07 Oct 2011
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Tea’s Time

Leigh Rawdon (MBA 2001) on her start-up clothing line, Tea: “There is nothing like getting that first order and realizing this is not just an idea anymore.”

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Leigh Rawdon (MBA 2001)

Leigh Rawdon (foreground) with Tea Collection designers in San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca. The fanciful wood alebrije carvings inspired several pieces in the company’s fall collection. (Courtesy Leigh Rawdon)

It didn’t take long for Leigh Rawdon (MBA 2001) to realize that she’d made a mistake. Having landed a job at Siebel Systems out of HBS, Rawdon was well on her way to building a portfolio of professional experiences that would, she felt, improve her chances of successfully launching a business. Within a few weeks, however, she knew she couldn’t delay the obvious. “I’m an entrepreneur. I can’t wait 10 years to do it,” Rawdon thought.

Still at Siebel, and casting about for business ideas, she met Emily Meyer, a designer for Esprit and Gymboree who wanted to create a line of globally inspired children’s clothes. “Business was not her forte, and fashion was not mine, to be totally frank,” Rawdon relates by phone. “But we were united by our vision of what the company could be.” The two spent the following months pulling together a business plan and fund-raising pitch.

“My one-year anniversary at Siebel was the same day we got a commitment from an angel investor that let me quit my job and give it a shot,” she says.

Tea, the resulting company, made its first shipment in September 2002, just eight weeks after Rawdon left her job. “We shipped to 60 different boutiques and did about $60,000 in sales,” she says. “There is nothing like getting that first order and realizing this is not just an idea anymore.” Based in San Francisco, Tea’s sales are projected to hit $25 million in 2011.

Sold in some department stores (Nordstrom’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s) and children’s clothing boutiques, Tea has seen steadily increasing direct sales through its catalog and website with a product lauded for its high quality, distinctive style, and approachable prices. While most of its clothing is designed for children’s sizes from infant through age 12, the company introduced a small line of women’s clothing last fall.

The company’s designers draw inspiration for each new collection from destinations around the world. Catalonia was a recent focus; in the fall of 2011, look for “Modern Mexico,” with designs inspired by everything from marimba carvings to the artwork of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to coffee bags from Chiapas. Each of Tea’s employees (which currently number about 50) receives an international travel allowance to encourage personal exploration beyond the dedicated trips taken to Tea destinations.

“I know that when I travel, and especially when I take my family traveling, it’s a transformative experience,” says Rawdon, who has two young sons. “I want to be sure that everybody who works here has that opportunity. There’s a spirit of openness, warmth, and appreciation for differences that comes from visiting another country. It becomes part of your value system.”

Rawdon remembers taking “every entrepreneurship class that I could” and is excited by the launch of FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) at HBS this fall. “You learn so much in the field,” she says. “Classroom discussion is invaluable, but it’s really different when someone suddenly gives you a term sheet and you’re negotiating what the warrant coverage should be on your convertible note.”

Having recently celebrated her 10th Reunion back at Soldiers Field, Rawdon describes the experience as “fun on so many levels. Intellectually, socially…and from a Tea point of view, there’s nothing like coming back to campus and seeing children running around in our clothes. I didn’t have to explain that I’m not sewing things out of my garage. Because all of the moms were crazy for it.”

To shop Tea Collection, go to www.teacollection.com and enter the discount code HBS15 to receive a 15 percent discount on your order.

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Class of MBA 2001, Section C
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