How do you make a viable business out of a social enterprise? Simple, says Neeraj Agarwal: just have an amazing, professionally branded product
“Not all social enterprise or fair trade products are great,” says Neeraj Agarwal, “and some are presented in a very mediocre fashion. With Tea People, we’re bringing the very best products to our customers – but we’re also a very stylish and modern company.”
Tea People, a social enterprise, is the culmination of almost a decade’s experience for Agarwal. Originally from Darjeeling, he ran his own businesses in India for nine years before graduating from Cambridge Judge Business School with an MBA in 2006. Agarwal spent the next six years in advisory roles – first with the Scottish Institute for Enterprise, helping student entrepreneurs realise their ideas, then with the UK India Business Council (UKIBC) and UK Trade and Investment, working with British companies who wanted to expand to India, before moving on to work with foreign companies interested in investing in the UK.
“But all this time, I wanted to set up my own company,” says Agarwal. “When I was working with the UKIBC, I came across a school in Darjeeling which was very impoverished. It had leaking roofs, no toilets and inadequate classrooms. My wife Vishaka and I wanted to do something to help. So we did some fundraising activities – we ran marathons, asked our contacts for donations, and so on – and raised enough money to repair the school, extend the building and build toilets, which we did in partnership with the Rotary Club in India.”
A success, then. But for Agarwal, it wasn’t enough, because his experience had taught him two lessons: first, that there were many more schools that needed help; and second, that although his fundraising method had worked once, it wasn’t a sustainable source of income.
Along with another friend of theirs, the Agarwals decided to form a social enterprise that combined Darjeeling’s reputation as a tea-growing area with the British love of drinking tea – and Tea People was born. In early 2013, Neeraj left his job to work on the company full-time, and it began trading in August. 50 per cent of all profits will go directly to educational causes in Darjeeling to start with, and to other tea-growing regions in the future. The rest will go towards growing the business and, consequently, increasing its impact.
We have had a fantastic response,” he says. “People tend to buy fair trade products once or twice because they want to support the cause, but then they wouldn’t buy it for the product itself. We want people to buy our teas because they are good teas and also know that they are supporting a great cause.
Even with his previous business experience, Agarwal says setting up a company such as Tea People isn’t for the faint-hearted. “You can’t build a business like this on a part-time basis. You have to devote 100 per cent of your time to it. I actually registered Tea People in 2009 and tried doing it part-time – twice – and failed miserably. Now I am working much harder than I ever did when I was working for other people. But at the same time it’s much more rewarding and satisfying.”
Neeraj is interested in hearing from…
…people who want to support our efforts to bring the stories of tea garden workers and their children to a wider audience. I am crowd-funding to make a documentary about their lives, so if you think it sounds interesting, please join us!