Small businesses are at the heart of what we do, and we’re proud to share our customers’ stories as they tackle everyday challenges and celebrate all the wins—both big and small—that come with running a business. This month, in honor of Black History Month, we share the story of husband-and-wife entrepreneurial duo Joseph and LaShanda Lewis, who have built a thriving loose-leaf tea business with family, community, and history at its core.
While The Irie Cup officially launched in October 2020, the idea for the loose leaf tea business had been brewing in the minds of Joseph and LaShanda Lewis for a few years before it came to fruition. Today, the Hampshire, Illinois-based husband-and-wife team—with the occasional help of their three kids—runs a thriving tea business based on natural ingredients, herbal remedies, community-centric values, and strong cultural ties to the family’s Jamaican roots.
In addition to selling their curated blends online through their e-commerce shop, Joseph and LaShanda also work with stockists and frequent local farmer’s markets to build meaningful relationships with their customers. And as their business grows, the Irie Cup founders have prioritized giving back to the community that has supported them throughout the journey, such as by partnering with local food pantries and working with schools to teach kids about the power of herbs or share their story as business founders.
Here, we chat with Joseph and LaShanda about their business journey and how The Irie Cup has allowed them to share a little piece of their heritage and family histories with people, one cup of tea at a time.
Bluevine: What first inspired you to start The Irie Cup?
Joseph Lewis: We first had the idea for the business a few years ago—in 2016—but when the pandemic hit, we were looking to create a source of sustainable income for ourselves. My wife had to leave her job to help our kids with online schooling, and then I was furloughed from my job, so it gave us a lot of time to think about things, and we kind of reverted to that idea of creating a loose leaf tea company.
Bluevine: Why tea?
LaShanda Lewis: The idea came from a passion for wellness and our desire to keep our family healthy with an herbal alternative that ties back to our culture. When we first thought of it in 2016, we started playing with blending teas, growing the leaves, and testing the products out—we were doing all of that just to kind of get the education behind it. Then when 2020 hit, it was just all hands on deck, and we just dove into the business.
Joseph Lewis: Yeah, and it really goes back to how we grew up. I remember having mint leaves growing on the side of the house that we’d go pick to make fresh mint tea, and every summer with my dad, we’d grow a garden. And both of our families have always had a knack for knowing what natural herbs and ingredients help certain ailments, particularly with tea. That was always the first recourse. We could call LaShanda’s parents right now and be like, “we’re dealing with such and such ailment,” and they’ll say “drink this” or “drink that.” So we started thinking about how we could share our culture and our family with our community through tea. It’s a tradition that we’re carrying forward.
BV: How did you come up with the name for the business?
LL: We wanted a name that would incorporate our culture, our family, and the Caribbean, and we were kind of brainstorming it one day when we were taking our kids to the pool and “The Irie Cup” came up. Right away, it just kind of felt right.
JL: So “irie” is like a greeting in Jamaican culture. So if you go to Jamaica and say to someone, “How are you doing?”, they might respond, “Everything’s irie.” It just means everything is good and pleasant, or everything is going well. So when you’re drinking tea from The Irie Cup, you’re drinking a pleasant cup of tea.
BV: How would you say that your respective professional experience has helped prepare you for launching and running The Irie Cup?
LL: Before the pandemic, I was a teacher’s aide in a special ed classroom, and even before that, I’d done a bunch of different things. I’ve been a seamstress, I’ve made jewelry, I did hair, I made music—I’ve done a lot and I think all of that kind of comes into play for The Irie Cup.
JL: I would definitely say that a lot of the things that LaShanda has been involved in from a creative standpoint have helped her so much with The Irie Cup. We haven’t had to hire or outsource any graphic design or get help for creating any of our tea blends or anything like that because she has this passion of just wanting to create things, and we’ve definitely leveraged that in the business. And then my experience—whether it was fulfillment and logistics with UPS, sales for Lowe’s, or inventory management and merchandising for Carmax—I’ve kind of taken all of those skills and applied them to managing the business.
BV: That’s awesome! So you both bring diverse skills to the table and create a well-rounded business team.
BV: Has entrepreneurship always been in your family?
LL: I would say so. I grew up seeing my dad do different things, whether it was music, or painting houses, or carpentry. And my mother made jewelry, and my grandmother made clothing. I think it’s something I grew up seeing but without really knowing what it was at the time.
JL: Same here. My dad was always doing something—you could never slow him down. He was a mechanic, and later on, he opened a furniture resale shop, and he spent some time selling insurance. He just always did different things to create opportunities for himself, and it’s true that you see that and don’t really know what you’re witnessing. We didn’t necessarily put a name to it at the time, but there was definitely this entrepreneurial spirit.
BV: How do you feel that your heritage and identity as Black business owners have created unique advantages or challenges throughout your journey?
LL: I think one of the advantages that we have is that we get to introduce different types of tea that other people haven’t had. I feel like their curiosity is piqued. We also get to be part of a unique community because, in the tea world, there aren’t a lot of African-American businesses like us. We are all sticking together and sharing some of that knowledge. It really feels like a community within a community.
JL: Our heritage has a lot to do with our journey. It’s the foundation of what we built our business on, and I think LaShanda hit it right on the head. We’re different, and our uniqueness is our advantage. But at the same time, that can also be our disadvantage in some ways. People who aren’t as familiar with the teas we make might not always be willing to try them.
Another challenge is that sometimes we don’t have as much access to influential people or programs that might help us progress as quickly as another company, which can be difficult.
In the end, though, I’d say our advantages definitely outweigh our disadvantages. People will always connect with something that is honest and true to itself. We’re not trying to be somebody we’re not, and what makes us unique and gives us an edge is our story.
BV: What are you most proud of when you look at the business you’ve built together?
LL: I would say just how far we’ve come. Everything that we’ve done to be able to do this full time and be in control of all aspects of how we operate our business—I’m really proud of that.
JL: I’m proud of the fact that everything we’ve experienced, from childhood and watching our parents to the different jobs that we’ve had—whether in retail, logistics, or teaching—and how that culmination of things has given us everything to build this business. It just started with a thought, and I had doubts at times about whether The Irie Cup could support itself and our family, but seeing it all come together and continuing to believe in ourselves and hold each other accountable is great.
BV: What’s a piece of business advice you would give to other business owners just starting?
LL: Believe in yourself. Try every idea and look at every failure as an opportunity to learn and to grow.
JL: Definitely. Failure is never the end of the story. And, also, just be true to who you are. There are a lot of people who will see someone successful and try to do things just like them, but you lose your uniqueness that way. I think it’s okay to learn from others, but keep your individuality because it helps you be your most authentic self, and people will always connect with that more than a copycat.