Alumni entrepreneurs ‘tea’ up small business

During their second year at Northeastern, Ricardo Viejo and his friend Alejandro Mayer, both DMSB’16, were challenged to develop a business model as part of faculty member Eliot Sherman’s capital management course. Rather than create a fictional business, however, the two roommates decided to build a real business importing high quality, organically-grown green tea from Japan.

“It was crazy, because we started this in a business class, but I wasn’t just doing this for a class; I was doing it in real time,” Viejo said. “We were contacting companies in China to get our packaging done, reaching out to designers who could design our logo and our website, all on this timeline.”

For their company, which they dubbed Velvetea, Viejo and Mayer focused on importing small amounts of premium green tea that was grown organically and sustainably.

“We’re a small tea trader with a big focus on quality,” Viejo said. “We wanted our supplier to be transparent; we wanted to visit the farms where we’re getting our tea.”

I always feel excited when we figure out a new way to get ourselves out there, to tell people about this quality tea we have, but starting a business is a challenge.
Ricardo Viejo, DMSB’16

The idea sprang from Viejo’s interest to do business globally as well as his and Mayer’s mutual love of tea and the numerous health benefits it can provide.

Mayer’s father was transferred to Thailand for work, Viejo said, and over last winter break, Viejo visited the Mayers there. Viejo left feeling like he wanted to capitalize on the robust industry all over Asia, he said.

“I just wanted to start something, to import some sort of goods and sell them here,” Viejo said. At first, he and Mayer considered a clothing business, but they soon realized clothing wasn’t an industry they were passionate about.

“We just started looking at different teas we could bring over, and matcha was in our minds because our roommate was drinking it at the time,” Viejo said.

The pair did some research and created a business plan, then ventured to Japan in May to meet with Kenta Ikeda—someone who Viejo described as the tea equivalent of a wine sommelier. Ikeda suggested they try a small, secluded farm in the mountains of Kagoshima, Japan, and a month later the three of them went to check it out.

teaembedAs it turned out, the farm met all their needs—it grew tea in small batches using sustainable practices and a truly organic process.

“Ask anyone in Japan, and they’ll tell you it’s extremely difficult to grow authentically organic green tea,” Viejo said. “The leaves are so delicate and so susceptible to damage that almost all farmers use some amount of pesticides.”

Because the farm in Kagoshima focused on growing small batches of green tea plants, however, farmers there were able to devote the time it takes to ensure their plants were able to thrive in a truly organic setting. Viejo and Mayer were sold. And so, too, were the tea farmers.

“They were really impressed with our plan and just the fact that the tea itself was so important to us,” Viejo said.

For now, Velvetea—a portmanteau Viejo and Mayer created to encapsulate the velvety quality of their tea—is focused on importing and selling matcha green tea, a powdered green tea that can be stirred into hot water to drink or added to recipes for additional flavor.

Currently, their products are only available online, though Viejo said he hopes to grow their presence.

“I always feel excited when we figure out a new way to get ourselves out there, to tell people about this quality tea we have, but starting a business is a challenge,” he said, laughing. “Every step is a challenge.”

At some point, Viejo said he hopes to be able to sell other tea varieties, so long as they meet Velvetea’s strict quality and sustainability requirements.