notes, “I’ve always been into herbs and anything from the earth. I’ve always had an interest in how we can truly heal ourselves from plants. People always avoid the root cause of things. Take a pill, I have a headache. The pill doesn’t fix it. You have to see what’s going on inside.” Her curiosity led to an invitation to connect over a cup of tea. 

Through the gradual process of getting to know one’s neighbor, Aureal learned that the woman living next door immigrated to the U.S. when she and her husband were in their teens, fleeing their home country with a bag of tea counted among their cherished possessions. Woven throughout her neighbor’s life story was a lesson for Aureal about the interface between colonization and tea production, the poor conditions tea workers face, and why tea is valuable beyond any monetary point of reference. 

Something awoke in Aureal, a clear pathway that connected her life story to the experiences of tea growers halfway across the globe. She realized, “Whatever I do, it’s definitely gotta support people. It’s definitely gotta support the environment because we coexist.”

Collecting Caseworkers

Aureal sees that struggle is often the norm for everyday people—from single mothers in Milwaukee to tea growers in India. She also knows what it means to overcome, and she aims to create favorable conditions for people who do not benefit from the privileges of a few. Aureal’s words reflect a balance between acknowledging the inequality of the world and recognizing we are not powerless. She says, “I think people have to understand that if they want something in life, they have to hold themselves accountable.”

See your barriers and find a way to knock them down.

While some people may believe business ownership requires an intact and robust ego, Aureal disagrees: “You have to learn to put your ego aside.” Starting a business meant exploring her options, reaching out for help—“If you ask them they will give”—and frankly, fully embodying grit. She had to set aside any concerns about how she would be perceived. 

She reached out to SCORE: SE Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and The US Small Business Administration—a what’s what of small business resources. At one point, a connection she made told her she was collecting caseworkers. She makes no apologies (and laughs when she shares this anecdote). She adds, “If it’s out there, I’m going to get it. I don’t know everything and I think having more people, more heads on it can help me.”  

Reaching out to people who understand her context intimately—other small business owners—proved valuable for business growth, and fodder for identifying a pattern of gender dynamics in business ownership.

Whether it’s true inequality, a reflection of ego (as Aureal posits), or something else entirely, business ownership is different for men and women. The men she spoke with treated their interactions as transactional (e.g., “I’ll help you, but what are you going to do for me”). Whereas the women she connected with—Kiley Peters of Brainchild Studios, Katie Daly Weiss of Big White Yeti, and others—saw Aureal’s ask for help as an opportunity to give back, approaching the interactions with a sense of duty to level the playing field for other women, to lift them up to their level of success. She notes, “A lot of men have opportunities handed to them simply because they’re a man.” 

Aureal clarifies it wasn’t all men (so temper your outrage or direct it at me, the author), and shares that one business owner she connected with gladly shared a plethora of resources with her, and when she asked him how he got access to it all, he said people just reach out to him. He didn’t have to ask. He didn’t have to research. He didn’t have to get over his own emotional challenges to have a chance at business success. 

Asking for help hasn’t been easy for Aureal. She explains, “I haven’t had the best experience with people. I tend to not reach out to people for help. I have more of this mindset of do it myself.” It was a learning curve for her to embrace help so that her business might succeed and it’s the advice she has for aspiring business owners.  

Aureal has had to hunt down and advocate for every resource she’s leveraged to pursue her vision. And by connecting to other women business owners, she’s found kindred spirits. Women small business owners can relate to her struggle for equal access to resources. Even the women she’s connected with that have had access to more resources—by virtue of growing up in family-run businesses—still share freely.

But accessibility to resources doesn’t guarantee success. Aureal has learned, “If you’re not open to receive, you can have all the tools and resources thrown at you wasted.” Over time, she has embraced the interdependence of our world for both herself and the tea growers she works so hard to uplift. 

Giving and receiving are both valuable skills to develop as a business owner. But on a larger scale, many women embrace the idea of room for us all, and we have an ethical obligation to ensure that remains the case. Owning a small business can provide individuals with a way to create social change, and that’s certainly the case for Aureal.

Tea for the People, by the People 

To understand what Outwoken Tea offers, you have to understand Aureal’s perspective on the systems that support, undermine, or destroy our ability to appreciate a cup. What started as a spicy tisane brewed by grandma has extended into the very systems that can make or break our survival as a species. Tea starts as an agricultural product that reflects the health of the earth, the livelihood of the farmers that tend it, the economic relationships between the country of origin and country of destination, supply chain infrastructure, and consumer culture.

Aureal explains, “We look at the soil. There are so many people whose soil is not even good enough to grow tea, and not just tea, but other crops. So now I look at it deeper, all the way down to the soil. Our soil is our livelihood. And this is a scary thing to say, but soil is not renewable in our lifetime. So now I look at it deeper than the tea itself. I look at the economic sustainability, the agricultural sustainability, and just in general, what can we do to improve, not just with tea, but as a whole system.” 

Aureal wants us to all think more deeply. It’s easy to just pull into Starbuck’s and chug your daily syrup-laden “coffee,” but it takes lot more intentionality to be thoughtful about what we purchase and how we consume it. Aureal shares the stories of the tea growers on her website to bring awareness to the full breadth of the impact of purchasing a bag of tea. She wants customers to see, “It’s not just another bag of tea. It’s people.” Not everybody is ready to be confronted with the impact of their choices or have a mirror held up to their “I want it now” mindset. 

When you order through Outwoken Tea’s website, you have an option to reduce your carbon footprint by choosing slower ways to consume, nixing surge shipping or express shipping, for example. The packaging is all home-compostable and plant-based. The result is to reduce the impact of your purchase so all that’s left is the tea. 

