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From Tea Cart Gypsy to Inspiring Eco-preneur, Zhena Muzyka Motivates Women to Change and Heal the World

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Zhena Muzyka (music-a) was living off the grid in California and pursuing a writing career when she got pregnant with her first child, Sage, 13 years ago. The baby needed expensive surgeries to survive. With no health insurance and no cash, Muzyka drew upon core strengths: creativity, courage, and a deep knowledge of herbalism, aromatherapy and fine tea learned from her Gypsy grandmother. Charisma, charm and intuitive palm-reading skills didn't hurt, either, as Muzyka began peddling custom-blended artisan teas in a Gypsy-themed street vendor's cart.

Today, Sage is a healthy teenager and Zhena's Gypsy Tea is an award-winning premium brand. Muzyka's hand-crafted, organic and Fair Trade-certified teas are in more than 10,000 stores nationwide, and Muzyka is a respected leader, inspirational speaker and business coach in fair trade activism and sustainable business. She recently turned the daily operations of running a business over to a CEO so she could focus on crafting tea formulations and more personal interests. She's coaching female entrepreneurs and recently wrote a humorous business book. Life by the Cup: Confessions and Life Lessons of a Tea Mistress, which will be released by Atria (Simon & Schuster) early next year, is Zhena's story about building a tea company that began with a street cart into a multimillion-dollar business. Last fall she launched The Robin Hood Laptop Project, which helps children on the Idulgashinna Tea Estate in Sri Lanka gain access to laptop computers and scholarships so they can go to college.

Tell us about your new book.

It's a "tell-all" story of my life as a single mom-entrepreneur with $6, a baby who needed a life-saving operation, a teacart and no health insurance. What happened was nothing short of an absolute, crazy miracle. I ended up raising over $8 million in funding, launched nationwide and had my share of total disasters throughout. I was a college drop-out (I went to Peru instead of finishing school) and a mess on the relationship front. The book basically shows the reader that if I can launch a national brand, the reader can do absolutely anything!

What do you hope to accomplish with the book?

One of my goals is to inspire women to start or engage in a mission-based business or grow the one they have. I'm also hoping to encourage women to take time to nurture their mind/body/spirits with an artisan tea ritual, which can be anything from relaxing, rejuvenating or healing to just plain blissful. Tea rituals are about self-care. You mindfully boil fresh water, steep tea, inhale the aroma, exhale your tension, stress, worry, fear or doubt (whatever is troubling you) and sip to health, love, life, a creative endeavor (whatever beauty you want to bless). Mindfulness added to any cup of tea makes it a ritual.

You recently hired a CEO. Why?

This is one of those failure-creates-space-for-success stories. A few years ago I launched a line of biodynamic tea called Beyond Organics. It was a beautiful line and a big play, but ahead of its time. Many consumers still don't understand the benefits of organic certified, let alone biodynamic. It cost a lot of money, and the line failed, which was hard and expensive for me and our little company. The whole story is in the book. At the end of the day I had to sell the most exclusive biodynamic eco-conscious product line for pennies on the dollar in clearance outlets and dollar stores to just stay in business at all. After this painful experience, I said to myself, "I want to be a Queen of Green, not the Queen of Mean!" At the time, I didn't have the strength to fight all of the fires that came with such a huge product failure. So I stepped down to lick my wounds and nurse my broken heart, and what came from that was a 10-day meditation sit that changed my universe and showed me there was another path for me.

Sounds like you did some soul-searching.

I did. I was very good at operations, but I needed to stop trying to be Wonder Woman and take stock of where I could have the most positive impact in the world -- and that wasn't battling for shelf space in grocery stores anymore. I also had my second child, Mia. I had her on a Friday and was back in a board meeting on Tuesday, which made me pause and realize I was being totally disempowered as a woman. Taking time to be a mother is something I didn't have the luxury to do with Sage because there was no help, but with Mia, I had this chance to savor something of birthing a daughter into the world. What was I teaching her by ignoring this huge aspect of womanhood? I needed to get clear on what parts of being a businesswoman I could pass on to others and which parts I could serve best, with my whole heart and not at the cost of my children's lives. We hired a new CEO, and once he came in, I was able to step back and ask myself, "What do I want to focus on now that I don't have operations on my head?" I was finally free to focus on what inspires me the most!

