“The active participation of journalists and citizens now is the greatest I’ve seen for a long time. The reaction to the Trump administration’s recent family separation policy was so strong and received so much media attention that it invigorated citizens to mobilize and demonstrate. I saw both left and right-leaning media take a stance against this policy. As a result, the administration back-peddled and reversed the policy. I am a bit skeptical on the follow through, but at least we have the voice to make noise and mobilize. That gives me optimism about the US and our future.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Reem Rahim Hassani. Reem is the Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Numi Organic Tea, one of the fastest growing tea companies in the industry. Reem is a mission-driven entrepreneur who strives to foster a healthy, thriving global community while bringing the purest, best-tasting organic tea to the world. Through her work with Numi and Numi Foundation, Reem has been a force of innovation, championing responsible packaging, environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and fair labor practices.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio with my three siblings. My parents immigrated to the US from Baghdad, Iraq in 1971. I was five and my brother Ahmed (Numi co-founder and CEO) was three years-old. My father had been a practicing cardiologist in Iraq, but had to start his career over again. He took the ECFMG board exam, re-did his residency in Nephrology, worked as a teaching physician at the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, and ultimately opened a private practice. My mother had an equally interesting and inspiring career path: After studying Interior Design at the university, she started her own business out of our basement. From there, she opened a furniture & décor shop/design studio nearby and became a contractor, designing and building multi-million dollar homes from the ground up.
Both my parents are examples of how hard work pays off. We went from living in a two-bedroom townhouse to a custom home my mother designed and built. Their first priority was for us to get a good education and they worked hard to be able to afford to send us to private schools. From 6th — 12th grade I went to an all-girls school. I thrived academically, excelling in math, Spanish, French, and art. I was also a tomboy, always outside riding my bike and playing team sports, including basketball and football with my brothers. But my school was very clique-y and lacked diversity, so I always felt like I didn’t quite belong; my skin was darker, religion was different and name was strange. I used to say my religion and name under my breath and was very shy. While I didn’t feel a lot of prejudice growing up, it was sprinkled here and there; enough to make me feel like an outsider.
My parents were very proud of their culture and wanted to retain as much of it as possible. It felt like we lived in two different worlds — at home we spoke Arabic, ate my mom’s Iraqi food and were raised very conservatively. We also visited Iraq frequently and every three to four years my cousins, uncles, and aunts came to visit us. Outside, however, there were a whole different set of cultural norms.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
As my father recounts… he was always interested in being a professor at the medical university in Baghdad. When he went to apply for a position, he was either pressured to join the Baath party (socialist party that led to Saddam Hussein) or lost the position to someone less qualified who was a party member. He was often visited in the middle of the night to take care of someone in the government’s family member. He was fed up with the injustice and wanted to expand his horizons, both professionally and personally.
My father had a friend who was practicing at Cook County hospital in Chicago, so in 1970 he decided to take a year off to work there. The Vietnam War was happening then and the US needed doctors, so it was relatively easy for him to get his Green Card. A year later, he told my mother to uproot her comfortable life in Baghdad to “try it out” for a while. 47 years later, my family is still in the U.S. For a long time, my mother kept thinking the trial period was over and wanted to go back. She missed her family and had a real longing to go home. I think I took on that longing and, for a long time, also felt like life in the U.S. was only temporary.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I don’t have any memories before the age of five so it may have been a difficult transition for me. The only memories I have from those early years in America are how huge the grocery stores were and all the choices we had. It felt overwhelming. I remember sitting in front of the TV and watching cartoons in English (apparently, this is how we learned English). I also remember the snow — something I had never experienced before. I remember how cold it was trudging to the bus stop in knee-high snow when I was six.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I had two teachers that gave me the support and comfort I needed during that time. My first grade teacher took a liking to me and my family. (Apparently, I hid in her closet sometimes because I was scared or shy.) She was very caring and helped me break out of my shell. My mother invited her over for dinner and cooked her a grand Iraqi feast.
So how are things going today?
I have now acclimated to being an American. I still struggle with my identity:some with my skin color and overall where I fit in, but I used the adversity and unique perspective to my advantage by creating Numi. As immigrants, my parents wanted us to pursue the stable career so I started out studying Biomedical Engineering until a life-changing event (I nearly lost my legs car accident) and my natural inclination led me to switch vocations and study art.
Because we didn’t have a straight path and/or because we saw our parents forge their own paths, my brother and I (as primarily artists with no business experience), felt no apprehension with starting a business and doing it our own way. And since I never fit into the norm, I was always able to see between the cracks of what wasn’t there. I feel that experience turned me into a strongly intuitive marketer.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I certainly try. First and foremost, we have brought unique teas to the U.S., exposing American consumer to different cultures they may not encounter otherwise. In fact, our inaugural / flagship flavor, Dry Desert Lime, is straight from the hospitality culture in Iraq.
