Founder Profile: Olivia Chen (G05, WG05)

We’ve developed the WAFFA Female Founders Shop to generate awareness for our amazing Alumnae Founders and to help drive customers and sales to their businesses.

One of the Founders you’ll find in the shop is Olivia Chen, Co-Founder of Twrl Milk Tea. Olivia has created an entirely new product — the world’s first artisanal plant-based milk tea inspired by her Asian American heritage, innovation and sustainability.

Twrl Milk Tea has already won many prestigious industry awards including Best New Beverage from BevNet Best of 2022, Food Network Editor’s Pick and is “Highly Recommended” by Bon Appetit Magazine.

After graduating from Wharton/Lauder, Oliva worked in global marketing at Estée Lauder (Donna Karan Cosmetics and Origins) and ran product marketing for Clinique in China. Her love for marketing, PR and events led her to become a publicist for award-winning authors of Amazon and New York Times bestsellers.

During the pandemic, Oliva and Pauline Ang craved milk teas, something that reminded them of their childhoods, the drink their moms had made for them growing up. But all the tea shops had closed and they couldn’t find a tasty, healthy ready-to-drink plant-based milk tea — so she and Pauline decided to make it themselves!Tell us a bit about your company

At Twrl Milk Tea, we’ve crafted the world’s first artisanal plant-based milk tea inspired by our Asian American heritage, innovation and sustainability.

What inspired you to start your business — what opportunity in the market are you seeking to address?

Growing up, we always had tea at the table — when we went out for dim sum, to help us fall asleep, and to help us wake up. Drinking tea was simply one of our family customs.

When the milk and bubble tea culture exploded in popularity, we enjoyed our teas along with everyone else. But soon, we realized we spent too much money and consumed way too much sugar (and calories).

Then the pandemic hit, and all the tea shops closed. As long-time obsessive milk tea drinkers, we longed for a sip of that cafe made milk tea and it wasn’t something we could order from Amazon or find on the aisles of supermarkets nor easily make ourselves. We longed for something that reminded us of our childhood, the drink our moms made for us growing up.

We looked for a ready-to-drink plant-based milk tea that was great in taste and made with premium ingredients that we could feel good about drinking. We couldn’t find it.

So, we began brewing milk tea in our home kitchens and discovered we could make it the way we wanted, without compromise. Organic, non-GMO, no added flavorings, way less sugar, using fair-trade loose leaf tea leaves, and mmmm, nitro-infusion for that freshly made from the cafe taste.

We launched Twrl Milk less than 19 months ago with a mission to create a sustainable, mission-driven beverage brand to support small family tea farms. We want to bring Twrl Milk Tea to life so everyone could enjoy this better-for-you version of the milk tea we drank growing up. It’s a milk tea that all of us can drink guilt-free. And, it’s easy to grab out of the fridge and take on the road, to picnics, parties, practices–anytime, anywhere. It’s a convenience we know all people including moms like ourselves with busy lifestyles can appreciate.

Our Twrl Milk Tea is available nationwide via our website and Amazon. We are in 150+ locations from coast to coast and continually expanding to meet the growing demand of Twrl Milk Tea. We are so excited to share the flavors of our culture with the world!

As the first company to use climate-friendly pea milk, Twrl is Top 8 Allergen free including dairy, gluten, soy and nuts.

Designed by two busy moms, for those on the go, Twrl is perfect to grab-n-go beverage for the road, outings, picnics or parties. Twrl is the perfect daily coffee alternative, with all the benefits including caffeine, antioxidants and L-theanine of premium tea, for increased performance and alertness without an upset stomach, jitters or sugar crash.

What is it about your personal background, experience, or perspective that fuels your passion for this venture?

After graduating, I worked in global marketing at Estee Lauder (Donna Karan Cosmetics and Origins) and ran product marketing for Clinique in China. My love for marketing, PR and events led me to become a publicist for award-winning authors of Amazon and New York Times bestsellers.

Currently, I am Co-founder & CMO of Twrl Milk Tea. At Twrl Milk Tea, we’ve crafted the world’s first artisanal plant-based milk tea inspired by our Asian American heritage, innovation and sustainability. Twrl Milk Tea is rated “Highly Recommended” by Bon Appetit Magazine, a Food Network Editor’s Pick, a 2022 Expo West Nexty Best New Beverage Finalist, a 2022 Hot New Product Pick by New Hope Network, a 2022 Naturally Bay Area Pitch Slam Grand Prize Winner and People’s Choice Award, and a BevNet 2022 Best New Beverage Winner.

What are one or two of the biggest wins or most encouraging experiences you’ve had so far?

Twrl Milk Tea won Bevnet Best of 2022 Best New Beverage and is “Rated Highly Recommended” by Bon Appetit and a Food Network Editor pick.

What has been one or two of your biggest learnings so far?

Growing up as children of immigrants, many of us wanted to fit in and adopt what was “American” — the clothes we wear, the music we listen to and the food we consume into our bodies are all a reflection of what is portrayed on TV commercials and what other classmates were having for school lunch.