When Aureal added the carbon footprint awareness technology to her purchasing experience, she received an angry email from a customer in California. But fortunately, it didn’t end with another disgruntled person airing their grievances via the anonymity of email. She recalls, “They actually apologized to me. They said ‘I’m sorry, I just didn’t like how I was confronted. I felt like I was confronted indirectly.’ But they said they appreciate what I’m doing because if we’re not aware of it, it will never be the front of mind.”  

By putting the choice in the hands of consumers, it holds them accountable and empowers them to take ownership over their purchases—and by way of monetary exchange, their influence on the system.

The Sustainability of Tea

Despite coffee reigning supreme in the U.S. for many years, tea has emerged from its stale place tucked in the back of your family’s cupboard. Ten years ago, you couldn’t get a matcha latte from your local coffee shop, but now you can, and you can get it iced, hot, large, small, with sugar, without, and made with any number of nut milks. 

Tea has been taken over by consumption. There are landfills decorated with empty tea bags, and thousands of people who mindlessly tip back 20 odd ounces of green tea brewed on the go as they get ready to bury their faces in a computer screen for 8-10 hours. But embracing tea as a consumer good rather than a luxury may not be sustainable. 

As Aureal explains, “Here in America, we’re so used to cheap. We’re so used to cheap coffee, cheap tea, cheap things that we got off somebody’s back for cheap. And we don’t realize that somebody had to slave basically for nothing in order for you to have that cheap tea, or that cheap coffee, or that cheap whatever. And I think eventually we will have to get used to paying more for common goods.” 

She adds, “People are tired of being abused.” From workers at sea ensuring shipping containers find their way to our shores to the truckers who transport goods to distribution centers, warehouses, and eventually, shops where purchases take place, the everyday people that form the human infrastructure of the exchange of goods are at a breaking point. The system will not hold. 

Aureal envisions a future where consumption slows, where we can enjoy high-quality tea at a premium so that the system is sustainable for all. It’s on us to see that the cost is worth it. 

So does that mean we should feel shame and guilt for enjoying our favorite tea? Absolutely not. 

Tea is part of Aureal’s life, whatever fluctuations rock the economy. She still brews a tisane for dinner most nights that resembles her grandmother’s—ginger, cinnamon, and other spices to spur digestion. But when she does drink tea, it’s intentional. 

She explains, “I want to sit down. I want to brew it slowly. I want to enjoy it. I want to talk while we’re drinking. I want to have an experience with you.” As far as the tea itself, she reaches for pu’ers and oolongs for their rich, earthy depth and the craft involved in processing them. Take it from Aureal: “It’s a lot more handwork. It takes a lot more steps than a regular tea. They have to pick it. Most of them get composted. It’s fermented in a compost piled. And then rotated. And then dried. And then hand-withered. And then smoked. And then tossed again.” 

A prominent part of Aureal’s tea ethos is to make tea drinking experiential, perhaps as a way to respect the work that goes into making the product, and that includes pairing tea with food. 

When Aureal and I collaborated on her website photography, her big ask for the creative direction was to bring people into the photographs by showing what flavors can enhance or compliment her teas. Her personal favorite is persimmon, and she has a well-thought-out ritual for imbibing and enjoying. She lets her persimmons sit out on the counter for three weeks until they’re incredibly soft and ripe, and then she eats it alongside a cup of tea. 

Dried fruit. Chocolate. Opt for these to do as Aureal does. Otherwise, go for a humble piece of toast, but do it up. Make it fancy. Aureal does a seasonal jam, like with elderberries or currants. She adds the jam to hemp toast with pumpkin seeds and goji berries. As she says, “I make a fancy-ass toast. Why have a lame-ass piece of toast when you can have an amazing piece of toast.” 

The best way to follow Aureal’s lead when it comes to enjoying, respecting, and sustaining tea is to invest in her business because you’re investing in people.

The Future of Outwoken Tea 

Toast jokes aside, Aureal’s faced plenty of adversity, but during our conversation, it’s only mentioned as context, in passing, far from the essence of her story. When you have a conversation with Aureal, her strength, self-awareness, and spirit come through in her words as well as her humor. She cares deeply about what she does.  

Aureal has lots of plans in the works as she heads towards the two-year anniversary of Outwoken Tea. What started as a wholesale venture became direct-to-consumer out of necessity as COVID-19 upended everybody’s lives, and now she’s carefully laying the foundation to realize her vision for a more equitable, sustainable, and meaningful consumption of tea. 

She hopes to one day open a branch of her business that educates and supports tea farmers, to teach them how to feed the soil as they grow the tea, to produce tea in a way that creates a viable income and preserves the earth. She’s launching a tea club, a monthly event where tea lovers can come out of the woodwork (we tend to keep to ourselves) and explore the history and brewing techniques for a tea selected by her. Though the business sustains her, she’s not in it for the money. 

Aureal comments, “I think people are doing things for the dollar instead of doing things to make a difference. I think those two d’s should never be switched.” She adds, “Which one are you doing business for? The dollar or the difference? Because if you’re doing it for the dollar, you might as well close your doors.” 

So two years in, what does Aureal attribute her success to if not the pursuit of profit? 

I’ll leave you with her words because mine won’t do them justice. 

“I cared enough to try. I cared enough to make a difference. It didn’t happen because I’m this genius and I have these mad skills. It happened simply because I cared.”

About the author

Caitlin Knudsen

Propagator of succulents, hobbyist baker, healthcare by day, pug wrangler always.