There are over 4,000 alumni and former students spread throughout the world who are having an impact in their local and global communities. Here, we hope to regularly focus on a few who have taken time to share stories about their journeys after NIS!
CEO and co-founder of Chiki Tea, Holly, Class of '82, spent four years at NIS (1969-73) and this time had a very positive and long lasting influence on her success as an entrepreneur.
I think deep down, the reason I am so determined to make Chiki Tea a success is to pay homage to Japan for the amazing childhood I had there and for all of the wonderful friends we made.
After working for 20 years in international commercial property marketing in London and Paris, Holly quit to work in a field that she really loves—Japanese tea. Holly’s love for sencha started while attending NIS. Interestingly, her uncle invented Kool-Aid, but since that was unavailable at the time in Japan, her mother told her that sencha was "Japanese Kool-Aid," and while believing it was the same beverage her cousins in Nebraska were drinking, the love affair began.
This love and passion for Japanese green tea are what fuels her company, Chiki Tea, today. Celebrating its 10th birthday in 2022, Holly’s company ships Japanese tea to customers in over 32 countries. “When you start a company, you never can predict where it will go,” Holly muses.
Holly co-founded the company in London in 2012, thinking they would open green tea cafes around the UK, but after a 21-day trip from Kanazawa in the north to Kagoshima in the south, she realized the need to move the company to Japan. Kyushu, where Holly says the best artisanal teas come from, is where she chose for the move.
Artisanal teas are teas made by tea masters using leaves cultivated on small farms or purchased at auction. They are then blended in small batches while the masters add their signature styles through the drying and heating methods. A master will select the best leaves from the crop and use his skills in blending different cultivars to achieve the flavor note, color of brew, fragrance, and so forth. Holly works with some of the masters and blends some of Chiki Tea's own signature teas.
Holly points out that most of the tea produced in Japan, especially in Shizuoka Prefecture, ends up as bottled tea and that the artisanal producers aren't exporting for various reasons, including the language barrier. So when she appeared on the tea scene, with a long history of living in Japan as a child, many of the tea producers saw Chiki Tea as some kind of Marco Polo. Holly and her company were passionately doing all that they could to help the tea industry in Japan. Even so, it is still a small business, and Holly believes it has to be. Almost all of her business is selling directly to passionate tea lovers. By keeping it small she can share their comments with the masters, and this, in turn, builds a very strong loyalty: the masters rely on her, customers depend on her, and the masters create for the customers. “We are in a very privileged position to be able to export these masters' teas to customers in 28 countries and counting,” she says.
In 2013 Chiki Tea moved to Buzen in Fukuoka Prefecture. Holly came on a cultural visa to study Yabunouchi school of tea ceremony, following several years of study with the Urasenke school of Sado. The immigration office actually suggested this path because they simply could not figure out what type of visa to give her, but they had a hunch she was going to be good for the tea industry's survival.
During that year of study, she completed her book Green is the New Black - the glorious rise of Japanese tea as well as establishing Chiki Tea Japan K.K., their Japanese subsidiary. The following year, after renovating a 150-year old building in Nakatsu, Oita Prefecture, she opened the Chiki Tea Cafe & Bakery.
The cafe was built not only as a test to see if they could gain traction in Japan, but also because she really wanted to export the very best matcha from Yame. However, to qualify, the producers wanted Chiki Tea to operate in Japan for at least a year, using their matcha. On January 2, 2014, she opened Chiki Tea in Nakatsu and operated it for two years using their matcha under their watchful eye.
After closing the test cafe to move to a more vibrant and bustling city, Holly headed to Kobe where she was asked to open a matcha bar in the heart of Sannomiya, which was destined to be torn down in about a year. She agreed, renovated a small unit, and operated that for about a year.
These two cafe experiences helped Chiki Tea validate their assumptions: foreigners were their market, not the Japanese! Most of our customers in Kobe were foreigners. As Holly put it, “ the Japanese were not interested in our sublime sencha and kabusecha teas - they had no clue what hon gyokuro was… they just wanted the homemade American cheesecake, British scones, and all the homemade sweet treats.”
Again, Holly adapted her business model to fully focus on the foreign market by shipping the best artisanal loose leaf teas and matcha from Japan. But as an entrepreneur, one company is never enough. After closing the cafe in Nakatsu, she co-founded an organic skincare company in England. 11:11 Limited, which uses the matcha from Yame as one of the key ingredients.
Holly also had some advice for today's Dolphins: When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way that it is….that your life is just to live inside of this structured world and not make too many waves. And to play it safe and not take too many risks, but that is a very limited life!
Steve Jobs told me that life can be much broader when you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that are no smarter than you! You can change this life, and you can influence it, and you can build your own things that others can enjoy. Shake off this erroneous notion that life is there for you to just live in, versus embrace it, and improve it, and make your mark on it. Once you discover this, you will never be the same again.
For the full Holly Helt interview Connections click here.