As we build our plant-based milk tea brand Twrl Milk Tea, we are excited to bring the flavors of our culture to the world and share with everyone the drink we grew up drinking at home and when we visited family and relatives in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Twrl Milk Tea began in our home kitchen. We are two daughters of immigrants, who drew upon our Chinese and Taiwanese heritages and shared love of Milk Tea, to brew a drink we hoped would be quintessentially Asian American. It would be tea, invented in China back in 2737 BC and Milk Tea made popular in Taiwan by the bubble/boba creation in the 1980s but made modern, incorporating what we most cared about, great taste and focus on sustainability as well as being healthy and convenient–perfect for busy moms like us.

As a minority, we often think in terms of “one day” or “when the time comes” for that representation to happen. The reality is If not NOW then When. As we work to break through barriers of bringing Milk Tea to the ready-to-drink cold case to major retailers, we face the challenges of being AAPI female founders in an industry that lacks diversity in terms of brands in supermarkets as well as the retail buyers. We are redefining the brands that will be in our supermarkets, our homes, and our fridges NOW. Our entrepreneurial journey has been simultaneously exciting and intimidating as we are pioneers in our field.

We are motivated by the FUTURE is NOW where we envision the ready-to-drink category will have a Milk Tea category and not just three different categories: Milk, Tea and Coffee. Retail buyers will know how to price our milk teas in line with other Coffee Lattes and not with just tea brands. Buyers will recognize our mission to source and produce responsibility and support our brand. The future is now for the world to know how amazing milk tea is and just how truly special Twrl Milk Tea is … authentic in taste and inspired by our heritage, innovation and sustainability.

Now is when we open our fridges at home to grab a drink and see brands like Twrl Milk Tea that are representative of our culture and heritage. The Future is NOW. Right now in our fridge, on our table, in our cars, in our backpacks, on the road, anytime, anywhere.

Our dream is that Twrl Milk Tea redefines what it means to be an American heritage brand and is a company that is reflective of our society’s landscape and global issues such as climate change. Our experience in building our company’s branding and messaging has been liberating — we are extremely proud that creating a brand like Twrl Milk Tea embraces our heritage and combines our backgrounds as Chinese/Taiwanese Americans.

When we started working on Twrl Milk Tea, we knew we wanted it to last for generations to come; it was with these lofty goals that we set out to craft the highest quality ready-to-drink plant-based milk tea with the best sustainably sourced ingredients and production practices. One day, we hope Twrl Milk Tea will be a recognized ready-to-drink brand coveted by all tea, coffee, and Boba milk tea drinkers. For fun, we secretly debate which child of ours will take over Twrl Milk Tea.

When looking back on our childhoods, there are no brands or companies that we could look up to where the founders looked like us. It is similar to when we played with toys like Barbie that looked nothing like us and now Barbie has different ethnicities and is more inclusive of all. We see this happening with authors such as Margarent Greanias and Ruth Chan that are writing books where the characters and stories look and have experiences as children of Chinese/Taiwanese immigrants. We are proud to be part of this generation of entrepreneurs changing the narrative in the CPG industry with products that bring the flavors of our culture, and combining this uniqueness with innovation and sustainability to delight consumers.

What is an obstacle that you are grappling with as you continue to build this venture?

As a small business, we have been our own sales reps and have not hired any outside sales reps at trade shows as of yet. We have found success as our own champions but we see a lack of diversity in the industry, especially on the buyer side. In terms of sales reps, we can see why some brands use Caucasian sales reps to more easily secure store placements as we are often not part of the “club”. We have also found this in the case of VC and fundraising where APPI and Women founders need to seek funding from AAPI accelerators or funds and are often not invited to the conversations.

Source: Twrl Milk Tea

What surprises have you encountered as an entrepreneur? Something out of left field?

The joy Twrl Milk Tea has brought to consumers has been one of the best experiences. It still surprises me when people reach out via social media organically.

“I usually like my milk tea fresh from the boba shop, but I was delightfully surprised by Twrl’s plant-based milk teas. They’re steeped perfectly, and you can taste the quality of the leaves they use. I also love that they’re less sweet, and with the use of the plant-based milk, feel less overly indulgent on the tongue. Overall, a great way to start the morning, without feeling like you’re drinking dessert.”

— Maggie Wong, Editor Food Network

“Twrl Milk Tea is amazing! I love its wholesome ingredients compared to my usual boba drinks. Twrl helped me curb my boba milk tea addiction.”

- Charina A.

What has been the most rewarding thing about starting your own business?

Our experience in building our company branding and messaging has been liberating. Creating a brand like Twrl Milk Tea that embraces our heritage and combines our backgrounds as Chinese/Taiwanese Americans is something we are extremely proud of. The best part is seeing the reactions of our parents. They are our biggest cheerleaders. As immigrants, they are seeing the American Dream through the achievements of their daughters. We are sharing their stories including struggles as immigrants, our own experiences and being vocal about our presence and importance in society in the past, presently and in the future.

As AAPI founders, we want to overturn expectations and redefine what it means to run an American heritage brand. We are disrupting the beverage category with the only better-for-you, sustainable & innovative milk tea in retail.

Learn more about Twrl Milk Tea here, and connect with Olivia Chen here.

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