Shanae Jones of Flyest Tea Co. Talks Hip-Hop Inspired Beverage Brand
Ivy's Tea Co. was founded on November 22, 2016, when their founder, Shanae Jones, decided she would start a business because she liked the numbers 11/22. Fast-forward to 2020, and Jones had plans to quit her day job on June 25 because it's the anniversary of JAY-Z's Reasonable Doubt album, but she was fired 22 days prior to her target date. So, numbers and hip-hop helped shape the company now known as Flyest Tea Co. We had a refreshingly honest conversation with Jones about the genesis of her brand, her love for hip-hop, and the vision for her tea company going forward.
Why did you want to start a tea company?
My reasons were pretty selfish. I'd like to say I had some desire to do a whole lot more and bring Black people to make the industry more inclusive, which came later on, but initially, it was to make money. I was tired of being tokenized at my day job. I've worked at non-profit organizations, and I was always the only Black person there. I was more qualified than everybody I worked under, and it made me realize that this day job thing wasn't going to cut it.
Self-awareness at its finest! How do you take your experience as an employee and apply it to leading Flyest Tea Co.?
I intentionally look for the best of the best, and I don't negotiate rates because I'm hands-off and respect everyone's craft. I've gotten to the place when it comes to hiring staff or consultants, it has to be somebody great at it, and I give them the space to do what they're paid for. I don't like to micromanage, and I don't have this hierarchy because people aren't working for me. They're working with me as a team towards building this company.
Freedom to operate is essential to a healthy workplace.
Freedom is one of my favorite words! I know what it's like not to be allowed to show up fully as yourself, so I've made it a priority that people can work with me as their authentic selves.
What led to you naming your company Ivy's Tea Co. and then rebranding into Flyest Tea Co.?
The name Ivy is my great-grandmother's name, and she left Clarendon, Jamaica, for London at the age of 16. She went to the United Kingdom to make a better life for herself, so I figured what better way to honor a badass woman than to name this badass company after her. Later on, it became imperative to own my intellectual property, which is something that I tell creatives and business owners all the time. There were companies with similar names in the classes that I'd need to register my trademarks for Ivy's Tea Co., so instead of putting the enemy on notice, I decided to rebrand because it gives me a chance to build the company with my vision.
How is that vision different now than when you first started?
I launched Ivy's Tea Co. with $715. That's all the money I had to put into the business. Then, I re-launched as Flyest Tea Co. with approximately $130,000, so it's a lot more grandiose, a lot more that's custom, and I get to do things I would've done back then if I had the resources that I have now.
Progress instead of perfection is how we should run our races.
Someone I know once said, "If you can't be first, be the best!" I live by that, but as a Black woman entrepreneur, there are times I don't get to pick. I have to be the first and the best.
Is that pressure why you share as much as you do on social media?
I'm transparent on purpose to show everyone, ‘Hey, I am going to mess up! I am human!’ So, I'm very open with customers because I want honest feedback to ensure I'm getting the best out of myself and, in turn, creating the best brand and products for everyone.
What is #TrapTea?
#TrapTea isn't just a moment – it's a movement, chile! (Laughs) Being the first-born American, hip-hop taught me how to be American. I don't necessarily know much about the trap, but I have reverence for hip-hop. When I first listened to Nas, I felt like I understood something, and his music helped me find a connection with my classmates at an early age.
Did hip-hop lead you to other forms of music?
For sure! I would go back and listen to the songs sampled on rap songs. I learned about The Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire because of Puff Daddy using their samples. My uncle was really into music, and he would tell me what songs were sampled, which would make me go back to discover the classics.
Music is the love language of the world.
It is, and hip-hop is like a hug and security blanket. I value and appreciate hip-hop culture so much, and with #TrapTea, I get an opportunity to celebrate those voices. I feel like hip-hop is part of Black culture that some people are ashamed of, and I want to amplify the beauty of the culture to erase the stigmas attached to it.
Are you ever afraid that the negative stereotypes of hip-hop will rub off on Flyest?
No! I had someone call my tea ghetto, and that made my day! I want to be ghetto, ratchet, and authentic!
Who are your biggest inspirations?
There's a writer named Dwayne Alexander Smith, and he authored Forty Acres, which is one of my favorite novels. Nas is definitely one of my biggest influences. Toni Morrison and her influence, and William Faulkner. Independent filmmakers who scrape together pennies to make their dream come to life. Also, battle rappers like Hollow The Don because I find them to be superior creatives.
What have you learned about your business while building your company?
I connected with Buy from a Black Woman, a non-profit supporting Black women entrepreneurs through grants and education. They helped me become an herbalist, and I credit them with a good bit of my success. It's not good enough to have a good product or marketing. You need to know what you're talking about. I decided to take an herbal apprenticeship and several courses over the years, and I've learned that natural medicine is everywhere.
Would you consider your company a health and wellness company, or did you just see an opening in the beverage lane?
I saw an opening for inclusion. A lot of the tea companies I researched were lacking distinction, which is where the hip-hop element comes in because there's a song for every emotion instead of being told to go climbing or rub some crystals together.
Hip-hop is its own economy.
Exactly! If we can sell music, shoes, and cars, why can't we sell herbs and teas?
We spoke about your influences, and with your approach, it's easy to see why so many people look at you as their inspiration. How does that make you feel?
It's terrifying! I already have enough pressure on me!
Why do you consider it pressure?
Because I know who I'm watching, and if people are watching me intently, they're taking notes, which makes me feel like I'm not allowed to mess up, even though I know I can and will. It's nerve-wracking because I'm afraid to fail. There is no plan b.
If there was one verse, lyric, or bar to describe you and your company which would it be?
It would have to be the song I named the company after, "The Flyest" by Nas and AZ from Nas' album Stillmatic. It's a song that moves me and meets me at the moment that I needed it to meet me. It's kismet that this song is on the Stillmatic album, which served as a resurgence of Nas’ career and spoke to the rebrand of Ivy's Tea Co. to Flyest Tea Co.