Tea and alchemy

By Matt Villano

For the siblings behind Numi Tea, sustainability is a priority, focus and philosophy. 



There's a promise for a brighter future in every cup of Numi Tea. No, the promise isn’t something you can taste. It certainly isn’t something you can see—that would fly in the face of the organic nature of everything the family-owned company puts out into the world. Instead, the promise is a vibe—an acknowledgment of the past and a nod to what comes next for all of us. Every time we drink a cup of Numi, we’re unknowingly drinking this up. It makes sense that a company founded by two immigrants would operate with this kind of commitment to positivity.

The bosses—siblings Ahmed Rahim and Reem Hassani—fled Baghdad, Iraq, to escape political strife, came to the United States to make a new life and in the process built one of the most popular tea companies in the world (from the confines of a warehouse in Oakland, Calif., no less). Today, the siblings work together to keep that new life front-of-mind. Rahim, the chief visionary officer, focuses on R&D; Hassani, the chief brand officer, is obsessed with marketing. Together the duo proves every day that it’s possible to succeed in business, and also to provide for the future. They recently sat down with contributing editor Matt Villano to talk about family, sustainability and success.

Family Business: What was your inspiration to create Numi with a focus on social responsibility?

Ahmed Rahim: People come first and people work with people, and it’s important not to take anything for granted. This idea comes from our upbringing in the Middle East. Our culture is a lot about hospitality and making sure everyone feels warm and welcome. We had to leave Iraq due to political strife, and we witnessed our parents take in family, friends and refugees. Those actions really inspired us. We were always taught to just take care of one another.

FB:  How do you focus on social responsibility?

Reem Hassani: Social responsibility is at the heart of everything we do at Numi, and that is borne out in the way we do business as a founding B Corp and one of the leading purchasers of organic, fair-trade certified teas to the investments we’ve made in plant-based, compostable and sustainable packaging and carbon-neutral certification. Additionally, through the Numi Foundation, we have implemented [several] community development projects both locally and internationally. Since 2016, Numi Foundation’s Together for H2OPE initiative has invested in infrastructure projects in Numi farming communities around the world by building wells and sanitation facilities, as well as distributing water filtration systems to over 10,000 farmers and their families across India, Madagascar and South Africa.

In our own backyard [in Oakland], Numi Foundation supports 18,000 low-income elementary school students in 75 San Francisco Bay Area schools with environmental education curricula and funds for field trips through the NUMI Curriculum program. And in response to the COVID-19-induced hunger crisis, we have worked with our local partners {Oakland Unified School District, Growing Together, Mandela Partners, Sanzuma and SEI] to deliver more than 637,000 pounds of fresh, organic, culturally relevant produce to 6,000 high-need families, including 1,841 low-income seniors in across Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area. We focus on feeding African American, Latino and Southeast Asian families — especially those who are undocumented or unable to access stimulus funding, unemployment benefits or food stamps.

Rahim: Day to day, we do work to lift up our farmers and their families in developing countries across the world that don’t have access and privileges to some of the basic human needs and rights we have in the USA. It is our obligation and honor to serve these farmers with extra support and additional programs to provide them with ways to thrive and grow in their communities and beyond. Numi only sources organic tea, and we are committed to sourcing only the highest-quality organic teas from farms we have known and partnered with directly for years. Beyond delivering the highest-quality product, organic agriculture benefits farmers because it does not use chemical fertilizers, pesticides or insecticides. This practice preserves our earth’s resources by minimizing pollutants, and protects the health of workers who would otherwise be exposed.

Hassani: We [also] are a leading purchaser of fair-trade-certified tea, and we’ve also developed our own certification where fair trade is prohibited, called Fair Labor Verification. To date, Numi has contributed more than $1 million in fair trade premiums for tea farmers. Fair trade funds have been used for a range of programs including new roads, cooking stoves, mosquito nets, new schools and enhanced maternity benefits. These programs have directly impacted 14,370 people in our farming communities.

FB:  That’s a lot of impact. Tell us about yourselves.

Rahim: I am the alchemist behind Numi’s teas, creating unique, innovative and delicious blends with my team. Before co-founding Numi, I studied theater and psychology in New York City, then spent a decade living, working and traveling in Europe as a professional filmmaker and photographer. I began designing teahouses in Prague, where I learned about tea’s culture, ceremonies and its many health benefits.

Hassani: I oversee brand identity, including all packaging design, brand voice and experience. I write 90% of the copy on the packaging, oversee campaigns and art direct packaging and photoshoots. An artist by trade [including a Diploma d’Arte from Lorenzo de Medici Art Institute in Florence, Italy, and an M.F.A. in Arts & Consciousness Studies from JFK University], my original artwork has been a source of inspiration for Numi’s brand vision and packaging. In 2019, I was honored as one of Progressive Grocer’s Top Women in Business.

Family Business: How closely do the two of you work together?

Hassani: We live about 30 minutes apart and see each other for family dinners about once a month in either of our homes. Regarding work, we meet biweekly in person for leadership meetings and have various meetings over Zoom in areas where we interface: innovation, executive meetings, board calls and more. We communicate over email, text and phone.

Ahmed and I interact very intimately in new product development and package design, and while we see eye to eye much of the time, we do have differences. Over time we have learned to communicate better, seeing our differences as creative friction to get to a more collaborative space than a conflict. Having others in the company to chime in is very helpful, so it is not his voice and opinion against mine; rather, a group consensus. It’s much healthier for the company that way.

FB: What are some projects under the Numi Foundation?

