Warriors to Watch: Plant-based Twrl Milk Tea Co-founders Pauline Ang & Olivia Chen
Embark on an Inspiring Journey: Twrl Milk Tea Co-Founders' Transformation towards a Purposeful Career in Entrepreneurship
We cap off AAPI Heritage Month in this latest installment of our Warrior to Watch series. As a female-led and minority-owned brand, this is essential to our brand identity. Not only do we recognize the contributions of the AAPI to society, but also celebrate them as truly brilliant individuals #KillinItWithKindness.
Meet Olivia Chen (left) and Pauline Ang (right), the co-founders of Twrl Milk Tea. They have revolutionized the world of Boba Milk Tea, offering a delightful cafe-like experience in a convenient format with Twrl Milk Tea cans and Boba Topping packets. They are committed to supporting multi-generational small family tea farms using single-origin, organic, fair trade and non GMO whole loose leaf tea and a climate friendly pea milk. Twrl gets its pure, clean flavor from ethically sourced loose leaf teas rather than artificial flavors and heaps of sugar normally found in other Ready-To-Drinks. A core part of their mission is to support small family farms and their mission to promote fair-trade, sustainable farming and protecting biodiversity.
Join us as they share their inspiring journey of building Twrl, navigating a minority-owned brand, and their secrets to a successful partnership. Ahead, get to know these girlbosses as they take on the world, one milk tea can at a time.
AS MULTIFACETED WOMEN, AT WHAT POINT DID YOU DECIDE THAT ENTREPRENEURSHIP WAS SOMETHING YOU’D JUMP INTO?
Pauline: After spending 15+ years at a design agency, I decided to take a break and spend more time with my family. However, to be truly honest, those few years at home being a stay-at-home mom wasn’t what I expected. I thought I could easily juggle childcare and freelance design work. But working on other brands wasn’t really wasn’t where my passion was. I felt “stuck” and didn’t know what to do. I needed a real “pick-me-up” and decided to just “do something”, which for me meant helping out a good friend of mine who was starting her own business as a career coach. We did a trade — I designed her website, and she coached me on my career path. There was a lot of crying, self-realization, digging deep, and a bit of reminiscing about when I was a child and creating and selling products to my friends and relatives. Starting my own CPG business wasn’t even on the radar of the things I thought I could do, but through these sessions with my friend, I felt empowered. I took things one step at a time. That’s when I had the “ah ha” moment — I could combine my two loves of design and milk tea, along with my HK/Hawaii roots and childhood dream all together to create Twrl Milk Tea!
Olivia: My previous life was working in marketing at Estée Lauder Company for brands like Clinique, Origins, and Donna Karen Cosmetic. Then I began working for myself as a publicist helping authors especially Asian and Asian American authors launch their books. I found passion for helping lift Asian voices and helping my clients achieve their dreams–one of my authors even became a NY Times Bestseller and another became an Amazon Best Seller. I loved what I was doing. But during the Pandemic, I started to question my life and priorities. I’d always worked to help others–whether working in corporate jobs or helping authors achieve their dreams. I started wondering–what was my dream? What was I truly passionate about? I love making good food, I love promoting my culture, I love being a thought leader. So when Pauline asked me to partner with her on Twrl Milk Tea, I didn’t hesitate.
HOW DID YOU LADIES MEET? WHAT MADE OLIVIA/PAULINE THE RIGHT BUSINESS PARTNER?
Olivia: We met over 20 years ago. We were both working in marketing at a startup under the tutelage of Glenn Kelman, now the CEO of Redfin. We became instant friends. Over the years, we’ve discovered that we are both passionate about living a healthy lifestyle, sustainability, and boba milk tea.
Our history together and our shared passions made becoming business partners a no-brainer. We worked together for three years and built a strong trust over twenty years of friendship. Plus, we have complementary skills and personalities. Pauline is an introvert who comes from a design and product development background while Olivia is an ambivert who comes from an events/PR/sales & business development background.
WHAT IS OLIVIA/PAULINE’S BEST TRAIT, AND HOW DO/DID YOU LEARN FROM IT?
Olivia: Not only does Pauline have an incredible design and product development sense, but she is naturally curious. She’s always open to learning, and this means she stays ahead of the curve–so important in a business like Twrl that is leading the set. Her mindset has enabled us to start and build a brand new CPG business–there’s so much we didn’t know when we started, and Pauline’s curiosity and inquisitive nature has enabled us to figure it out, and also to adapt!
Pauline: Olivia is a huge champion for things she is passionate about and believes in. Because we’ve created a new category in the tea industry and a new generation of boba products, being an opinion leader and being able to advocate to retailers and to engage with potential customers has been invaluable. Creating a community, understanding as well as engaging with our customers has been a key part of building our success as a customer-forward product.
THEY SAY THAT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN DOING GROWING UP TRANSLATES TO YOUR CHOSEN CAREER PATH. ANY SPECIAL CHILDHOOD MEMORIES THAT MADE YOU REALIZE WHY YOU ARE WHERE YOU ARE (CAREER-WISE) TODAY?
