6 questions with...Tyler Gage

An entrepreneurship class at Brown University focused on using international markets to promote social change drew a handful of classmates together to begin brainstorming a project. A few years later, the outcome of that brainstorm, Runa, is the world’s only dedicated supplier of Ecuadorian guayusa tea, which is sold throughout the U.S. Guayusa, a naturally caffeinated tea leaf, is native to Ecuadorian indigenous communities and is known for providing energy without the jittery drawbacks of coffee.

Runa’s business model is such that it works closely with the hundreds of farmers who cultivate the guayusa so that they -- and their families -- can benefit from their native crop. Additionally, Runa has created the world’s first guayusa factory and is working to build a market for guayusa in the United States.

What makes Runa particularly unique is how the company focuses its efforts on protecting the Amazonian rainforest through the cultivation of guayusa, working closely with the farmers throughout the process. To learn more, we checked in with one of Runa’s co-founder’s, Tyler Gage, via our 6 questions with…series.

If I had been a fly on the wall of your office/studio, what would I have seen you doing yesterday?
On calls with FairTrade USA to coordinate the certification of our supply chain, translating a Good Standing Certificate for our Ecuadorian company from Spanish to English in order to obtain a U.S. bank account for the company, processing POs and shipments, drinking a new guayusa blend that our client, The Art of Tea, just launched using our ingredient, planning for upcoming events, and shooting blowdarts at jaguar stuffed animals with our interns.

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work with Runa relevant at this point in time?
Proving that ancient indigenous traditions have relevancy in the globalized world and potential to evolve and continue supporting native peoples in new ways is our shtick.  While the word Runa means “fully living human being” and is a symbol of power for the indigenous Kichwa people, in most parts of Ecuador it is used to mean “worthless” or “stray dog” (aka “not of pure Spanish heritage), representing the incredible racism and disrespect shown to indigenous families. We have to find a way for the wisdom of all people to contribute to our collective well- being as a global community.

What do you wish you had known when you began working on Runa?
How absolutely important it is to manage expectation. It’s my job. Especially working in Ecuador where the idea of communicating openly and transparently about issues and conflicts is as rare as a good Internet connection. We’ve had to learn that setting clear goals, reviewing those goals, reviewing the strategy to achieve those goals, and reviewing both the positive and negative consequences of achieving or not achieving those goals is instrumental in our success. Getting buy-in from all stakeholders, and communicating the rapid changes and evolutions of our organization with them, gives us an ability to grow quickly and cohesively.

What was the pathway that brought you to this work?
While studying linguistics in South America, I witnessed firsthand the tradeoff indigenous communities face. While they want to preserve their cultural and natural resources, they also have an immediate need to earn cash and feed their families in an increasingly globalized world. After long nights of storytelling and ceremonies, I would awaken the next morning to the crisp sound of a chainsaw cutting down hardwood trees nearby. The men would openly share that they didn’t like cutting down trees at all, but when the alternative is hungry and unhealthy children, the choice is easy.

Who or what has most influenced your life and work?
The legacy of my grandparents has been hugely influential in my life. As Quakers, the values of social responsibility, tolerance, and mindfulness were instilled in me from an early age. I’ve always admired my grandfather Clark Kerr’s work as a labor mediator, University president, and gardener. He always brought a balanced perspective and sharp wit to every situation.

What book is on your nightstand right now?
Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge.

Images: Tyler Gage

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