From her early years in California, Julie Hirsch has been passionate about progressive causes. Before cofounding Eloments at the age of 26, Julie began her career by opening and running a voter registration office during the 2012 US Presidential Election. She then became Deputy Director for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Australia’s largest youth-led NGO, and currently volunteers as their Board Secretary.
As busy professional women, Julie Hirsch and cofounder Nicole Lamond would often talk about how they forgot to take their vitamin supplements, but neither ever forgot their daily cup of tea. After five years of friendship, the two founded Eloments Natural Vitamin Teas, a range of five beautiful flavours of organic tea infused with 100% natural vitamins and minerals, a world first innovation available in Woolworths supermarkets.
Julie is also the 2020 Telstra Victorian Business Woman of the Year.
What ignited the spark in you to start your business?
I spent most of my twenties working in the non-profit sector, and while I loved my time there I felt that business provided an incredible and largely untapped opportunity to create change.
When my now-business partner and then-good friend, Nicole Lamond, asked me to join her on what became our wild ride creating the world’s first natural vitamin tea, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help make a healthy, ethical and innovative product a reality.
What is the vision for your business?
Our mission at Eloments Vitamin Teas is to speed the transition to a fair wage for all workers. In 2018, we estimated that only 3% of tea sales in Australia were Fairtrade certified.
My motivation always comes back to proving that business can be done more ethically and with more innovation. I think because of this core value we’ve been so fortunate since launching Eloments. Woolworths truly backed us as a Melbourne-based innovative company, and put Eloments on shelf in 75% of their stores within 6 months of our launch.
After just over a year, we’ve now launched in Holland & Barrett and Ocado in the UK, have an agreement with a USA chain, and alongside our other brand that we manage, Qi Teas, have fair trade teas in almost 4000 stores worldwide. We want to set a new bar for ethical innovation in the tea category and I can’t wait to bring our beautiful blends to more stores both within and outside of Australia.
Initially, what difficulties did you face?
We knew that over 40% of tea drinkers also bought supplements, but that they often forgot to take them or didn’t like swallowing tablets (I was definitely among these folks!). But in our fast-paced society it is so difficult to make sure that your three meals grabbed during the chaos of the day are balanced.
And yet no one forgets their daily cuppa.
So, we wanted to create a way to get a top up of vitamins and minerals in a Fairtrade cup of tea, and when we market tested we got an incredible result: over 85% of tea drinkers loved the idea.
Unfortunately, no one had ever created a natural vitamin tea before and there were immense manufacturing challenges to making it. We worked with Queensland Nutrition Specialists, an Australian Dietician and Nutritionist, and partnered with Fairtrade collectives around the world in what became a two-year research and development project.
Who or what was integral to you overcoming these hurdles?
During the two years of R&D that Eloments needed, the word “can’t” left our lexicon. So many people told us we were going to have to compromise on our vision, but we really did believe it was possible to make Eloments without the binders and fillers that you find in most supplements, and so we just kept searching for different solutions.
We were never shy about asking for help and we certainly had no illusions that we had all the answers. There were so many people who contributed their knowledge and enthusiasm during this phase, from our families to our incredible business mentors to our brilliant manufacturing partners.
In the end, our two-woman business created a patent-pending method that allowed us to blend 9 organic nutrients with fair trade teas in what became Eloments Natural Vitamin Teas.
Is there a piece of advice you wish to pass onto someone starting out their entrepreneurial journey?
The challenges you’ll face in your startup journey - and the many mistakes you’ll make along the way - don’t ever diminish how far you’ve come. In fact, these experiences become your most valuable tools.
What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
I think there’s only one skill a successful entrepreneur needs: problem solving. You’ll never have all the skills or experience to handle everything that a startup throws at you. But I’ve learned that problem solving - asking the right questions, researching, organising and seeking expertise if you don’t have it internally - is far more useful than trying to skill up in advance.
For example, this year I moved our supply chain from the UK to Sri Lanka. I had always disliked that we were essentially being extractive: we paid fair prices for our teas and spices but then we value-added (actually put them in the tea bags and boxes) in the UK. If we really wanted to help break the poverty cycle, we needed to be doing this work in country.
I don’t have a degree in manufacturing. Or business. And I’ve never moved a global supply chain before. But problem solving is happily one of my favourite activities. So, I first asked what questions I should be asking, then I asked those questions to people who have the skills and experience to answer them. I spent months researching and meeting potential partners and planning the move.
We are currently in the midst of our first production run with our new fantastic fair trade partners in Colombo, and I couldn’t be more excited.
After problem solving, entrepreneurship really becomes a mental challenge so I would add that grit and a high tolerance for discomfort are also incredibly important.
What is the best advice that you have been given?
I constantly come back to Vonnegut's quote: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”
Our start up journey has not always been graceful, and many times I have learned the detailed meaning of growing wings on the way down. But it has been an incredible adventure with the most wonderful people in the world, and for that I will always be grateful.
What is your favorite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Creating something from nothing is a truly exciting adventure and facilitates so much personal growth. It’s terrifying and exhausting and absolutely worth it.
There have been so many “stretchy” moments in this venture that I’ve often felt like I’m in a video game - leveling up after each challenge. One of the first and most fond of these was a solo investment pitch in Los Angeles with two days’ notice.
I was on my way to a trade show in London and had stopped in LA when I got an email from a values-aligned Venture Capital group. They said they were interested in investing in our company and wanted to meet while I was in town. We weren’t even officially fundraising for our next expansion yet, but these folks were top of our list to partner with already.
We scheduled a brief overview meeting for two days later, and I put on my Stila red lipstick and shook with nerves the whole drive there. It turned into a 3 hour pitch meeting that drilled into every aspect of our company, but luckily when you’ve created it you also know it pretty darn well.
I was 28 at the time, and after that I know there will never be a meeting I sweat more in. But it set us up to ask them six months later for our Series A Investment Round, which they filled in less than a week.
What are your growth areas for 2020?
My favourite tea that I’ve ever blended is about to launch in Woolworths next month, which is a huge win for the business, and very exciting for me personally as I’ve been so looking forward to sharing this tea!
Eloments Bourbon Vanilla Chai is essentially a hug in a cup. It has warming spices, Bourbon Vanilla (a type of creamy vanilla from Madagascar - no alcohol unfortunately ladies), and of course our 9 vitamins and minerals. I’m overseeing our production run for this at the moment, and I absolutely cannot wait to see it on shelf in Woolies in June.
Who is the wisest woman you know and what have you learnt from her?
Nicole, my business partner, is an inspiration for me. She was one of the founding Board members of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand, and has spent her career working towards a fairer world. Not only do her ethical credentials make her a badass, but she also used to be a professional skydiver, which is very cool.
What does being named the 2020 Telstra Victorian Business Woman of the Year mean to you?
Winning this award has been such a light in these dark times, and I am astonished to be included with this years’ incredible winners.
As a small business, we can’t compete with the giant players that dominate the tea category in terms of advertising spend. But Telstra has been fantastic at promoting this years’ winners at a scale that our business could never even dream of. I’m not sure if it’s coincidence, but the week after the awards were announced I went into my local Woolworths to find all but 1 box of our teas sold out!
After just over 12 months of sales, Eloments has secured shelf space in 2,000 stores across 7 countries and closed a $1million investment round.