I was living off the grid in Ojai, California writing a book about my Gypsy grandmother. Working odd jobs, painting houses, editing short stories, catering, waiting tables, all to serve the purpose of writing. When I got pregnant, I had a romantic idea of a home birth and a baby in a sling with me as I wrote, worked and lived. Never did I imagine I would almost lose the baby, start a company to support us, and eventually work to end poverty for tea workers 9,000 miles away. But that’s what happened.
I had Sage and within days realized something was wrong. He arched his back and screamed for hours upon hours. The doctors kept sending me home, “He’s got colic, nothing to worry about.” I’d abide because I felt like a beggar with no health insurance, but I knew something big was wrong. I was young, in a deteriorating relationship I was terrified to leave and had no health insurance. I had too much pride to let people know how bad it had gotten. As Gloria Steinem says, I was “one man away from welfare.”
One day my baby almost died. He was crying differently. It was a cry that communicated he was giving up. This was the cry that couldn’t be sent home. I yelled at the doctor, “Stop telling me it’s colic and runs some tests! I know I don’t have insurance, but you have to do something here!” I was shaking, it was the first empowered move I had made in a long time, my desperation for my baby the impetus.
After the tests, the doctor returned to the examination room pale. He told us that Sage’s kidneys were so infected that his blood was infected. He gave him a powerful antibiotic and made some urgent calls. “They can take him at the urology center in Ventura, go now.”
The idea of losing Sage, my naiveté, lack of healthcare, and the desire to save my child forced me to step into a new role. I could no longer depend on a man who couldn’t provide healthcare, my hoped-for parent’s model of dad providing for mom and kids wasn’t applying to my life, and the fairy tale that I would one day be discovered as a writer and there would be financial ease crumbled. What remained was the sheer force of will to save Sage, which forced me to be a better woman—a mother my newborn could count on.
As soon as I decided to go it alone and provide for my son, pay the hospital bills off in full and get state-aid to ensure they doctors could see him, I was given an idea. I would take my heritage as a Roma Gypsy, use my studies of herbal medicine and create a tea line that people could buy from me at parties. I’d call them Gypsy Tea Parties. It sounded crazy and cool enough to work, and it did. Sage’s tender existence and his miraculous survival, felt like my second chance.
Like any dream, it looks awesome when you’re on the mountain, but as I stepped back into the world, the naysayers and fears bore their ugly heads. I wondered how I’d finance the idea when my credit score was around 300, bill collectors called everyone with my last name looking for me (Muzyka isn’t common, we’re all related, and they were crafty), and I was starting a “Gypsy Tea Company” to throw “Gypsy Tea Parties” not something a bank would leap at to finance.
Eventually, I raised $3,000 from family and a friend and got a tea-cart where I sold my blends and grew my business. It was fun, which contrasted well with the other hardships of my life. I blended teas with essential oils, pressed flowers from the yard, put the potions into beautiful little corsage bags and a brand was born.
Many of the precious and harrowing lessons are written about in length in my new book, Life by the Cup. The most impactful lesson is that with a mission to serve you cannot fail.
The tea is grown in Sri Lanka and India. I went to the fields the first time to ensure that the Fair Trade dollars were, in fact, being given to the Tea Field workers and not the plantation owners. Not only have I created a tea company, but I have become an advocate for women who pluck tea 9,000 miles away after discovering they only make $1.35 a day when I visited them.
How I did it isn’t a story of being self-made, as self-made is an enormous myth set up by a false mindset. My story is one of love for my son, courage to listen to God and to see an impossible future as possible. I would be remiss to say there was one thing that made it happen, other than an enormous drive to get health insurance (turns out birth defects were considered a “pre-existing condition.” I thank Obama for setting future mothers free from that), and a burning hope to make the world a better place through commerce that cared for the voiceless in tea fields in India and Sri Lanka.
Today, my son is 14 and a self-professed computer geek. He wants to be a programmer and change the world through technology. He is my inspiration, although I wish he’d clean his room without my begging. He has a bright future and healthy kidneys thanks to the generous and kind people at UCLA, the Healthy Child Healthy Families program in California, and the teas that sold to hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people over the years. If I could sum up the whole idea of “how I did it” into one word it would be love. Love is the basis for the business I founded, and it’s the basis of what business is truly capable.
Life by the Cup by Zhena Muzyka is available for purchase on Amazon.
Zhena’s Tea pays a minimum price for the tea regardless of what the commodities market (highly volatile) is doing and an additional euro per kilo of tea that is given directly to the women of the tea field. The women elect a tea worker to represent them and the representative and the plantation owner decide on what to use the money for (building schools or doctors office or better water systems for the families of the tea workers). This way the plantation and the workers know they are getting fair price and can budget.