How Abianne Falla is making a big difference with her sustainable yaupon tea business.
Women Leaders, 2020
“For us, sustainability has always been about more than the land: it’s about people, too.”
The story of the discovery of America’s only caffeinated plant dates back to the 16th century when Timucua Indians in Florida introduced the herb to the Spanish Colonizers who named it ‘te del Indio or cacina’. Further, in the 18th century, English settlers in Carolina got familiar with this tea and it came to be known as ‘Yaupon’. Soon they were trading it back to Europe as ‘Carolina’s Tea’ in England, and France where it was called ‘Appalachina’.
However, in the 19th century, a tea conspiracy began doing its round which probably halted the trade of Yaupon outside America and also led it to be forgotten in its own place of birth as the British tea tightened its grip in the market. Many started to even consider it as just a weed in the south because it grew everywhere. However, when the historical Texas drought caused serious damage to the vegetation in 2011 and even the 100-year-old Oak trees fell, the persistence of this tea caught the attention of two sisters Abianne Falla and JennaDee who were visiting their family ranch in Cat Spring, Texas at the time. One of the girls, JennaDee, couldn't help herself from digging more and ultimately discovered the long legacy of its consumption that dated back to the 1600s. What surprised them the most is the fact that despite its medicinal and energizing properties, it was so easily obliterated and no one ever really took interest in commercializing it. The pair ultimately decided to share this refreshing and sustainable brew with their community and founded CatSpring Yaupon in 2013. To learn more about this revolutionary initiative, we sat down with Abianne Falla, the co-founder of CatSpring Yaupon.
Aspioneer (A): How would you best describe the purpose behind your enterprise? Is there a specific reason as to why you chose Yaupon as your product of trade rather than going for something that is already popular and has a decent following?
Abianne Falla (AF): “Well, we like to say, “it’s Texan, for tea”. Simply, it’s the only caffeinated plant native to North America and we’re sustainably wild harvesting it here in Cat Spring, Texas. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find out that yaupon is full of antioxidants. And since it grows wild, organic, and free of pesky herbicides and pesticides, there’s no easier way to lower your carbon and environmental footprint than drinking this sustainably grown and wild-harvested good ol’ American “tea.” In fact, virtually all other tea and coffee is imported into the USA. That makes yaupon the only domestic option, and we're sustainably wild-harvesting the native growth right from ranches in the Texas Hill Country. That’s right: We’re responsibly foraging this forgotten resource. CatSpring Yaupon is committed to sustainable practices that make the best use of natural resources. And for us, sustainability has always been about more than the land: it’s about people, too. This is why we launched our ‘People First Employment program’ to help marginalized communities who are not fully recognized for their value. Cat spring Yaupon is built on these foundations and strives to make a difference one person at a time.”
(A): Were there any particular challenges you faced when you set foot in this industry with a lesser-known ingredient? How did your previous experience come in handy to forward your new venture?
(AF): “Before launching CatSpring Yaupon, I worked with Ernst & Young as a CPA and moved to community development with Lululemon Athletica where I learned how to build and maintain community relationships for a quickly growing company. I then graduated from Acton’s Entrepreneurship MBA program in 2013 where I learned fundamentals of business formation from founders and current CEOs. I started CatSpring Yaupon with my sister, JennaDee, in 2013. At the time, it was little more than an idea, some research, and a lot of sweat equity. Let me tell you, I know the importance of relaxation and self-care. That (not so) glamorous entrepreneurial lifestyle? Looking back, in the early years it felt more like drinking out of a fire hydrant. I was exploring a new industry, with a new company, bringing a new ingredient to market, and figuring out a way to produce and harvest the yaupon while learning how to position and sell it to a customer base that didn’t exist… yet. It was worth every sacrifice. Through partnerships with local farmers, and with the help of our People-First Employment Program, we began harvesting wild organic yaupon. Did you know that we were the first to bring it back to the market? Today, we’re the #1 supplier of yaupon in the world. That’s a responsibility we couldn’t take more seriously. And we’re just getting started.”
‘Success Secrets’, I’d say- Know your story. Spend time seeking to understand who you are and what’s important to you.
(A): What would you say is the secret to your success? Are there any defining moments in your career that you would like to share with our readers?
(AF): “We’ve been fortunate to be awarded some pretty exciting honors like Southern Living Entrepreneur of the Year, a WeWork Creator Award, and were chosen as a recipient of the Eileen Fisher Award. These awards were each incredibly encouraging at a time in the company’s history when I wasn’t sure if anyone cared about what we were doing or worried we were too early in the industry! Each instance was so affirming. As for the ‘Success Secrets’, I’d say- Know your story. Spend time seeking to understand who you are and what’s important to you. Have conversations with your co-founders and customers about your brand story. Know what you’re great at, figure out what you can learn, and surround yourself with people that can do the rest. Narrow the region of darkness and then move confidently forward within. I learned this in theory at Acton (an alternative MBA in Entrepreneurship -- but it's not until building CatSpring that I realized how true the principle is. We often approach education and life as if there’s one correct answer. If I've learned one thing as a founder and CEO, it's that there's never a single, correct response. Get creative: there are so many ways to build a company. Ultimately, keep a fresh mind, stay humble, and keep learning.”
“ I also have renewed my appreciation for how much of a difference a team makes to everything. Businesses aren’t built by one person. It’s important to lock arms with others who share your heart and vision.”
(A): As an entrepreneur, you often wear many hats and have to be ready to knock out any obstacle that comes your way. But you seem like someone who doesn't take that as a burden but rather enjoys it probably because you have a true sense of purpose. As an individual how does it affect your personal life and what motivates you to keep going?
(AF): “I had my daughter almost two years ago and balancing a company and my daughter are challenging – and COVID-19 has only exacerbated that already tough tension! But above all, she’s helped me see CatSpring in a whole new light in SO many ways but the big ones I think are how important it is to be present (mentally and physically) with her. I also have renewed my appreciation for how much of a difference a team makes to everything. Businesses aren’t built by one person. It’s important to lock arms with others who share your heart and vision. Isla has reinforced further how vital it is to be good stewards of our resources and community. In part, now, I’m doing this for her.”
(A): What is next in your life? Are there any specific goals that you are striving to achieve?
(AF): “Keep watching for exciting developments and announcements soon. We’re also moving into our new facility, and with support from the USDA, we’re in research and development for new, flavorful ways to curate your mornings, afternoons, and trips to the gym. Now, more than ever, we need companies, and people, that stand for something that matters. At CatSpring, we’re more committed than ever to creating change in our communities, too. We know the criminal justice system is broken, and we’re taking a stand against the inequities that the system creates. We hope to be an example -- to other small businesses and larger companies -- of the difference an understanding employer can make in the lives of our employees. That’s why we work directly with probation officers in rural communities to hire individuals who want their future to look different than their past. In our packaging facility, we hire women with a history of generational poverty. And by offering flexibility in our scheduling, we help make sure their next crisis doesn’t mark the end of their employment with us. To me, it makes sense: there are so many individuals in our community that are marginalized and not fully recognized for their value. Why would we build our company any other way?”
“ We work directly with probation officers in rural communities to hire individuals who want their future to look different than their past. In our packaging facility, we hire women with a history of generational poverty. And by offering flexibility in our scheduling, we help make sure their next crisis doesn’t mark the end of their employment with us. ”