More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, a digital bank for personal and business current accounts. 

Starling Bank Portrait Series – NEMI Teas

Starling was born out of her determination to give customers control over their money, and provide a real alternative to the banks of the past. Starling strives to be fast, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.

In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, just like Anne, are pioneers of change.

Our next entrepreneur is Starling customer Pranav Chopra, founder of NEMI Teas, a unique London-based tea company that’s tackling unemployment and inequality amongst refugees by offering employment and leadership roles to help overcome the barriers to work.

According to a report by Compas, asylum migrants are not only struggling to find employment in the UK, at only 51% employed compared to 73% of UK-born workers, but they also on average earn less and have fewer hours. 

Thirty-seven year old Pranav Chopra knows all too well the struggles faced by refugees and migrants, in employment or otherwise. Already having been involved with a variety of businesses tackling social issues, such as Slumdog Travels – which took on the issue of illiteracy in India through the use of tourism – you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better placed to address these issues.

A lesson learned

Pranav admits “entrepreneurship has been a passion of mine since a very young age,” and has had a long tenure of experience in the world of business. What really motivated him to start NEMI Teas however, was a specific episode of BBC Hardtalk, showcasing an Iraqi family who had fled to Germany but eventually risked their lives to return to Iraq as they had failed to integrate and find gainful employment.

Pranav struggled to get their story out of his mind. “The more I read, the more I saw that lack of integration and issues around language, education and especially employment are the key problems holding refugees back from successfully resettling,” he says.

A migrant himself, Pranav knows the struggles faced by these individuals, and the biases (conscious or otherwise) you can experience in that position.

Taking the chance, Pranav decided to quit his 10 year corporate career in 2015 to do something for the greater good. With supporting migrants and refugees in mind, he soon went full-time with his commitment to the business and has never looked back. 

Brewing success

Explaining that it is his “innate nature to not be able to turn a blind eye to injustice”, Pranav has built his impressive business around a goal that not only reflects his character as a striving, successful social entrepreneur, but also his desire to pass that success onto those he made the business for in the first place.

NEMI Teas has so far provided jobs to 22 refugees and this continues to grow, with at least 15 of those refugees having gone on to find full-time employment. The remaining individuals have gone on to study at universities or colleges, utilising some of the skills learned at NEMI Teas.

Starting from scratch, NEMI Teas is soaring. Since officially launching in February 2017, it is now supplying more than 400 cafes, delis, restaurants and corporate offices in the UK and beyond, including US, France and Germany, with sales at least doubling in each of the past three years.

Disposable bags, priceless people

If sustaining jobs for a variety of refugees wasn’t enough, NEMI Teas is establishing itself as a leader in the sustainability movement. One hundred percent of its tea bags and packaging are plastic free and compostable, and Pranav even points out that “the string attached to the teabag is by ultrasound and not traditional glue,” thus further avoiding any plastic in the product.

Each tea is Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance certified, ensuring the farmers behind some of the ingredients are paid a fair wage in fair working conditions, something Pranav ensures for not just his own business, but the ones he sources his ingredients from.

Future perfect?

With a primary focus on the hospitality sector, things have been tough for NEMI Teas over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, big plans are on the horizon according to Pranav, who mentions expansion to countries such as the US. Even telling of his plans to seek a “link up” with a leading UK caterer, Thomas Franks, “where it will place its trained refugees into full-time positions to ensure their long term financial stability”.

We caught up with Pranav to talk about the impact of the pandemic on his  pioneering business, get some more insight into the future for NEMI Teas and discuss the ingredients behind his success:

How have you and the business fared since the start of the pandemic?

“It’s certainly been challenging since the start of the pandemic as a large proportion of our clients are from the food-service industry, from major corporates to independent delis and cafés. So with offices closed, we had to pivot and place an emphasis on our retail offering. 

“With customers becoming more environmentally conscious during the pandemic, as well as more gifting by individuals and businesses, our business began to thrive again thanks to our focus on sustainability and social impact. As a result, our business grew and we were able to hire and train two refugees, who we then placed into full-time employment at The National Theatre in London.”

What has been the biggest factor in your success?

“The tea sector within the UK is very saturated however in comparison to our competitors and peers, I feel it is our three core values that we live by that make us exceptional:

Positive impact: we conduct our business in a positive manner in all aspects, be it the high-quality of our tea; plastic-free and compostable teabags; or the recruitment of refugees within the business.

“Financial success: we have a strong focus on business sustainability, as we won’t be able to make a positive impact on the community if we are unable to fund our operations and pay our employees.

“Product focus: we have a strong focus on ensuring that our products are unique, high-quality and on-trend with speciality tea.

“However it is the set-up of the business model which is the real innovation within NEMI Teas as the long-term success of the business is intrinsically tied in with its ability to provide more job opportunities to refugees i.e. the more tea that is sold, the more refugees that get employed. 

“Also the adaption of the “open hiring” model is another key differentiator for NEMI Teas as we believe all individuals are equal and we hire our staff on a first come, first serve basis regardless of their background, age or sex.”

What are your immediate and long-term plans for the business?

“NEMI Teas has doubled sales year on year over the last three years showcasing an ethical business can not only have a positive impact on society but can also be financially successful. We are now supplying our teas to over 400 stockists including cafes, delis, restaurants, and corporates across the UK, USA, Scotland, France and Germany.

“In terms of future plans, we are looking to scale our operations across both wholesale and retail channels to grow our sales to over £5m within the next three years. The key drivers for this growth will be the international markets, launching at a UK national-supermarket (Co-op) and growing within the hospitality category in general.”