Making and drinking chai is woven into the very fabric of life in India and amongst Indians. If you’re a chai drinker, then you have experienced the soothing and calming ritual of making the tea, and savoring its sweet taste.
There is a certain restorative magic to this journey — from making tea to consuming it — for the mind, body, and soul.
Uppma Virdi, a young lawyer from Australia, set out to share this authentic, all-encompassing experience with the western world. That is how a “chaiwalli“ (literally meaning “female tea seller”) was born. Indian-born Virdi is the brains, passion, and force behind Chai Walli, a line of natural tea blends handcrafted by Virdi herself. Chai Walli sources many of its teas from small-batch organic and fair trade tea gardens in India’s Assam Valley, and sells the blends both online and in retail locations throughout Australia. It’s a venture close to Virdi’s heart and life purpose.
“I try to live my life purposefully and authentically and I think it’s important for everyone to do that,” Virdi says.
Following her purpose has meant that this Australian-Indian achieved success at a young age: Virdi has been named to both Forbes’s 30 under 30 and CNN’s 40 under 40. The Australian High Commission also invited her to launch International Women’s Day all around India to inspire creativity and change.
An Early Passion for Ayurveda
Born to a traditional Indian family, Virdi was encouraged to reach for success and follow certain career paths that would make it possible for her to do so. She subsequently became a successful commercial lawyer at a Melbourne law firm, and although she loved it, something tugged at her heart.
“I knew there was something more I needed to share with the world,” Virdi explains.
Virdi had a deep desire to highlight her beautiful Indian culture with the world, which stemmed from her need to understand her role as a first-generation Indian-Australian migrant. “Australia is a young country with so much cultural diversity, and we are all a bit lost and curious in terms of who we are and where we are going,” she says.
Australia is a young country with so much cultural diversity, and we are all a bit lost and curious in terms of who we are and where we are going.
Virdi would often travel to India and spend time with her grandfather, who is her greatest inspiration. From her beloved “dadaji,” learned about Ayurveda, Homeopathy and Indian natural medicine. Her grandfather was considered ahead of his time: He believed in equal rights for women, abhorred racism, and understood the importance of learning and education, especially for women.
Virdi discovered the aromatic world of spices, herbs, and unique chai blends with her grandfather, and developed a passion for Ayurveda and the many benefits of these spices.
“There was no intention to create a business, but a passion to really showcase to the world who I am,” she says.
Launching a Chai Empire
Virdi started sharing her grandfather’s work and educating non-Indians about authentic Indian chai, thus releasing her creative spirit. The launch of Chai Walli was so successful that it won her the title of Business Woman of the Year at the 2016 Indian Australian Business and Community Awards in Sydney.
“Chai Walli started with one blend — my dadaji’s blend. It was an Ayurvedic mix of 25 spices, but I made it with 11 spices similar to what he made,” she explains. Incidentally, this blend of 11 spices was also the Gold Medal winner at the Australian International Tea Expo, Golden Leaf Awards 2019.
Since that first blend, Chai Walli has grown exponentially to include an online store for retail purchases worldwide and a wholesale division supplying to organic food markets, restaurants, health food stores, cafes and yoga centers.
When creating chai blends, adds her own style and flair. “My blends are always a balance of Vatta, Pitta, and Kapha — the three dosas in Ayurveda. These are the five natural elements present in all creation representing water, fire, earth, space, and air.”
Virdi brings all this information together and creates blends that are balanced and specific to particular seasons.
“When I learned about tea leaves from the tea plant called Camellia Sinensis, I visited farms in India to understand tea processing,” Virdi recalls.
Today, Chai Walli imports organic and fair-trade tea from India and supports small farmers and old family estates that produce top-quality tea.
“A full-leaf tea should be consumed by itself. Good quality tea shouldn’t need any spices or herbs. With our ‘masala chai’ tea, we use certain kinds of tea leaves called CTC—Crush Tear Curl—and blend with herbs and spices.”
Traditional chai is not a familiar product in highly westernized markets like Australia. There is a lot of miscommunication about tea, blends, and spices. Therefore, Virdi also runs highly interactive “Art of Chai” workshops to address and educate people on the origins of tea and how to make and blend it properly.
The feelings and emotions one gets when brewing a pot of chai can’t be expressed.
And this is still the principal purpose behind her business — to educate and share stories and emotions about chai, tea and spices, and to create a culture shift so that people can embrace the authenticity of chai into their daily lifestyle.
“The feelings and emotions one gets when brewing a pot of chai can’t be expressed. It is so communal and yet so introverted. I wanted to create a mindset shift so that people can stop and take five minutes for themselves and make a cup of chai,” Virdi explains.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Virdi’s advice to young women who want to enter the world of entrepreneurship is that they should listen to their intuition. She believes that women are capable of so much, but much of the challenge lies within the beliefs they hold about what they can do and cannot do. While it is difficult for women to break through the barriers of these conditioned belief systems, Virdi knows it is entirely possible to overcome these challenges and reach for their dreams—just as she did.
Her family was initially against Chai Walli and couldn’t quite understand why she wanted to be a tea seller when she was already a successful lawyer with a double degree. However, Virdi persisted and made time to pursue what she truly believed in.
Virdi says, “Women are constantly told what to be and what to get into. But it is important for us to learn about ourselves, our values, what we are good at, what brings us joy and what we are genuinely passionate about.”
Meena Azzollini is a writer and content creator who specializes in health and wellness. She is based in Australia.