So what inspires you the most?

Empowering women every chance I get. I'm designing workshops, holding a women's New Moon Mastermind group, coaching women entrepreneurs, and planning for the upcoming book launch -- which has been a dream of mine since I was 6 years old!

I love being with the workers in the tea fields; they are my true north. They can't believe a woman started a business and had some success. They make $1.35 a day; to them this idea that a woman built millions in revenue blows their minds and somehow shows them the value of what they do. It builds their experience of their immense worth in a global economy -- not to mention the tea sales that filter back to them so that their higher aspirations for themselves and their daughters can be that much closer to realized.

I also share with other women the power of protecting other women. I think so many women have been burned or feel competitive with other women that there is a big healing that needs to occur, and I want to share in that healing and be an example for others in my small way. Showing up dressed like Stevie Nicks while raising capital in New York City boardrooms taught me that it's refreshing for people to see a woman be herself. I'd like to make sure other women know how to show their feminine spirit in business. I believe that being feminine in business will heal this world.

And tea, of course...

I've cherished my roles as Tea Mistress and Mission Keeper at the tea company. And I absolutely loved developing tea formulas for the health and happiness of others. At the end of the day, I am a gardener and a home cook who loves to be in the kitchen whipping up botanical potions like my Gypsy grandma did.

You're also coaching women entrepreneurs.

I am, and I'm loving it. In the U.S., only 1.8 percent of women-owned businesses make it past the $1 million mark. Only 7 percent of women-owned businesses receive funding. Women own 30 percent of all small businesses in the U.S. but capture only 11 percent of revenues. I'm out to change all of this. I believe that women tend to build businesses that honor other women, the environment and families -- so the more the better. I believe that giving women a voice will drive the evolution we need to get out of the sad mess we're in. Mothers would never let a profit get in the way of their baby's clean water. Let's give that mother a leadership role.

You've learned a lot. What is the first lesson that comes to mind?

I was perplexed by business at one point and approached a very wise mentor. I asked him how to communicate with people about how much I love my products, business and nonprofit work when all they see is the bottom line. He looked at me and said, "Zhena, for some people, there is no ROI on love." I realized that my ROI (return on investment) was based on love and so when dealing strictly with money people, I had to learn to speak their language. Instead of trying to get others to love my mission, I learned to speak in money terms of how it positively affected the bottom line. Sadly, it's all some people can hear, but knowing that helped me to communicate outside of my own set of values.

What excites you?

Looking at things like emotional obstacles to success and figuring out how can I help women unwind and move past them. When there is a breakthrough in a woman's self-esteem, her ability to lead profoundly shifts. She starts to really believe in her power.

Care to share some examples?

When the Beyond Organic line started to fail, I could have gone out and asked for help, but I didn't. I tried to handle it myself -- and not because of pride or ego but because I kept thinking, "I don't want to be a burden to anyone." That was my downfall.

And the take-home lesson?

Ask for help when you need it and then be able to receive the help you're given. That's really two lessons, and they're both important.

What else have you learned?

Another obstacle is getting so busy with logistics that you take your eyes off the prize and lose sight of your calling, which leads to burnout. Women are usually calling-motivated rather than money-motivated.

I find it incredibly helpful -- essential, even -- to keep a visceral daily reminder of my calling right in front of me. For me it was my son, Sage, when he needed the medical help. Now that's he's a healthy, energetic 13-year-old, it is the kids in the tea fields that I've been sourcing from since the beginning. I have pictures of them all over my office.

Another thing is to get clear on your grand purpose. Your grand purpose is your soul's essence. The first time I tried to put that into words, it was 14 pages long! My grand purpose is to inspire. I am here to inspire women so that together we can change and heal the world.

One more for the road?

Do it. "Start Wherever You Are" is one of the chapters of my book. I started with a $3,000 start-up fund donated to the cause from my family, and with that I set up a cart with Sage in a baby carrier. I believe it worked because of the mission. Mission-based businesses fuel miracles.