We constantly strive to minimize our impact on the planet while providing the cleanest, purest tea we can, so we purchase only organic ingredients and are very diligent about using eco-friendly materials in packaging. We’re currently in the process of transitioning to a commercially compostable, non-GMO material for our tea bag wrappers — a big piece of the puzzle toward packaging that’s 100% recyclable and compostable.
Our longstanding commitment to purchasing Fair Trade ingredients was influenced by our mother’s generosity — she helped hundreds of refugees, friends, and family that fled Iraq after the wars — and by our travels to areas of the world where life is a struggle. In addition to paying fair prices for the ingredients, we also contribute an annual Fair Trade premium for the farmers to spend as they see fit for improving their social, economic, and environmental conditions.
Our Together for H2OPE initiative aims to provide clean, safe drinking water to our farming communities around the world. In 2016 we built 24 wells that provide clean water to 4,000 farmers and their families in Madagascar, where we source our organic turmeric. Prior, they were hauling and drinking their water from a contaminated river. This year, we embarked on an education and infrastructure program in Assam, India to bring clean water and sanitation to our 6,500 farming families there. Finally, through our Numi Foundation, we are providing curriculum and educational opportunities to underprivileged communities to both Oakland and Baghdad.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
- Perception. Leaving your family and the culture you know, only to have to adjust and acclimate to a new culture, is extremely difficult and courageous. Frequently, people leave their countries because of political persecution, threats of violence, or dire economic need. The current debate about immigration issues on our southern border points to a lack of compassion for and understanding of this. Obviously, separating children from their parents is abominable. Overall, the immigration process would be much improved by not treating everyone like a potential criminal, but rather viewing people rationally and humanely and trying each case justly.
- Accessibility. I would allow people to come to America more easily on renewable working visas. Educated or not, all skill levels, working in Silicon Valley or the agricultural communities across the country, if someone wants to come here to work, there are plenty of jobs to go around and plenty mutual benefit to retain those who are contributing to the U.S. economy and citizenry.
- Education. I would provide more information and access to resources for people to understand the system and be able to integrate more seamlessly. This provides opportunity for advancement. Part of the beauty of the U.S. — and what makes this country so unique — is all the mixed cultures living together.
- Lastly, the US and the United Nations should look at the systemic problems happening in other countries like Syria or Central America that are causing people to migrate. War, druglords, poverty and the climate are forcing people to leave their homes and move north and west. What can the world at large do to address these issues?
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t take anything for granted. The “American Dream” is often amiss among multi-generational Americans because they lose sight of — or take for granted — the abundant opportunities they have here.
- Work hard. This seems like an obvious answer, but dreams don’t become reality without a lot of hard work. For the first 10 years of my business, I worked possibly 14 hours a day 7 days a week. It was intense and felt all-consuming at the time. But those years were full of passion and determination — that hard work was worth it.
- Educate yourself by any means necessary. It’s possible to work hard at various jobs and still not get to the next point. That’s why I feel education, or the drive to learn, needs to accompany hard work. I spent my twenties in school trying to figure out what I wanted to do. That was very helpful both directly and indirectly — a desire to gain knowledge, understand, and deal with people is helpful in any endeavor. For immigrants, learning English also goes hand-in-hand with the drive to learn and grow, and is key for interacting with people in all levels of society.
- Travel. I believe travelling expands one’s horizons, allows us to see how others live and connects us to the rest of the world. The “American Dream” is about finding the thing you love and excelling at it. Travelling gives you both a broader and deeper understanding of yourself.
- Know yourself to know how you can uniquely impact the world. America is unique: not only does it offer you the opportunity to become educated, but you can specialize in what you want to study. Not many countries offer the opportunity for such an expansion of knowledge, nor a feeling that it is ok to endlessly discover. In my experience with Iraqi culture, there is a sense of shame or embarrassment that you are outside the norm. In the U.S., not conforming or being eccentric is okay, even celebrated. When you have that option of self-discovery and self-actualization in areas of interest, combined with a connectedness to the world and a sense of humanity, you will naturally find a way to give back and be of service to the world that is unique to you, your interests, and your experiences.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
There are many things that make me optimistic.
- Americans in general are a very friendly and tolerant people. Unlike many countries and, contrary to current hype, Americans are welcoming, open, helpful and curious of others.
- The US continues to be a country with checks and balances; laws and structures, timelines and processes that are adhered to. There are injustices that occur, but I don’t think those are the norm.
- Lastly, the active participation of journalists and citizens now is the greatest I’ve seen for a long time. The reaction to the Trump administration’s recent family separation policy was so strong and received so much media attention that it invigorated citizens to mobilize and demonstrate. I saw both left and right-leaning media take a stance against this policy. As a result, the administration back-peddled and reversed the policy. I am a bit skeptical on the follow through, but at least we have the voice to make noise and mobilize. That gives me optimism about the US and our future.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Fareed Zakaria. I watch GPS and follow his thoughts on global politics, especially Middle Eastern affairs. He always seems to be balanced and informed; fact based rather than editorially biased.