Hassani: Social responsibility is part of everything we do at Numi. We launched the Numi Foundation in 2016 with a mission to nurture and empower communities to thrive. We envision a world where all basic human needs are met, and people have the resources to fulfill their greatest potential. Numi Foundation grew out of Numi’s quadruple-bottom-line business ethic that includes people, planet, profitability and purpose. The foundation is deeply committed to bringing its programs and resources to our local community in Oakland, Calif., as well as to places in our global community that touch our hearts.

Around the globe, Numi Foundation’s Together for H2OPE initiative provides Numi’s farming communities with access to clean water. One in three people globally do not have access to safe drinking water. That’s why we’ve partnered with our global farming communities to ensure access by building and repairing water infrastructure and administering community-led hygiene education. The first Together for H2OPE initiative impacted our turmeric farming community in Madagascar, who experienced clean, safe drinking water for the first time in their lives. It provided 4,000 turmeric farmers and their families in Madagascar with 23 new wells, plus community-led education in well repair, water sanitation and hygiene.

In the summer of 2022, Numi Foundation partnered with Waves for Water on a program to bring clean drinking water to 1 million Ukrainians who have been displaced from their homes [as a result of the ongoing conflict with Russia]. The funds raised go directly toward the implementation of water filtration systems, the construction or repair of bore-hole wells, and rainwater harvesting systems.

FB: What lessons have you learned from your parents about how to run a business?

Rahim: The two biggest learnings we obtained from our parents when it comes to business is having a strong work ethic and treating your employees as family. Our parents worked very hard to get on their feet in the United States. They came as immigrants with very little except their education and speaking English. [Our] father was a physician and had a private practice in Iraq and had to start over by taking his board exams and redoing his residency. He became an assistant professor and set up his own private practice. [Our] mother went back to school and studied interior design and set up a business in the basement. She eventually moved out and started building homes as a contractor. She is published as a leading designer in the Midwest. All the employees that worked for my parents were like family. They worked for them for several years, similar to our Numi staff. [Our] mother employed friends and family that fled Iraq due to the wars. She also employed Iraqi refugees to help them get on their feet.

FB: How do you prioritize different aspects of the business?

Hassani: When Numi started out, many of our ideas about real ingredients, sustainable packaging, organic certification, fair trade and fair labor were quite radical, and they forced us to grow in a very thoughtful and proactive way that stayed true to our commitments and values. These values still prioritize each aspect of our business. With every aspect of our business, we prioritize products and practices that create lasting positive change. At its core, our vision has been to activate a chain of positivity and possibility that radiates far and wide. We believe that one act of change in the world inspires others. Through the products we make and the environmentally and socially responsible business choices we practice, we create lasting positive change in the people we touch and this earth we live on. Everything we do, we do on purpose.

FB: What role does sustainability play in brand identity, and why?

Rahim: The planet is warming faster than ever, and we believe that Numi can play a role in reducing emissions by creating lasting positive impacts on the planet. Since Numi’s inception, we have been committed to finding solutions to create a lasting impact on the planet, and our carbon footprint label is a key tool to this strategy.

Hassani: Our cardboard tea boxes are made from 90% recycled paperboard. Numi’s compostable plant-based tea wrappers — the first in the industry — reduce reliance on fossil fuels and open pathways to a plastic-free future. Made from renewable non-GMO sugarcane, these wrappers produce 67% lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional wrappers. They perform better across all impact categories throughout their lifecycle, from energy resource use to pollution to ozone. Numi also worked with Planet FWD, the leading carbon management platform for consumer brands, on a recently announced carbon footprint label. The new label is the first of its kind among U.S. tea producers and breaks down each product’s emissions into four categories — ingredients packaging, transport and preparation — so that consumers can easily understand the carbon impact of their tea purchases.

FB: I know you both are involved with all sorts of additional philanthropy work. How do you decide which causes to support? How do you balance your time?

Rahim: In 2012, I co-founded OSC2, One Step Closer to an Organic Sustainable Community, a national community of business leaders driving positive change and building sustainable awareness in the food industry. My work with OSC2’s Climate Collaborative was born from a belief that by working together, the natural products industry has greater potential to combat climate change. As a co-founder of the group’s Packaging Collaborative, I work with a consortium of sustainably minded CPG’s to remove petroleum based plastic from landfills, oceans, and our planet. I [also] advise and sit on boards of mission-led businesses run by young entrepreneurs focused on sustainable models with emerging innovative product ideas in the CPG marketplace. I sit on various for profit and non-profit boards, helping build growth, strategy, and sustainability goals. My core mission is to be in service to those focused on caring for their community and creating positive change for our planet.

FB: What are your newest products?

Hassani: In December 2022, Numi announced its new Self-Care collection.  This product is available in a hexagonal-shaped gift box and contains five each of eight blends for a total of 40 tea bags. Aromatic botanicals like echinacea, licorice, marshmallow root, sage, valerian root, elderberry, fennel, ginger and more have potent benefits that protect and fortify the immune system, help you sleep, coat the throat and bring comfort to your everyday. In November 2022, Numi announced its new Roasted Japanese Green Tea line. The four SKUs are Numi Organic Hojicha Roasted Japanese Green Tea, Numi Organic Kukicha Roasated Japanese Green Tea, Numi Organic Yuzu Bancha Roasted Japanese Green Tea and Numi Organic Matcha Toasted Rice Green Tea.

FB: What’s next for Numi? To what extent do you have plans to grow the brand and/or expand in the next few years?

Rahim: We want to continue to innovate in response to consumer demand for functional beverages that are made with organic, ethically sourced, non-GMO ingredients. As we continue to grow, Numi’s product offerings will be more focused on overall health and wellness, and our purpose will celebrate the voice and power to activate positive change. 

Matt Villano is a writer and editor in Healdsburg, Calif. Learn more about him at whalehead.com

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