Written by: Maureen Devenny
Amy Rothstein is the founder of Dona Chai (pronounced “Donna”), a chai tea concentrate brewing company based in Brooklyn, New York. We sat down with her at a local cafe for–you guessed it–a chai latte and a chat about a college class that changed her life, her mom’s creepy childhood doll, and what it takes to run a company that stocks across the country.
PP: What inspired you to start Dona Chai?
AR: In college I was an environmental studies major and took a class about the ecology, politics, and ethics of food. I didn’t realize that there was more to food than just cooking or eating it, and I was intrigued. I decided I wanted to study food further, and entered a graduate program at NYU for food studies. I went to a lot of coffee shops in my first semester to do homework, and noticed that while there was a strong culture of locally-roasted coffee, there was no parallel focus on locally-blended teas. That’s when the idea for Dona Chai came to me.
PP: What sets Dona Chai apart?
AR: For one thing, the recipe. I spent the summer between my first and second years of graduate school wholly devoted to perfecting the tea recipe. “Chai” is actually a very broad term that simply means tea blended with spices, so there is no set recipe. After three months of experimenting, I settled on a blend of molasses, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, green cardamom, black peppercorns, cloves, and black tea, that I was absolutely confident in. [Editor’s note: the Dona Chai latte I sipped while talking to Amy was hands down the best chai latte I’ve ever had.] The other thing that sets Dona Chai apart is that I am relentlessly critical of the company and product. It sounds negative but the constant evaluation helps me make sure that the product is the absolute best it can be.
PP: What is the hardest part of running a company?
AR: Well, I can tell you what the easiest part of the company was for me–the name! My mom had a creepy childhood doll named Dona who sat in my grandmother’s living room. I wasn’t allowed to play with her; somehow Dona is the first name that came to mind when I was thinking of a name. I know that the story doesn’t make sense to most people, but the name is perfect to me. Another thing that is easy is waking up in the morning. I am eager to get to work! [For more about Amy’s daily life, check out this article about her on Forbes.] Keeping up with the fast pace of a growing company is always an exciting challenge. Thankfully, my brother is on the Dona Chai team. His degree is in business, so his analytical skills complement my skill set. We’ve grown to 6 employees, so I’m not doing everything myself.
PP: How has being a woman affected your business?
AR: I’ve been lucky enough to meet fellow female entrepreneurs. I went to a women’s summit hosted by Forbes called 20/40; it matched up female entrepreneurs in their 20s with those in their 40s for mentorship advice. I’ve learned that the more people you talk to, the better; that’s something I’m working on as the company grows. Women are supportive of each other.
If you can’t resist a good tea photo, the Dona Chai Instagram is your new happy place.
PP: What have you learned about yourself in this process?
AR: I’ve discovered a bunch of new interests. I’m getting more interested in the graphic design, photography, and marketing elements of the business. I’ve also started developing recipes that use Dona Chai–it’s not just for lattes!–so that’s been fun.
PP: Have there been any surprises?
AR: There are always surprises in running a small business. One thing I certainly wasn’t expecting was meeting my boyfriend through work! I walked into his cafe to sell him some chai, and we’ve been dating for two years. We’re both small business owners, so we understand what the other goes through each day.
PP: How will you know when you’ve achieved success?
AR: When I feel like I can go on a vacation and things will be ok in my absence. I’m looking forward to that day!
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