RUNA in Fast Company 5/12/2015

How Two Liberal Arts Students Created A Million-Dollar, Rainforest-Saving Tea Company

In 2010, Brown University student Tyler Gage took a course about the languages and religions of the Amazon that blew his mind. Gage, who had grown up in the comfortable Bay Area suburbs, became enthralled by the rich, complex world of Amazonian tribespeople. Soon, it wasn’t enough for him to just read about these cultures; he wanted to see it all for himself. So, with some guidance from his professor, he packed his bags and moved to the Ecuadorian rainforest for two years.

During this hiatus from college, Gage lived in the jungle among the Shipibo people. He spent his days learning local languages and working with nonprofits, but mostly, he took in the community’s ancient traditions, rituals, and relationship with the earth. “My Shipibo host family was very good to me,” Gage tells me. “The intricacy between their language, cultural heritage, identity, and environment was so fascinating. The rainforest is their pharmacy and their supermarket, so I took time to learn about their plants.”

One plant in particular drew him in. He discovered that some tribespeople in the Amazon would get up at 3 a.m. every day to boil clay pots full of a leaf called guayusa, which was said to have mystical powers. The community would sit together before dawn, drink guayusa, interpret dreams, and recount myths. When Gage later did some research about the leaf, he found that it was naturally sweet, had the same caffeine content as coffee, and double the antioxidants as green tea.

We didn’t know the first thing about managing exports or the supply chain in the Amazon.
When he returned to the U.S. and re-enrolled at Brown, all he could think about was how to help the Amazonian families that had been so hospitable to him. “These people really struggle,” Gage says. “They want to hold on to their land, languages, and traditions, but it is a challenge for them to adapt to modern life. They now live in a world where cash has value and they need money to send their kids to school.” One particularly heartbreaking moment drove this reality home: he remembers watching his host family cut down a 100-year-old tree to sell for the equivalent of $2, when the day before, they had told him that their grandfather’s spirit lived in it.

Gage began to hatch a plan. Americans, he thought, would love the properties of guayusa; they would see it as a healthy alternative to espresso shots or Red Bull. With the help of his close friend and classmate Dan MacCombie, he developed a business idea that involved supporting Amazonian farmers by selling guayusa tea to the American market. In their final semester of university, Gage and MacCombie took a business class to learn how to transform their dream into a workable business plan. Several months later, they were ready to launch RUNA, a beverage brand that means “fully alive” in the Kichwa language of the Amazon.

“At RUNA, we’re asking ourselves a basic economic question: How do we create new value for these traditions, people and the rainforest?” says Gage. “Local governments are not placing value on Amazonian knowledge and cultures; they are deforesting the land to grow palm oil. I wanted to prove that we can manage land more profitably using sustainable farming practices and direct trade relationships with products like guayusa.”