Tyler Gage is the 26-year-old founder and CEO of Runa, a sustainable, fair-trade Amazonian tea company. It's a cool story. He's a cool dude.
Tyler grew up in Northern California. His grandfather, a Quaker and chancellor of UC Berkeley in the 1960s, instilled in Tyler a deep sense of social responsibility. In college at Brown, he studied political science, thinking he might go into public policy. But a freshman year course on spirituality and the environment shifted his direction.
"The class exposed me to indigenous perspectives on how we, as human beings, relate to the environment," Tyler explained. He became interested in shamanism and connected with an ethno-botanist doing work in Central and South America. Taking time off from school, Tyler spent the next year and a half immersing himself in studies of the plant life, lifestyles, and cultural traditions of the indigenous people of Peru and Brazil.
"I was documenting these cultures' language and music, but in many ways I was figuring myself out," Tyler said. He returned to Brown with a newfound passion for linguistics and cultural anthropology.
During his senior year, Tyler applied for a Fulbright scholarship for cultural anthropological research and received it. But at the same time, friends "dragged" him into a course on social entrepreneurship. The students were required to form teams and come up with a business plan. That's when Runa was born.
"Five of us who were best friends started shooting around ideas," Tyler explained, his voice rising with excitement. "I told them about this Amazonian tea called guayusa, which is highly caffeinated and has great flavor. I thought maybe we could make a beverage and bring it to the U.S. We researched the market and found there was a big demand for a functional beverage that was also all-natural, organic, and fair trade."
Several of Tyler's friends had worked at nonprofits and were disillusioned by the lack of impact they saw the organizations having on the ground. They figured Runa would be an effective way to create livelihoods for the indigenous people of the Amazon profitably, using a market-based approach. When they won Brown's and Rhode Island tate's business plan competitions and got some seed money, the idea become a reality.
Tyler and his best friend Dan started Runa in 2009, at age 23. Tyler even turned down his Fulbright in order to get the business off the ground, moving to Ecuador full time. "Guayusa tea had never been commercially produced," Tyler said. "Most fair trade products are working to nudge massive supply chains for things like coffee and chocolate in the right direction. We were starting from scratch, so we could create the only entire supply chain in the world for this unique Amazonian tea. We wanted to do it right."
That meant Tyler and Dan literally had to build everything from the ground up. First, they had to convince the local farmers that there would be a market for guayusa tea. "They laughed at us," Tyler chuckled. "Everyone was telling them to modernize; no one was telling them that there was value and strength in their cultural traditions. Throughout history, they have been discriminated against, their heritage devalued. So we saw an opportunity to not only provide the indigenous people with a sustainable way to earn money and help their environment, but also to reclaim their pride and power."
From 2009 to 2010, Tyler and Dan laid the groundwork for Runa: they created processes for commercially harvesting and drying the guayusa leaves, dealt with government regulations, and found talented local leaders to help forge relationships with the local community. Today, Runa employs 35 people on the ground in Ecuador, supporting 1,200 indigenous families that harvest guayusa, sell the tea to Runa for good fair trade value, and also restore native trees to their region. "We have planted 100,000 trees and generated $90,000 in direct income for the indigenous people so far," Tyler reported.
Now Runa has their work cut out for them in terms of building market awareness of and demand for guayusa in the U.S. Guayusa has more caffeine than any tea including yerba matte -- almost as much as coffee, so it provides energy in a way that others teas can't. It also has double the antioxidants of green tea.
Runa launched with tea bags in late 2010, finding distribution at Whole Foods in the Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia areas. Now with more than 1,700 stores carrying their product, Runa has launched a bottled tea beverage in New York and Boston.
I asked Tyler what it means to him to live the Life out Loud. He answered, "Runa has value to me and Dan because we're really having an impact on people who have been discriminated against and haven't had opportunities. We can share their message through something concrete instead of it being a conceptual thing: 'Here, drink this. Amazonians have drunk this for thousands of years around the fire.' That's very rewarding for us."
When I asked Tyler what advice he had for others in living the Life Out Loud, he said, "It sounds cheesy, but 'follow your heart.' I vividly remember when we decided to do this, I checked in with myself and had a deep feeling in my heart that it was right. I needed to do it whether it worked out or not. When things get rough, I can almost always tap into that feeling. If that wasn't there for me, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing."
Photo credit: Mulago Foundation