Meet Sophia Nadur – Trinidad-born, innovative problem solver to the global Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) industry who left the corporate realm to start her own beverage start-up.
Having held marketing and innovation strategy positions at Coca Cola, Unilever, Mars and Kraft/Mondelez throughout her life, Sophia gained a wealth of experience in the consumer goods sector and is now using this knowledge and expertise to pioneer her own company Tg Green Teas.
Co-founded by Dr Hua He (Shanghai-born, qualified medical doctor and research physician) and Sophia, Tg Green Teas provides a hot and chilled range of delicious premium tea infusions, in both original and fruit and botanical-laden varieties. Crowdfooding had a chance to catch-up with Sophia and delve deeper into her entrepreneurial adventure.
How do you think growing up in the Caribbean shaped your relationship to food?
I was lucky to grow up in the Caribbean surrounded by lots of fresh fruit and vegetables – many of which we ate came from our backyard or from bartering with neighbours. We usually knew where the butcher got his poultry and meat from (and even rearing our own goose that later became Sunday lunch). Drinks like Coca-Cola were only ever an occasional treat (and I often had to share 1 glass bottle with my sister and brother). My eating and drinking habits changed a lot when I moved to the UK in 2001 with the prevalence of processed food and drink and poor work-life balance. Eating healthy no longer seemed easy nor was it particularly cheap.
How did you get the job at Unilever and how much of that work experience set the foundations for what you are doing now?
I came out of McGill University at a time when the price of oil was at $30 and jobs were scarce (sound familiar?). My first job was doing market analyses for a regional beer manufacturer in Trinidad. I worked from a tiny desk inside a windowless converted shipping container on the brewery’s car park that was located opposite Unilever Caribbean (which I assumed that – along with great brands – had a nicer office). It didn’t take me long to walk across the street and convince them that I could be of use to them.
Unilever helped me build marketing and critical cross-functional skills through stints in other departments and training/deployment as an internal Total Quality Management (TQM) facilitator. They also offered me an interest-free loan to study part-time for a MBA at Warwick Business School (WBS), which provided an immeasurable career boost. [I am giving back a bit to the University through being a WBS mentor, speaking at Careers Advice sessions there and preparing to take on a student for a summer project linked to our start-up].
You have worked for some of the most notable/largest food and beverage corporate companies in the world. How did each company differ from one another, and what was similar about them?
I have worked directly for Unilever, Coca-Cola, Mars, and Kraft/Mondelez as well as indirectly for a few other [confidential] global consumer products companies. They all offer broadly similar exposure to well-honed structures and processes that have helped them become – and often stay – number 1 in their respective categories. This still is for me the best “training ground” for anyone who has a dream of creating a new food or drink brand as it prepares you like nothing else for the rough and tumble of the marketplace.
The most unique corporate culture I worked in was Mars with its relentless focus on delivering on its “5 core principles” [quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency, and freedom] and a refreshing longer-term business outlook. It’s no surprise really to see so many ex “Martian” colleagues still very active in the food and drink industry with many working now in start-ups/SMEs.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered whilst working at one of these big corporates?
I was deeply involved for many years in food and drink innovation activities in major markets across the world. It became clear to me some years ago that consumers were fast becoming interested in more natural products, in where products came from, and in connecting with products and brands that were both internally and externally “better”. The focus though at big corporates was always on looking through the rear view mirror for insights and answers, which for me was a huge challenge. I tried to encourage healthier brand development at work but in the end decided that I could make things improve faster and in a more meaningful way from “the outside”. More lately, I have seen an appetite at some large companies for changing the orientation of their lens but reacting to the new reality remains painfully slow.
What was the most exciting project you worked on during your corporate food and beverage journey?
I have worked on a number of large and small innovation and marketing activities for major brands like Coca-Cola, Mars and Milka over the past 20 years. One of the most exciting projects that I can talk about is the grassroots programme I ran for more than 25 markets across Central America and the Caribbean linked to Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of World Cup 1998. Whilst football’s governing body is (rightfully in my view) on the receiving end of calls to reform itself, the game will continue to inspire young people around the world. It was touching indeed to see young boys and girls secure spots via sporting and education competitions as ball kids and flag bearers at the World Cup. Many of them had never even left their towns or villages so the trip to France was a dream come true. Their unbridled joy and experiences will no doubt stay with them for the rest of the lives. I haven’t forgotten just how special it can feel when a brand, a “movement”, touches the lives of people in a meaningful way beyond the fluff.
Marketing and innovation strategy to law…. was it worth taking that time off to become a lawyer? What were the most useful things you learned during this time?
I took “time out” from a successful career to qualify as a commercial lawyer in order to (i) broaden skills beyond “marketing and innovation”, (ii) lay the groundwork for a “portfolio” career in the future, and (iii) fulfil a dream to be like two of my childhood heroes, namely Atticus Finch and Perry Mason (sad but true!). I never planned to work full time as a lawyer, however I try to keep up-to-date on the law through attendance at seminars, regular sittings as a magistrate etc. The legal skills/experience have certainly been very useful to our start-up particularly when registering our trademarks in the EU, China and the US as well as dealing with supplier/partner contracts.
What led you to start Tg Green Teas?
US “shark tank” investor Mark Cuban tells start-up founders that they shouldn’t start a company unless it’s an obsession and something they love. I agree with him completely.
