Esha Chhabra + Smita Satiani
An environmental journalist and a climate policy expert moved from analyzing the challenges to addressing the problems by sourcing beautiful teas from organic estates nestled in the hills of northern India.
Teas to Sip and Slow Down
Alaya teas are gentle yet distinct. To appreciate them, slow down and take notice rather than gulp and go.
Photo Credit: Justin Bettman
A Conversation With...
Esha Chhabra + Smita Satiani
A little about the founders:
For the last four years, Smita has worked on early-stage climate change and connectivity projects at X, Alphabet's moonshot factory. She is currently an adjunct instructor of climate policy at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School of Policy.
Esha writes about the environment, business and agriculture for a number of international and national publications such as The Guardian, New York Times, Fast Company, Economist, Forbes and more.
When did you come up with the idea for Alaya?
Smita and Esha: We launched Alaya in fall 2019, and after working on the concept for about a year. We had known each other for 8 years, and the idea came together after one of Esha’s many trips traveling the world as a journalist, spending time understanding and writing about agriculture. She had just returned from Darjeeling, one of India’s most iconic tea growing regions, and had spent time learning about what farmers were doing to actively mitigate climate change’s impacts in the Himalayan region (monsoons, landslides, and runoff). Smita had always wanted to start a tea company that paid respect to Indian land and workers. As a South-Asian woman, she grew up with tea being a central part of her day, but saw that tea culture hadn’t quite translated in the US. She shared this dream with Esha, and together we asked: Can we create a company that brings the concept of tea-time to Americans in a way that is more eco-friendly and mindful of the land and workers behind the tea? Alaya was born soon after.
Where do you source Alaya Teas?
Smita and Esha: We work with regenerative organic and biodynamic farms in India. We buy directly from estates that are looking after their soil health and trying to deal with climate change. Because Esha has visited these pioneers in person, we were fortunate to already know what parts of our supply chain could look like. For our packaging, we spent a year learning about all the certifications, compostability and trying to find the best plastic-free solution.
What is your most memorable tea drinking experience?
Esha: I remember tasting these teas in Darjeeling and being blown away by the quality. The simplicity of it...no sugar, no milk, just hot water and some tea leaves. I was sitting on a veranda in the middle of a heavy downpour—something the tea growers had been waiting for that season since they’d had a prolonged dry spell—and looking out at the stunning Himalayan range. That’s the ideal Darjeeling tea drinking experience, in my opinion. If we can transport people to feel even a moment of that while having our teas, that’s our goal; slow down, drink some really good quality tea and appreciate nature’s beauty.
Smita: My earliest memory of tea was when I was around 6 or 7 years old in Bombay. Everyday at 4pm sharp, my mom would make a pot of chai—strong black tea with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, sugar and whole milk. I remember the smell (sweet), taste (milky and spicy), and the feeling she created around it (relaxed with her feet up). I've spent the last two years trying to recreate those experiences and share them through Alaya.
Did you ever consider giving up?
Esha and Smita: For Alaya, no. We’re just getting started. The challenges have been mostly finding businesses that have the solutions we need for building our supply chain in a way that enables a planet-friendly future. There’s so much more R&D that needs to be done on materials, packaging and climate change’s impact on agriculture.
What was your first entrepreneurial endeavor?
Smita: When I was nine, I was really unhappy that our cafeteria didn’t offer snacks during morning recess. So my best friend and I started a snack shack for our elementary school. We sold chips and salsa, fresh-baked cookies and milk, hired classmates to work shifts, and paid everyone out weekly. In return, we were allowed to leave class 10 minutes early to set up. We made $100 in our first week.
What is your WHY?
Esha: As a writer, I’ve been reporting on these issues for over a decade. I’ve seen first-hand how important it is to have equitable supply chains and farming’s impact on the planet. A few years ago, I reached a point where I didn’t just want to report on the solutions from the sidelines, but be a part of the solution. Alaya has given me that opportunity—to help craft a brand that tells stories, but also invests in farming communities that are bringing about change.
Smita: I have so many why’s, but one stands out: I want to connect people to the origins of their food. My grandfather was a mango and wheat farmer in Pakistan for 40 years. When my sister and I would visit him in Karachi, he would bring home crates of mangoes and explain to us how and where they were grown. Knowing the stories of those mangoes made them taste even sweeter.