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Tea-riffic

John Paul Lee ('01), co-founder and CEO of Tavalon, wants to change the way we look at tea
By Tyler McAvoy ('12)

When you think about tea, what comes to mind? Perhaps it's a gorgeous Chinese panorama, dotted with hills and fields tended by farmers. Maybe tea evokes a European garden party with ladies holding laced umbrellas, men in top hats and a Baroque melody playing softly the background. For some it's a soothing cup of Earl Gray mixed with honey, a remedy for a sore throat on a snowy day.

For many people, tea isn't an everyday beverage. It's either foreign or a remedy when we catch a cold.

John Paul Lee ('01) wants to change that.

"Tea is the most consumed beverage in every country except the United States," says Lee. "I want to change our perspective of what tea is."

As CEO and co-founder of Tavalon Tea Company, Lee is doing just that.

After graduating from JMU in 2001 with a degree in computer informational systems, Lee began work for Accenture, an international management and consulting company. Starting in New York City and later transferring to London, Lee began feeling restless, as if he had to do something more.

"I had to get out of the rat race," says Lee. "I had to have my own business."

Lee quit his job at Accenture in 2005 and moved back to New York after discovering an opportunity to start a tea company. He sold his house, his car and liquidated all of his stock options, and then Lee, with a business partner and a whole lot of luck, co-founded Tavalon Tea Company. They began selling tea in local restaurants in the New York City area.

The company's mission is more than to provide premium teas. According to the company's website: "Tea has played a minimal role for far too long in the United States, overshadowed by the seemingly ubiquitous coffee bean empire, and mired in its own 'traditional' image. The goal of Tavalon is to push tea back into the spotlight by presenting a fresh, new, accessible face for tea — Tavalon tea."

Apparently, it's working.

Tavalon Tea has quickly gained a reputation for its edgy and modern take on tea. The company has grown from a New York craze to a serious international business, opening accounts with 500 Bloomingdales stores worldwide and a second office in Korea. A third office in Virginia, Lee's home state, is likely on its way.

"I want to bring the perspective of tea in America from pinky in the air to new, young and fresh," Lee says.

Lee credits much of his success to JMU's College of Business, finding their emphasis on collaboration crucial to his current success.

"It helps build a network and cultivates you in an environment to excel in people skills," says Lee.

Robert D. Reid, dean of JMU's College of Business, was impressed with Lee as a student.

"He was always very focused and very driven," says Reid. "Odds are slim of starting a business when you're that young. But Lee's drive is certainly uncommon."

Reid believes that the College of Business' focus on what some people call "soft skills," which Reid defines as leading and communicating, is the most important facet of business. Lee's success comes from a thorough understanding of foundational business principles, Reid believes, but just as importantly from an ability to relate to others.

"You aren't going to get a job with technical competence alone," says Reid. "The ability to lead and motivate is just as important."

As Tavalon Tea grows, John Paul Lee proves that everyday.

Want to learn more about John Paul Lee and Tavalon Tea? Check out "A Tea Entrepreneur's Log by John-Paul Lee."