For many Brown students, studying abroad can seem like an extended vacation. But for Tyler Gage ’08.5, one semester in South America changed his entire career path — and led to a groundbreaking business idea.
While doing linguistic research in Ecuador, indigenous families introduced Gage to tea from the guayusa plant. He discovered that tea from the plant, found only in South America, had more caffeine and antioxidants than any other tea, and he was inspired to set his sights on a new goal — bringing the plant back to the United States and into the marketplace.
Today, Gage and Dan MacCombie ’08.5, his friend and business partner, are the president and executive vice president of the tea company Runa. Founded in 2008, the company gets its name from the indigenous Ecuadorian word “runa,” which means “fully living human being.” It generated $277,000 in revenue in 2011, according to the New York Times, and Gage said he expects sales to surpass $1 million in 2012. Runa tea products are now sold in 1,200 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods and Wegmans.
For MacCombie, the company’s remarkable success is largely the result of a Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship course taught by Danny Warshay ’87, adjunct lecturer in entrepreneurship, which he and Gage took in the fall of 2008. The course, formerly known as “The Entrepreneurial Process” and since renamed “Entrepreneurship and New Ventures,” required students to develop a business plan. Warshay’s positive response to their proposal for Runa helped convince MacCombie to set aside his desire to be a biologist and instead co-found the company.
The COE course helped the co-founders make valuable connections, MacCombie said, adding that Brown also taught him the importance of “analytical rigor and hard work.”
“We both had a passion for sustainable development and Latin America,” MacCombie said. MacCombie and Gage felt the time was right to introduce guayusa to a wider market and based their brand on the idea of a healthy, organic lifestyle, MacCombie said.
But the entrepreneurs are not just out to make a profit. Runa also works to improve the lives of Ecuadorian farmers who grow and harvest the guayusa plant to make tea. The company aims to generate $500,000 per year in five years to support its indigenous business partners’ education, food costs and other expenses, Gage said.
“We’ve really designed the business for a great impact on the farmers we support,” Gage said. “Our mission is to create livelihoods for indigenous families.”
Small businesses experience a high rate of failure in their first few years, and the company’s co-founders were forthright in acknowledging the challenges of starting a new venture from scratch. They said they initially experienced difficulty reaching out to Ecuadorian farmers and trying to market a new product that had never been in the U.S.
Besides the co-founders, Runa also has three other full-time employees in Brooklyn, N.Y., including Operations Manager Jim Schreiber, who said he took the job because of his interest in the company’s sustainable growing initiative with Ecuadorian farmers and its “nontraditional business culture.” Schreiber said he was intrigued by the product’s unconventionality.
“Tea doesn’t always have an energizing aspect,” Schreiber said. “We’re expanding the market for tea.”
The classmates-turned-entrepreneurs have recently expanded their business, introducing a new line of guayusa-based bottled tea beverages in an effort to compete in the bottled beverage market.
Their mentor, Warshay, credits the success of his former pupils with their relentless drive to grow the business and their sense of social responsibility.
“They have passion for changing the world in a meaningful way,” Warshay said. “They’re committed to what I would describe as doing well by doing good.”