With every new year comes new beginnings. For myself and The Black Nouveau, I wanted to kick off my interviews section with a dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit that embodies the new energy that I wish to bring forth this year.
Enter Mr Lawrence Charles, CEO and Founder of the luxury tea company Charles & Company. He is a man of great character and perseverance, and he made his dream come true with true grit and determination. He talks to us today about his struggles growing up in the inner city with a single parent, modeling for one of the biggest names in Fashion, and ultimately creating the brand that bears his name.
T.B.N- Welcome Mr. Charles and thank you for taking the time to speak with me about Charles & Company. Let’s begin with a little background, where are you from?
L.C- I’m from Canton, Ohio. I grew up in the inner-city and was raised by a single mother. My grandmother and grandfather played an important role, but I did a lot of “self-parenting.” It was normal to do things like walk to school by myself in kindergarten, or have to make parent level decisions regarding my education, dealing with counselors, etc. I essentially escaped high school by the skin of my teeth. I wanted to attend college and double major in Industrial Design and International Economics or Finance.
Schools like Wharton made me salivate, but I finished high school with a 1.2 GPA. I found myself navigating a home life of both parents on drugs while fighting with my teachers and an education system that sorted me below my aptitude. I simply gave up fighting and just survived. Upon finishing high school I was able to get into college on my talent alone. I was off to Pittsburgh. I went to design school and studied Industrial Design with an emphasis on consumer product design and interactive software development. To get through school in Pittsburgh I lived in a homeless shelter. There, I learned how to play chess at the level of chess master. You’d be surprised who you may find in a homeless shelter, but being a kid there I was taken under the wing of some caring, brilliant people. There, I learned how fragile life is. I also learned to be present. I learned how to love, care for, and care about people from all walks and circumstances. To this day, although I’ve worked with Royalty, and extremely powerful people and celebrities, I believe that everyone is a dignitary. Everyone.
I finished school at the top of my class and was recruited by one of my professors to be a Head Designer on a start-up children’s television series. It went on to win 3 Telly Awards, beating juggernauts like Fox Kids and Disney. About this time was when Tommy Hilfiger came calling.
T.B.N- After reading your bio I can, on many levels, relate to your upbringing by a single parent in an urban and sometimes discouraging environment. Did that ever deter you from pursuing your dreams?
L.C- Yes I had challenges, but I think the question may have been more about did I feel challenged in my ability to achieve my dreams and goals. Every one of us has talents and fresh passion that helps us in pursuing our goals. But in coming from an urban environment, there’s generally no one there to help you understand the talent you possess. Nor are you just a parent, uncle, or sibling removed from seeing for example an attorney, a professor, an investment banker. I had to set out on a path of defining and understanding what these incredible gifts and talents God gave me were, and then how to use them and hone them. So, pursuing your dreams from there is somewhat of a long chartered flight.
T.B.N- Did you always have the entrepreneurial spirit, and when did it begin flourish?
L.C- Yes. In kindergarten through grade school I would auction off my “hand-me-down” toys to neighboring adults for their kids. In the 2nd or 3rd grade I was always building, constructing things out of paper or whatever spare parts I could find. I rarely built things for the norm, but rather the aberration. I was pioneering then. By 7 years old I stumbled across a flower factory in town that was constantly throwing out what I thought were perfect flowers. I came up with the idea to sell flowers in front of a busy bank on Fridays. Even at 7 I knew that was when everyone got paid. I had category pricing, meaning I would set prices by what I thought commanded more or less. I would also bundle deals, like purchase 2 for “X” price. By high school I started a neighborhood barbershop.
T.B.N- Your work as a model and spokesperson for Tommy Hilfiger must have been an exciting and memorable time in your life. Tell us the story of how that came to be?
L.C- While I was going to design school, I took advantage of the filming that was done in Pittsburgh and the different casting offices as well as modeling and I just turned my photo into as many places as I could. I was a “starving artist.” One day I received a call from Tommy Hilfiger NY that was left on my voice-mail at home. I almost lost my mind. That was a surreal moment. I did a show for Tommy and with Rebecca Romijn. That sent me to New York City and was the launch of my modeling career.
T.B.N- When did your love of Tea begin?
L.C- I began drinking tea while in New York City. New York is a non-stop, 24/7 city, but when I discovered tea I found that it had an almost magical ability to quiet and slow down the chaos of the city. I fell in love with the history of tea and how it was King Charles II that integrated tea in to the higher, social fabric of British society. How it was through the influence of his wife, and her use of it to socialize with family and friends.
T.B.N- What were some of the challenges you faced when launching the company?
