Sheena Foster – CUP Fellow Spotlight – Apr. 2012

What is your occupation and how did you come to work in this field?

I am the Founder and CEO of a newly launched specialty tea company called CuriosiTeas NYC. We specialize in custom blends of fair trade certified, loose leaf teas and organic herbal blends that optimize health benefits, produce private labeling and teach tea education, sustainability and fair trade consumerism.

After working nearly seven years in the labor movement where I negotiated and enforced union contracts and as a global labor researcher working on projects in South America, Africa, Europe and Asia, I’ve always wanted to combine my commitment to social justice and love for people with my passion for entrepreneurship.

I was finally afforded the opportunity months later after spending several weeks last summer in Delhi, India building homes with Habitat for Humanity International and teaching English to local villagers. A transformational cultural exchange of tea and biscuits with local villagers was the impetus for me wanting to recreate a similar experience in my local village of Harlem. After leaving my day job last December, the concept of CuriosiTeas NYC was born and has expanded its reach beyond Harlem.

What is the biggest challenge of your work?

The biggest challenge of my work as a new company is building trust and credibility with potential clients. I’ve found that my charisma and personality will get me in the door most times, but I have to make sure that I am the expert on all things tea. The industry is ever evolving, so I have to ensure that I study to be able to compete and be creative in my approach to business.

What is your proudest achievement?

My proudest achievement was the actual concept to execution of the launch of CuriosiTeas NYC in less than 90 days, while supporting budding entrepreneurs like myself. I wanted to give myself the gift of entrepreneurship. My target launch date was my 30th birthday, which happened to occur during National Entrepreneurship Week in February of 2012. In that spirit, I was able to afford free vendor opportunities to 12 minority and women owned business that fell in the scope of holistic health and wellness to showcase their products and services at my launch. With nearly 150 guests in attendance, one of my vendors came to me at the end of the event and apologized for not having any products to give me as a birthday gift, because she had completely sold out of all of her products. I told her not to worry and that her accomplishment was the greatest gift she could have given me.

My second proudest achievement is using my displacement due to hurricane Katrina after college as a living testament that despite one’s circumstance, with resilience and determination one can still achieve greatness.

What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?

I have always been an admirer of the teachings of Gandhi, whose quote, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others” is carved in my heart. In the professional arena of the tea business, I’ve always admired Seth and Barry, the founders of HonesTea and pioneers in the space of fair trade certified bottled tea. Their sustainability platform and commitment to the health and wellness of their consumers is a model that CuriosiTeas NYC is committed to enhancing in our practices. Lastly, as a troop leader in my community, I admire Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts. She had a vision and despite being deaf in one ear and the challenges women faced in leaving their mark on society 100 years ago, she was able to create a sustainable organization that has impacted millions of girls throughout the nation and the world.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I see myself serving as an advisor to CuriosiTeas and as the Founder and Executive Director of the nation’s first Urban Tea Academy. Having grown up in an inner city and overcame tons of obstacles, I envision providing opportunities to youth to not only learn about tea etiquette and culture, but about urban gardening, sustainability, community development while exploring their identity and self worth. I envision taking youth on trips abroad to tea farms in China, India and Japan where they can see firsthand the process of making tea from crop to cup while appreciating the beauty and health benefits of the world’s second consumed beverage next to water.

What is one thing you’ve learned from the CUP Fellows Program that you would pass along to young people who want their careers and lives to have an impact?

What I’ve learned from the CUP fellows program is that not only is important that people know your credentials when establishing a connection, but sharing a memorable and compelling story in your elevator pitch is what may open doors when you least expect it. Don’t be ashamed of who you are and where you come from, always give back and pay it forward; be true to who you are.