I began to actively engage with the Professional Engineers Ontario / Ontario Society of Professional Engineers' Engineering Innovation Ecosystem in November 2015 with the goal of becoming an engineer entrepreneur. At the time, I did not know what business I would create but being surrounded by entrepreneurial engineers inspired me to put my ‘thinking cap’ on and brainstorm business ideas. Throughout that winter, I regularly attended PEO/OSPE Engineering Innovation Ecosystem meetings and events. In addition, I learned about running a business through my Masters of Business Administration (M.B.A.) studies at uOttawa Telfer School of Management.
I had also been following the Syrian refugee issue closely by watching nightly news casts on TV and by reading articles in my local and national news apps on my iPad. After seeing and reading many stories about the enormous strain on limited resources which not-for-profit organizations were experiencing, I began to think that there may be something that I could do to help. With an engineering mind-set, I am always wondering how things work and trying to solve problems and so I started to do some detailed research on the resettling effort. In addition, in early February, I heard from my Entrepreneurship course professor about a start-up weekend at the uOttawa Telfer School of Management with the theme of refugee resettling. I shifted my focus from some of the other ideas I had to how a business could be created to help with the resettling effort.The intrinsic motivation to use my skills to do my part to help solve the refugee issues in Canada, the entrepreneurial environment of the OSPE/PEO Engineering Innovation Ecosystem and the Entrepreneurship skills that uOttawa had taught me, helped me give birth to the idea of SuraiTea Inc in my home office on Saturday, February 20th, 2016. The original business model canvas is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The original Business Model Canvas developed by Kevin Smiley for SuraiTea Inc on February 20th, 2016.When I woke up on Sunday, February 21st, I started to think about the process to develop the business and move it from an idea on the canvas to a fully functioning company. I read an article about the concept of ‘Design Thinking’ in the issue of Engineering Dimensions that I picked up from my parents’ house the night before (they still get some of my mail). The article was by Jordan Max in January/February 2016 issue of Engineering Dimensions. ‘Design Thinking’ was very close to what I found myself doing naturally without even knowing it. I took this concept and plotted the path forward for SuraiTea Inc. At the time, I was at the research phase of the business. Figure 2 shows the process which I developed for the development of SuraiTea Inc.
Figure 2: The process of development created by Kevin Smiley for SuraiTea Inc development process based on 'Design Thinking'.
The ideation phase was a type of creative chaos where everything and anything as a business idea to help refugees was written down. Then, the elimination phase began, which was a high level review of the complexity, market and capital requirements of each of the ideas to determine which was the business idea that was the ‘lowest hanging fruit’. Once I had decided that tea appeared to have the highest potential, I began to research it.
Over the next two months, I followed the process closely. In the pitch phase, I reached out to close friends and family and pitched the idea to receive initial thoughts about perceptions and feedback. Based on that, a second business model canvas was created and the focus turned to the minimum viable product which in this case was more of a minimum viable production. I built bridges into the Syrian community and the organizations active in the resettling. In addition, I traveled to the various suppliers in search of the highest quality loose leafs tea available and to create the supply chain for the business.
I incorporated the company on March 15th and we began to plan the initial production run. We hired a videography firm, a packaging designer and some photographers to help document the production and concisely explain our message to customers. World Skills Employment Centre, in Ottawa, played a very important role by assembling the workforce of 20 refugees for our first production.On April 4th, Refugee Rights Day in Canada, we shuttled 20 refugees and 1 translator to Urban Element, a certified and inspected kitchen in a Heritage Building in Ottawa, and we packaged our first 1000 units of tea that day. We created over $2500 in wages for the 20 refugees and translator and also provided lunch for everybody. We documented the day with photos and video and really had a great time. There was song and dance and everybody was happy. The most touching moment for me during the day was when a man from Syria told me that it was the best day of his life during his last 5 years. He was formerly a gold dealer in Syria and then spent time living in a refugee camp in Jordan after fleeing the war. He was overjoyed to be taking part in the initial production and this moment was definitely a very moving moment for me. Figure 3 shows a picture taken on April 4th during the initial production run at Urban Element in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Figure 3: A group photograph of the 20 Syrian refugees, 1 translator and Kevin Smiley on Refugee Rights Day in Canada when we held our first production run.
Figure 4: The vision, mission, objectives and moto of SuraiTea Inc.
The production day created over $2500 in wages, and 1 day of work experience for each of the 20 refugees in the Canadian economy. The sale of the first 1000 units will allow us to donate $5000 to a not-for-profit helping with the resettling. In our first two days, we sold over $2000 worth of tea on-line and at two events where we had booths in Ottawa and created a further $180 in wages for a recently arrived Syrian refugee.
The more our customers support us by signing onto our online store and purchasing our teas, the more positive social change we can create for refugees. We hope to be able to empower immigrants to use their skills learned in their home countries so that they can progress into the economy here in Canada.
At SuraiTea Inc, we believe that business can be used as a force for good. We believe that tea can become a medium for social change for refugees here in Canada and potentially, in the long term, around the world. There is much for us to do between now and then, but the flower in the logo has six petals to symbolize the six landmasses on the planet. The more our customers support us by signing on to our online store and purchasing our teas, the more positive social change we can create for refugees.
All the best,
Kevin Smiley, Founder