L.C- Without question, capital. And I also had no idea what I was doing from the perspective of building a real, organized start-up company. I owned a bicycle, I had a backpack and all I knew was to take my tea to places I thought I could find people to buy my tea. I was literally selling tea on the streets.
T.B.N- What is your favorite tea to drink and why?
L.C- My favorite to drink is breakfast tea because I like that its complex, but I’m fond of its simplicity.
T.B.N- For those who are not aware, what are some of the many health benefits of drinking tea?
L.C- Tea is an amazing elixir that scientists are discovering new things about continuously. If you just take a look at white, green, oolong, and black tea, you will find things like Thiamine, which affect the brain and heightens mental alertness and concentration. Tea contains good antioxidants that thwart free radicals and slows aging. Outside of its ability to help you fight common colds, tea helps prevent cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
One of the most overlooked health benefits of tea is what it does for mental health. Just by sharing a cup with a friend or a neighbor or in your own solitude allows you to take a moment, slow down, stop thinking about the bills, the kids, etc. But it allows you to be present and pulls you out of the challenges of life. This is critical to your mental well-being.
T.B.N- What are some of Charles & Company’s bestselling teas?
L.C- It varies at times, but I would say our Indian Chai, White Blueberry Pomegranate, or Coconut Chamomile. Chai is in many ways the basis of Ayurveda. Our Indian Chai is very traditional, I use clusters of spices like cardamom, pieces of cinnamon, and ginger beautifully arranged in a deep, smoky Indian black tea. With our White Blueberry Pomegranate, to raise the antioxidant and vitamin C levels, I use freeze-dried blueberries and pomegranate that’s laid in a beautiful, open leafed white tea which gives it a deeper, richer brew. Our Coconut Chamomile begins with fresh, beautifully picked chamomile flowers, tossed in with delicious coconut meat and honey bush. I’ve been told by customers it’s so good, and that if you drink too much you’ll hallucinate. Those customers, I believe, may have been enjoying something else along with our tea.
T.B.N- What are some of your future plans for Charles & Company?
L.C- First of all, I listen to the pull of our customers. This is a great barometer as to where we will and can be. In addition, we have built up a ton of cachet that we will begin to slowly cash in on. Our customers have done us an incredible service by giving us the title “luxury.” For this I am deeply grateful. In being a luxury brand, we cater to lifestyle. We are currently in talks with a couple major department stores. We are already looking at expansion in Europe. Our customers have been asking for china, so we will be launching our line of tea ware and china soon. Our customers consider us the “Ralph Lauren of tea,” so I believe this gives us the ability to become a multibillion dollar brand. I’m excited about what’s ahead.
T.B.N- What advice would you give struggling entrepreneurs?
· Be persistent.
· Be persistent.
· Be kindly persistent.
· By all means do what you say.
· By all means, follow through. It’s tough to have so much on your plate at once, so delays are understood, but by all means follow through.
· Following through builds trust.
· Get a financial adviser if you already don’t have one.
· Get a mentor too.
· Listen to your adviser (And learn through your own experience what advice is working. Don’t just think you’re right. Let go a little)
· Listen to your customer. Pursue what you deeply believe is the correct path, but they will ultimately show you the way.
· Learn how to grow with no capital. When you get capital, continue to be resourceful.
· Revenue is deceiving.
· By all means, find your “product-market-fit.”
· Once you have your product market fit, build your network of “strategic” advisers.
· Continually look at growth and how your company fits into this thought of growth.
· If you’re a millennial or generation X African-American, do not carry the weight of your parents, and do not be coerced to do so. Yes, racism still exists in parts. So what, it’s not the majority. As Maya Angelou said, ‘Pick up your crown and wear it!’
T.B.N- What do you love most about your job?
L.C- Building a brand is a magical experience. I love everything, especially the people and the relationships. We get to work with amazing people both famous and not famous. From HRH The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson; Greta Garbo’s Estate; Diane Von Furstenberg’s Estate; to Jane Tranter, BBC Worldwide/The CW Network’s TV show “Breaking Pointe.”
T.B.N- Lastly, please give us some final words about Charles & Company and what you hope people will discover about your products.
Charles & Company Tea founded by Lawrence Charles brings to life the experience of traditional British Tea. The company was started to share the comfort, health, serenity, and togetherness that people experience while drinking tea. With a background as an award-winning Industrial Designer, CEO Lawrence Charles’ passion for creativity and elegance is present from the first step of selecting the leaves, to the last step of sharing Charles & Company Tea with the world. Charles & Company has signature blends you can learn about and purchase at www.cnctea.com
Thank you so much Lawrence for taking the time to inspire us all with your story and speaking for me, it was my pleasure. I look forward to hearing more about Charles & Company and I wish you much success on your future endeavors.
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