Tea Founder Cultivates Cultural Awareness

Entrepreneur Leigh Rawdon finds success with her mission-oriented children’s wear company, Tea.


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Photo courtesy Leigh Rawdon

Entrepreneurship started at a young age for Leigh Rawdon, CEO and co-founder of Tea, the San Francisco children’s clothing company that now brings in over $40 million in annual revenue. For Rawdon, it began at a lemonade stand in her neighborhood near Memphis, Tennessee. This lifelong entrepreneur was asking questions every step of the way: “Should I add Capri Sun to the menu? Should I include door-to-door service? Should I charge 10 cents more to make more profit?” As a teenager, she started her first legitimate venture selling helium-filled balloons. When her parents told her she needed a business license to legally run her own business, she pedaled on her bike to the city offices to obtain one.

In 2002, the Harvard Business School grad started Tea with fashion designer Emily Meyer, formerly of Espirit and Ralph Lauren. The two women saw a need for modern, high-quality children’s wear that incorporated parents’ values. The mission-driven company’s belief in cultivating cultural awareness was present from the beginning. Tea designers have traveled to Nepal, Norway, West Africa, Argentina, and Korea among dozens of other countries to create clothing that inspires curiosity about the world.

Tea began with three pima cotton sweaters produced with small investments from friends and family. The company’s growth was gradual, “so that demand was quantified before investing in supply,” Rawdon explained. Tea’s first season contained a dozen items, including a brown sweater for babies, which was unheard of at the time. The brand’s fresh color palette and high-quality cotton prints appealed to boutiques and high-end department stores, like Barneys and Neiman Marcus.

In 2006, Tea’s marketing website was converted to ecommerce. By that time, the brand had a small but loyal customer base who trusted the brand enough to order online. Today, you can still find Tea at department stores (Nordstrom, Dillard’s) and over 300 boutique partners (such as Ruby’s Garden on Telegraph Avenue), but most of its revenue comes from ecommerce, reflecting the seismic changes in the retail landscape.

Rawdon continues to subscribe to a gradual growth business model anchored in an ethos of social responsibility. She cites Santa Cruz’s Patagonia as a role model for businesses that strive to make a difference. Seventeen years after its inception, the Tea brand continues to be relevant, “maybe even more today than before, since we are all about inspiring global connections. Our presence as an independent, woman-owned brand that gives back 10 percent of our profits also resonates with parents.” Rawdon is also proud of the brand’s strong resale market, which underscores the quality of the clothing and the company’s value of sustainability. 

The 10-year Oakland resident still finds running Tea fulfilling on all fronts, as she guides the company through international and ecommerce expansion while retaining focus on producing quality clothing. She aspires to help future entrepreneurs through mentorships in the Female Founder Office Hours initiative and more teaching opportunities whetted by a two-year stint as a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “I love taking meetings with aspiring entrepreneurs,” said the woman who started it all with a souped-up lemonade stand. Learn more at TeaCollection.com.

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