Chicago tea company founder highlights stories of tea farmers

Volition Tea’s packaging includes farmers’ names, tea garden locations, time of harvest and instructions for steeping. (Elisa Xu/Medill)

By Elisa Xu
Medill Reports

Annie Xiang makes her online Chicago-based tea business about more than selling single-origin loose-leaf tea to customers. It’s about amplifying the stories of the Chinese farmers who cultivate tea and humanizing them in the process.

“It meshes my (passions for) community building and cultivating empathy really well,” Xiang said. “I get to tell the stories, and people get to understand what it means when they’re drinking a cup of tea.”

Annie Xiang quit her accounting job last year to start her own business, Volition Tea. It launched last October. (Photo Courtesy of Annie Xiang/Volition Tea)

Born an American, Xiang grew up in Xinjiang, China, before attending high school in upstate New York and college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. With both her parents as entrepreneurs, she said it was only natural for her to go to business school. Xiang spent most of her professional career as an accountant at one of the Big Four accounting firms, Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler.

Then her entire trajectory changed last March, when six Asian women were killed in Atlanta in a hate-related attack. She said she realized she wanted to do something to combat anti-Asian sentiments toward her community in Chicago, where she currently lives, and elsewhere. Xiang began working with leadership at KPMG to raise awareness over anti-Asian hate and violence. But still, she wanted to do more.

“That’s when I realized if I really wanted to take up space and speak of my concerns, it was important for me to find that platform to do so,” Xiang said.

But what platform? When Xiang started browsing for tea after she stopped drinking coffee, she noticed big tea companies’ marketing often included remnant messages about white people saving local farmers. The messaging would emphasize how the companies helped the farmers financially, and they rarely mentioned the identity of the farmers were or the origin of the tea.

After seeing this, Xiang decided on her business: Volition Tea, a tea company that shares the stories of its farmers.

“By telling those stories, by really helping people bridge that gap of, ‘Oh, they’re actually not so different than me,’ hopefully we’ll be able to cultivate enough empathy that we’ll bring the communities together,” Xiang said.

One farmer, Yang Xiu Hai, worked a 9-to-5 job in Beijing before realizing his true passions lay with cultivating tea. After giving up his stable corporate job in 2013, he moved to a rural area of Yunnan, China, to pursue his passion project: growing his own tea.

“That’s a story that I can associate with, even though we’re thousands of miles away,” Xiang said. “And that’s the story that you hear in this ‘Great Resignation’ era, too, right?”

Volition Tea officially launched last October and its mission is to bring a personal connection between Xiang’s tea drinkers and the tea farmers who cultivate the leaves that are packaged in each container. Her teas support these farmers so they make a livable wage.

The packaging of the loose-leaf tea presents the farmer’s name front and center, along with the exact village where they cultivate tea. Volition Tea’s website includes blurbs about the stories of each farmer under their teas. Click through this interactive map to learn more about the farmer’s stories and see where they grow the tea.

It’s clear to Xiang that the farmer’s stories have the power to evoke reactions from so many people. At her booth at Pilsen Vendor Market this winter, she shared these stories in person with patrons.

“They would be like, ‘Wow, I never thought of it that way. I just go to grocery stores and buy teas. But I never thought about how there’s somebody who spends all year growing and caring for the tea plants, harvests and processes them, and ships them all the way to the U.S. so that I can enjoy this cup of tea,’” Xiang said.

In addition to sharing farmers’ stories, Xiang also wants to change the commodification of tea. Right now, tea is traded at about 6 cents per ounce, and fair trade adds only a 15% premium. No matter where you live, it isn’t a livable wage, according to Xiang.

One way Volition Tea works to support the farmers is by signing contracts that promise farmers Volition Tea will be there in future seasons to purchase tea leaves. For pricing, the company asks the farmers to name prices they think make sense for the work they put in. Depending on which kind, Xiang’s teas sell for $24 to $48 for a 30-50 gram container, or around 1-1.75 ounces of tea.

Patrick Schultz, Xiang’s husband, has watched Xiang’s journey transitioning from accountant to full-time entrepreneur. He recalls the many sleepless nights Xiang faced before she told her firm about her plan to go “off the beaten path” to pursue her business.

“I’m really curious, but also mostly excited for the journey that Annie’s taking,” Schultz said, “to build the interconnectedness. And to have greater representation in the storytelling … to help build this shared sense of citizenship and civilization.”

As for the name Volition Tea, Xiang reflects that it came about after a lot of brainstorming.

“I see volition being on both ends: the farmers’ end and my end as a company. So volition, to me, means integrity, courage and perseverance,” Xiang said.

Volition Tea’s products are available for domestic and international shipping at


Elisa Xu is in the Magazine specialization at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @ElisaXu7