Pauline: Three elements of my childhood have played into where I am today:
First, while I was born in Hong Kong, my family immigrated to Hawaii when I was 5 years old. But my dad stayed at his job in Hong Kong till I was in high school. My earliest memories of milk tea was during our many visits with him. At restaurants, my parents would order hot tea with milk and sugar (the British way), of which I was always allowed a few coveted sips!
Next, as an only child, I had to entertain myself in all sorts of creative ways. For me, this meant collecting business cards and magazine ads, and “designing” stationery and recipe cards (using my rubber stamp collection, of course!). I dreamt about running my own business — which then just meant selling random stuff I made to my family!
Finally, growing up in Hawaii, Asian-fusion cuisine and Asian-inspired drinks were the norm so nowadays, I’m nostalgic for food and drinks where Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and American food are all mixed together.
Olivia: While I was born in the Midwest and grew up in Bay Area, CA, my parents immigrated from Taiwan. I was a typical American Born Chinese (ABC) kid. I spoke English at school and Chin-glish at home. On Saturdays, I learned Mandarin at Chinese school but spoke English during recess. Even though I learned about Chinese traditions and stories, it all felt pretty distant from me.
This changed in middle school when my aunt, uncle, and cousin came to visit us. I was suddenly exposed to a new world of Taiwanese dramas, amazing nougat candies, pineapple cakes, etc. My aunt and cousin also told me about a new craze in Taiwan called bubble tea, and brought tapioca balls! We made our own bubble tea (so much cream was used!). I have fond memories of brewing different types of teas and experimenting with different toppings including taro and red bean.
Eating and drinking together transcended that cultural and language barrier I had felt. To this day, when I go back to Taiwan, family meals and celebrations are what gathers us together and where happy memories are formed. I am forever grateful that I come from a family of foodies and from a place where Boba tea was founded.
TWRL MILK TEA IS A 100% FEMALE AND MINORITY-OWNED BUSINESS. CAN YOU OFFER ANY ADVICE OR INSIGHTS TO OTHER WOMEN AND FELLOW ASIANS WHO ASPIRE TO START THEIR OWN BUSINESSES?
Both: Starting a business is not for the faint-hearted, and founders who are women and/or minorities face more challenges than the norm. We’ve found that our paths here have not been a straight line. However, each career and job we’ve had has given us skills and experiences we’ve been able to apply to building Twrl. We’re proud of our career paths and believe everything we’ve learned along the way has enabled us to be founders and build a product that has gotten great traction with retailers and won accolades and awards from influencers and the industry.
That being said, we would have never gotten here had we not leapt into the fire. It can be very easy to get stuck in the planning stage and never move forward. Once you’ve done your research, at some point, you have to just do it. Just test it out, learn, and adjust. In less than 2.5 years, we are in over 250 locations, launching a new flavor and new product extensions, and projected to triple in growth this year.
Finally, because it’s so much more challenging for women and minorities to start a new business, it’s important to find your community. At trade shows, there less than a dozen founders who looked like us. There are a handful of us. We are excited to lead a new generation of Boba Milk Tea drinkers with a craft non-dairy climate-friendly milk tea in a can + boba toppings in packets that aren't too sweet and made with single-origin fair trade tea that’s better-for-you and better-for-climate. That served as a commonality and we have been able to build our community, find support, and leverage each others’ knowledge and experience.
WE ARE SO IMPRESSED BY YOUR RAPID EXPANSION, INCLUDING HOW YOU WERE ABLE TO SELL YOUR PRODUCTS IN COSTCO! HOW DO YOU APPROACH PRIORITIZING YOUR BUSINESS GROWTH WITH LIMITED RESOURCES?
Both: There is an unlimited number of ways we could choose to grow and channels we could be in so we’ve really had to play the probability game. We consider things like: What is going to give us the biggest growth potential? How does an opportunity map to our product/market fit? Where are our customers? We’re trying to say no to more so we can really focus on the most important, high potential avenues of growth.
IN THE FACE OF PRESSURE AND UNCERTAINTIES, HOW DO YOU STAY CALM, RECHARGE, AND REGAIN YOUR ENERGY?
Both: We both make time to stay mentally and physically healthy. Pauline does Peloton every morning. Olivia does Zumba 2-3 times a week and takes a lot of walks. Olivia also loves to bake. The marketer in Olivia loves experimenting while in the kitchen. She bakes boba brownies, boba waffles and boba on pizzas! There’s a freedom and creativity in cooking and baking!
We also carve out family time because it’s such an important part of who we are. Plus, it recharges us and gives us perspective. One of the biggest reasons we are doing this is for the next generation.
WE WOULD LOVE TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR ASPIRATIONS AND LONG-TERM PLANS FOR TWRL MILK TEA. WHAT DREAMS AND VISIONS DO YOU HAVE FOR THE FUTURE OF YOUR BUSINESS?
Olivia: With American tastes opening up to Asian flavors, we hope to usher in a new generation of boba milk tea drinkers. Plus with our focus on health and sustainability, we hope to attract former boba milk tea drinkers who stopped regularly consuming boba tea from cafes because of too many calories and too much sugar.
Both of us dream of having Twrl Milk Tea be a heritage brand that exists in every fridge and pantry and will live for generations to come. Growing up, I didn’t see brands that had founders that looked like me or understood the cultural importance that food has for us. I’m excited about the future and we joke and wonder which of our kids will take over Twrl.