UIX: From leaf to relief, RefuTea helps refugees and others at every level of its operation

Autumn Modena and Jenna Petersen founded RefuTea to help refugees, many from tea-producing countries. RefuTea is involved in ethical business partnerships at every step of the tea-making process, and donates a portion of profits to resettlement programs.
There's a lot more involved in a simple cup of tea than just hot water and leaves, as Autumn Modena and Jenna Petersen would like you to know.
The effects of natural disasters, war, and oppression in tea-producing countries have forced many who live there to leave their homes, becoming refugees. By offering them employment and contributing to refugee resettlement agencies, RefuTea, a tea company founded by Modena and Petersen, is helping these people find stability and relief in their new lives.

RefuTea is involved in ethical business partnerships at every step of the tea-making process. Each of the teas sold on RefuTea's online shop or in local health food stores is sourced from fair trade distributors. A tenth of the profits from tea sales goes to refugee resettlement programs. And the company's growth plan calls for training and employing refugees as tea packagers as demand increases, as well as building a greenhouse tea cafe where more refugees will be hired, and product lines expanded.
"RefuTea is a for-profit company, but it's a for-profit with a non-profit mindset."  
-Jenna Petersen

"At the end of every quarter we take 10 percent of our sales and donate it towards resettlement agencies," Modena says. "Refugees that resettle here sometimes have very immediate needs for things like home goods, so when we give them this money, it immediately goes to helping a family in the resettlement process."

Modena and Petersen have been operating RefuTea for about a year now, and have established relationships with the local resettlement agencies. They find out what items the refugees need most and try to meet those needs whenever possible. They are donating winter clothes to the agencies in January. 
Currently, Modena and Petersen package their tea out of a commercial kitchen in Lowell. Volunteers Warami Eresanara, Amy Yik, and Quinn Sylow help with social media and marketing responsibilities.
It was while attending Grand Valley State University, Petersen for English and education, and Modena for political science and international relations, that the two put together a business plan combining a love of tea and helping others. 
"Autumn was working at a refugee resettlement agency, teaching English as a secondary language, and we were talking about how we wanted to start a tea shop," Petersen says. "One of the biggest needs of the refugees is finding employment when they settle here in the United States. We kind of just put two and two together and came up with a tea shop for refugees."
RefuTea first found validation in a business competition. Petersen and Modena entered the MWest Challenge in 2014, winning the social venture award and first place in the 90-second elevator pitch contest. A professor from Grand Valley then urged them to enter an international social enterprise competition being held at Texas Christian University. RefuTea represented GVSU at the TCU Richards Barrentine Values and Ventures Business Plan Competition in 2014 and won a $15,000 second place prize.
The entirety of Refutea's operation has been funded through prize money from the initial business competitions and tea sales, and the company is on track to meet its growth goals.
Modena says Refutea is an example of all-American hard work, and the importance of learning as challenges come along. Among those challenges is the task of fighting the stigma associated with refugee status.
"With the recent crisis in Syria, and refugees trying to come into Europe, and the Paris attacks, people have a really negative image of what a refugee is, or the thought that terrorists are coming in and lying about their refugee status," Modena says. "That is a possibility, but for the majority that's not the case at all. They're just like you and I, trying to lead a good, normal life and take care of their families."
Michigan has one of the highest populations of resettled refugees in the country, owed largely to the presence of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan and Bethany Christian Services. While Refutea's mission includes helping refugees directly through donations, employment and English lessons, Modena says educating the public is also crucial.
"We're trying to bring to the forefront that these aren't bad people, these are people that were forced out of their home countries for reasons beyond their control." she says.
Those interested in trying RefuTea's tea can find it packaged at Health Hutt in Grand Haven, or on the company's website. Meanwhile, Modena and Petersen are pitching their tea to other shops in the area, with hope that they can make their own greenhouse tea cafe a reality in the near future.
"RefuTea is a for-profit company, but it's a for-profit with a non-profit mindset," Petersen says. "I'm really glad we can find success as entrepreneurs in selling tea, but we are growing a business for refugees. We want it to be sustainable so they can carry it on and even manage it someday."
For more information on RefuTea, visit http://www.refuteashop.com/

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].

Photography courtesy Refu Tea/ Amber Modena
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