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Young Mountain Tea

 

The aroma of white peony tea wafts from the mug he holds in his hands as his laugh echoes through a Eugene teahouse. Raj Vable, 30, is the founder of Young Mountain Tea, a company that partners with Himalayan communities in India to bring high quality, sustainable tea to the Pacific Northwest. “Tea is how we do our work, but it’s not why we do it,” Vable said. Young Mountain Tea works to create a bridge connecting cultures across the globe, and improve the lives of everyone involved.

Rewind 10 years, however, and this is not the life engineer undergraduate Vable envisioned. At 26, Vable became a Fulbright scholar and embarked on a trip to the Kumaon region of India to work on a renewable energy project. At 8:30 on Saturday morning, Vable walked to one of the target communities and met single mother Jamuna. After sending her children off to school, Jamuna led Vable into the woods to watch her daily routine. It’s that routine that changed his life.

Vable stared, astounded, as Jamuna stuck a rusty, hook-shaped machete into the back of her sari and began to climb a massive tree. Higher and higher she scampered, hardly fazed as the trunk swayed back and forth with the wind. Vable had to walk up another ridge to get a view of her as she climbed into the sky. “I was blown away by it,” Vable said. He watched as she hacked at branches and they fell 80 feet to the ground. “For hours a day she does this. Every. Day.” Jamuna then collected her day’s worth of branches and walked home, where she used them as fuel to cook for her family. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing... they don’t have any option, it’s the only way they can cook food.” Wind blowing the wrong way is a common fatality.

“There was a sense of joy in Jamuna’s face, but it was so fragile.” As he watched her that morning, his mind raced. “I was wondering how can we preserve the joy of living there, but remove the fragility that covers that joy from being fully expressed.”

“Seeing her up a tree, a question that came to me was: what role of the dice put her in that tree with no other option for feeding her family and me on this ridgeline with a camera in my hand and my return ticket home?” That question propelled him down an unanticipated path. He suddenly understood how strongly he felt a connection between two opposite cultures that he loved, and how deeply he yearned to create a bridge between them. He asked himself: what can I do with my work to connect these two cultures? And so were planted the saplings in his brain that would quickly grow to become Young Mountain Tea.

Young Mountain Tea now partners with communities to grow and harvest tea. These areas are agriculturally ideal, so tea was easy to produce. Vable promised to introduce the US to tea grown in these areas, thus providing villagers with income, enabling them to afford better lives. He wanted to remove barriers that blocked joy from shining through Jamuna’s every pore.

In three years, Vable’s company has improved the lives of Kumaon villagers, and this is just the beginning. “Raj has shown me how important personal development and hard work are to success for a small business,” said co-worker Carson Viles.

Shifting towards more biodiverse growing practices and community owned land is crucial for the environmental and societal sustainability of the project. As for business, Vable plans to continue connecting the dots between cultures. “Kumaon is a sustainable example of the way tea can benefit the world and people.”

“In [this] work,” said Vable, “I also found my own kind of joy.”