Uppma Virdi was backpacking with a mix of spices in her backpack. Brewing chai was her way of making friends, but she later turned it into her business.
Can you tell us about your time at Deakin? Is there anything special you remember?
I studied a Bachelor of Commerce/Bachelor of Laws Deakin Burwood and graduated in 2013. I had an amazing time, made long lasting friendships and had the opportunity to participate in study abroad programs. I did the India Study Tour and received a scholarship to study law Graz (Austria), where I actually met my fiancé who I will be getting married to in December!
I strongly recommend all students at Deakin to apply for the Deakin exchange programs! It’s a rare opportunity that was life changing for me. Through this program, along with my academic results, I also received the Deakin Global Citizenship Award.
How long was the Study Abroad Program?
The India Study Tour was for about two months. Even though I was born in India and visit regularly, this study tour allowed me to experience Mumbai and Delhi as a student and tourist. It was a completely different experience which showed me a beautiful part of India through a different perspective.
I then received a scholarship to study in Austria for seven months, which was life changing. Austria is mainly a German speaking country so I had to take up German classes while I was there. So many times I would go to the supermarket and have no idea what I was buying! Living by myself, away from my comfort zone in Melbourne, taught me more about myself… what my values are, what I stand for, what I wanted out of life and people.
It’s when you’re away from home that that you realise what you really love about home. For me, it was chai. Chai is was a way of bringing people together and sharing stories. I would make chai everywhere I went, for pre-drinks with my friends before heading out and post drinks when we got back, for housemates and for strangers in hostels and backpacker places who couldn’t speak English. Chai became my language, my way of making friends, my ice breaker, my way of uniting people.
What has been your journey since finishing your course?
Well, during my Commerce/Laws degree, I was working at a mid-tier commercial law firm for about four to five years. It was great way for me to gain experience in a law firm before graduating and also get an insight to what it would be to work as a lawyer. I’m grateful that I did studies at Deakin, I found the course extremely practical and gave me real life skills that I could use at my workplace.
After I graduated I worked as a lawyer and wanted to experience different areas of law in different environments. I took time to understand what kind of environment I wanted to work in and the values my workplace to have. I found a firm that was disruptive, cloud based, technology driven, mostly female and paperless. The way they practised law was unique and they great values that aligned with me.
My role was legal counsel specialising in employment, commercial and intellectual property law. I loved my clients, my work and my environment, but I couldn’t shake the Chai Walli out of me.
The start of my law journey was also the start of Chai Walli, which I did as a hobby on the side. But the world had other plans for me. Chai Walli grew and grew, so much so that I was working as a lawyer and also managing a team and a business at Chai Walli. It got to a stage where I was working before work, working after work and just working all the time. So, just recently, I made the decision to focus on my business. I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would become an entrepreneur of a chai business – it’s funny how life has its own path for us. All I wanted to do was share my passion for chai and my grandfather’s legacy, I wanted to see what I was capable of.
Have you always wanted to pursue the kind of career you have embarked on?
My career is a bit unconventional and a surprise to myself as well. I had always planned to be a lawyer which is what I pursued. But when I began Chai Walli as a hobby, it quickly became a side hustle and from a side hustle it brewed into an enormous cup of tea that I could not never finish drinking. It goes to show that life isn’t always what you have planned, there are signs that we need to listen to and different paths that we may need to take that aren’t on our agenda.
Chai Walli started with me recreating my grandfather’s chai blends to sell to friends and family in between being a lawyer (because law isn’t demanding enough already). My grandfather was a doctor specialising in homeopathy and Ayurvedic teas. I then began wholesaling my teas, selling online and doing chai workshops. One thing led to another, and a few years later I had a team of chai crusaders, a warehouse, new tea blends, wholesaling Australia wide and winning some amazing awards! Chai Walli is now a globally known brand which is becoming a staple pantry item in many homes across the globe.
When I started Chai Walli, I just wanted to see what I was capable of. I didn’t really think that one day I would become the leading expert of chai and teas in Australia. I’m grateful for listening to my intuition, being genuine, relationship driven and always working hard for what I believe in because nothing can be achieved without hard work.
What advice would you give graduates wanting to pursue a similar profession?
Well, that depends whether they want a life of entrepreneurship or a life of commercial law. For both, I would recommend that you start being curious as early as possible.
If you want law to be your focus, begin volunteering or applying for internships in different legal environments. If you can’t find anything advertised online, call the law firm you’re interested in working for, speak to the Human Resources (HR) department to scope out any relevant opportunities for you. As a business owner now, people who are proactive, go getters and who try to build a relationship with me are the ones that stand out. Don’t just send an email and wait for a phone call – people are quite busy and you need to leave a lasting impression. So pick up the phone and give them a call and then follow up with an email.
For entrepreneurship, if you have any idea, stop thinking and start doing. If the idea has low start-up costs, then what is the worst you can lose? Be resourceful, use the internet and free social media tools to your advantage and start building!
What do you believe Deakin University has shown you/given you as a person?
Deakin University made me a more globally aware person, well versed with diversity and other cultures. It also gave me practical skills which are the most important skills needed when entering the workforce. Being globally aware broadens your horizons and it gives you unique interpersonal skills that are vital in any working environment.
What are your passions outside your work?
To make my passion my work was a dream that I’ve turned into reality which I’m grateful for. But other than the passion I get from running Chai Walli, I love to write poetry, I like dance and teach Indian dancing time to time. I love hiking and trekking into mountains, it is something that helps me rejuvenate. I also love playing soccer – when I was 15 I created Victoria’s first Indian women’s soccer team!
How would someone describe you?
A boss lady that gets things done and laughs when someone says it’s impossible because she’ll prove them wrong!
Is there any advice you would give to a person who is starting out in your career?
If you have an idea – just start doing it. I find that many people get stuck in the strategy and planning phase for too long. We have 24 hours in a day, your lunch break, after work – utilise it. If you do one little thing every day, who knows where you will be in one year.
What’s your favourite website?
What’s your least favourite word?
‘Chai tea’. Because chai means tea!
What is something that amazes you?
People – everyday people.
Everyone has a story and everyone is inspiring in their own way. I think people need to realise that about themselves. Spend more time with yourselves, and realise how amazing you are and your capabilities.