Tg Green Teas was co-founded by two women, Dr Hua He and Sophia. Shanghai born and long-time UK resident, Hua, a qualified medical doctor and research physician, grew up with the traditional wellness knowledge of Green Tea and other fruit and botanicals that formed part of everyday life in the “Middle Kingdom” (China) for over 4,000 years. A green tea fanatic, it was Hua’s idea to develop this brand after she had grown tired of the lack of tasty green tea options on store shelves here in the UK!
I could see a few years ago the trend of folks craving healthier drinks and wanting to cut down on sugar consumption, but she was deeply frustrated to see so few drinks coming on the market that were good and did good too. So the two of us started Tg Green Teas with our own savings and a few grants. It’s still 100% self-funded today, however we have begun the search for folks to join us on our journey. Great things never come from staying within one’s “comfort zone”.
What is the overall mission of Tg Green Teas?
When it comes to Tg Green Tea, Hua and I believe very much in an old Chinese proverb “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” – 星星之火可以燎原 (xīng xīng zhī huǒ, kě yǐ liáo yuán). We expect that in 5 years’ time we would have lit a few fires that propel folks to make green tea a regular part of their day by providing them with tasty, healthy and convenient options. We see Tg Green Tea becoming known as that tasty and innovative green tea brand which properly exploded onto the healthy drinks’ scene in 2016 and is now available in many high street shops up and down the country – with Tg Green Tea enjoyed also in parts of Europe, the US, China, the Middle East and even the Caribbean.
What was the process (research, logistical, emotional etc.) required to develop your product range?
Although a nation of black tea drinkers, we’re increasingly reaching for green tea for its health benefits, rich cultural history and diverse flavour profile. We designed new British tea brand Tg as a modern take on ancient traditions that help folks strengthen their roots and put a spring in their step. Inspired by Middle Kingdom culture and colourful art expression that adorn London streets today, Tg is intent on making green tea easier for our palates and in providing convenient formats thereby encouraging more folks to enjoy it every day.
As such, our product brief was a simple one, namely develop (a) deliciously smooth, some delicately fruity, authentic hot green tea brews “Here’s looking at you, gorgeous!” and (b) great tasting iced teas full of fruit and botanicals with ancient wellness traditions and delivering just a touch of sweetness. “Really, Mary, there’s nothing like it!” We relied on expert tea tasters both here and abroad, a Facebook group of tea drinkers, a global ingredients supplier, and friends and family during the range development.
What is your favourite type of tea?
I love Longjing tea, also known by its literal translated name Dragon Well tea, which is a pan-roasted green tea found near Hangzhou in eastern China. It however has a very grassy and bitter taste, which is definitely something that puts off potential green tea converts. For the “hot” Tg Green Teas, we went further East and to an organic and ethical tea plantation near the Dao Ren peak for a milder and slightly sweet tasting green tea which we know folks – both purists and new drinkers – will love. That two of the three launch blends won gold stars at the 2015 Great Taste Awards will no doubt help to convince folks that drinking green tea doesn’t have to be like taking medicine!
How has the food and beverage innovation landscape changed since you first moved to London in 2001?
I arrived to London shortly after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000 and, unsurprisingly, the appetite for risky food and drink projects was sparse. Food and beverage innovation was led mainly by R&D teams within large corporates and with a largely inward looking focus on cost savings and range extensions that could help protect share of shelf. Consumer and market confidence took a huge beating again following the banking crisis in 2007 with funding now even pulled from corporate innovation programmes.
Having said this, the 2007 banking crisis was in way a springboard for the positive disruption seen in the past few years in the food and drink industry. Austerity and growing inequality have encouraged more “collaborative consumption”, the emergence of “peer to peer” broadcasting supports the rising influence of food chefs and bloggers on tastes and preferences, and a breakdown of trust in “institutions” has helped to drive folks to seek out smaller companies who offer transparent, ethical, and authentic/natural foodstuff. Platforms like Crowdfooding, will certainly help to embed this new healthier and more sustainable food ecosystem.
What food and/or beverage projects/initiatives in London are you most excited about right now?
Getting better food and drink into consumers’ hands is a really big challenge as Coca-Cola, Tesco, Walmart/Asda and Amazon still control a lot of what we eat and drink every day. With continued stock rationalistion, it’s only going to get harder to win listings in traditional channels. Hello Fresh, Gousto, and the Artisan Food Club are all part of much needed solutions to the problem of getting the food and drink that folks want to enjoy today in their hands (and on a regular basis). It’s just fantastic how tech and smart young minds are coming together to help to close availability/access gaps.
“Healthy” food will start to become just that little more affordable and accessible to everyone. As an adopted Brit living in one of the world’s richest countries and a leading global cultural beacon, it is simply unacceptable that we continue to fuel a 19-year healthy life gap that folks living in poor homes face versus folks in rich homes! The gap is partly due to people not being able to afford better food and drink choices. It’s a real disgrace for a developed country like ours. Efforts like Jamie Oliver’s school dinner project do help to close the gap but there needs to be a lot more done to ensure healthy and affordable food and drink is available to everyone.
I think the move to a more plant based diet (food and drink) is significant with a huge positive impact likely. I am a “flexitarian” and maybe someday I’ll become a vegan or vegetarian – or maybe one day none of these narrow “titles” will matter as we become more in harmony with evolving, better-for-the-planet food ecosystems.
What would you like the last meal of your life to be?
I’d love to enjoy a meal again at a restaurant like Shanghai based “g+ The Urban Harvest”. Equal part open lab and restaurant, g+ The Urban Harvest serves hydroponically grown mushrooms and sprouts which are nurtured in the restaurant itself before being picked by hand and turned into an innovative dish using other choice ingredients.
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