Cut yourself (and others) a lot of grace. I’m still learning at the well-earned age of 66 to relax and enjoy the ride, and not push myself the way I did when I was younger.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Cameron. Barbara Cameron is the founder of Blue Lotus Chai Company, currently celebrating its tenth year in business. In addition to winning a 2019 sofi™ Silver Award (tea category) for her flagship Traditional Masala Chai variety, her innovative and delicious chai has been lauded in the New York Times and other well-known periodicals, in print and online. For the last 2 years, Blue lotus Chai has continued to occupy 1 of the top 4 positions on Amazon’s list of best-selling chai products. She accomplishes this with a dedicated core team of fewer than 20 employees. Prior to Blue Lotus Chai, among other things, she ran an organic farm, raised champion alpacas for over a decade, taught at a Waldorf school, and had a glass studio for many years. A resident of Eugene, Oregon, for 40 years, she originally hails from Los Angeles.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
In 2008, I was three years a widow, and between businesses so I headed off to India on a spiritual pilgrimage. For two or three years, I traveled back and forth between there and my home in Oregon. While I was in India, I stopped drinking coffee and became a true believer in masala chai. During the times at home, I wasn’t able to find really good chai, so I made my own…grinding the spices, grating ginger, and so on. I was determined to have the best of both worlds, chai that was authentic and delicious and easy to prepare. So in 2010, my business partner and I invented it!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I have many interesting stories from the past 10 years, but the most interesting to me has to be a great love story. About seven months after Blue Lotus Chai began, I fell deeply in love. Stephan had been a casual acquaintance for a couple of years, and one day the veil lifted for both of us. There was such a profound sense of knowing that we belonged together. He had his own successful construction business but would step in and help me with events, construction; you name it. My business partner had essentially bailed on taking an active role, and I only had 2 part-time employees. I really needed someone to step in to help. Eventually, I asked him to join me in the chai business, which he was happy to do, as he had grown weary of the physical demands of his many years in construction. We were married after a year together, and Stephan became my co-owner a couple of years later. I’m happy to share that it is still a great love story.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the funniest or at least most foolish was about a year into the business. I’ve shared my beautiful love story with my husband. Well, we were (still are) great lovers of travel. We wanted to visit Thailand together and did so for a month…a month! With a young business just getting off the ground, and very little oversight from such a distance, a mistake indeed. Fortunately, BLC survived this poor judgment, and I don’t think I have to go into detail about the lessons learned from that particular choice. On the other hand, it was an AMAZING trip.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I can’t really say that I was attracted to this position. I have been called into positions of leadership my entire life, but in general, tried to avoid them. I don’t particularly like being in the spotlight and have enjoyed working as part of a group much better. But I recognize the fact that there is something in me that does lend itself to creating things that are innovative and doing things that are not really mainstream, and when they come into the mainstream while I’m doing them. So I have embraced this leadership role and learned to get comfortable with it as a woman of power from a place of centeredness.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
In my particular case, I would say that I am the sounding board for everyone, the final word on most decisions, the resident artist and editor and the overseer of the money movement.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
Probably that I’m not working for someone else!
What are the downsides of being an executive?
There is a great risk of being the co-owner of a business, even one that is quite successful. Another downside is that being the person who has the final word is not always a popular position to be in.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I would have to say that, for me, a myth is that a CEO or primary in a business has absolute confidence and wants to be “in charge”. I most enjoy collaborative work, everyone pulling together and sharing their thoughts and ideas.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
In my experience, the challenge has been of finding a leadership balance that is based in the feminine—and not a male—leadership model.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I’ve always enjoyed innovation, coming up with new and creative ideas, and not working in an office. I’ve had to release this notion and become proficient at many things and embrace being a businesswoman in every way.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
I think the old phrase “if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen” applies here. There are a lot of challenges on a daily basis, and ultimately the responsibility lands on your plate. I believe that having some kind of practice that can help you to stay neutral and calm in the eye of the storm is imperative.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Learn to be your authentic self, and not try to replicate the leadership model of someone else. Relax as much as possible, try to enjoy the moments of your day, and love your staff! We’re women and love is our superpower.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so very many people who have helped me along the way. My husband and business partner is the primary person who has been by my side and shared everything in this journey. There would be no Blue Lotus Chai Company if not for him.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
That has a lot of levels to it. I believe that what we do in general as a group in our business goes deeper than creating a great chai. We strive to elevate others in whatever ways we interact. We’re trying to be part of a new paradigm of how businesses operate and work that’s more on the fringes of capitalism and not as deeply entrenched in the bottom line.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- This will have to be your top priority indefinitely. I thought that owning a chai company would be a great opportunity (and excuse) to go to India on business. No…I haven’t been to India in 10 years, because I’m running a business.
- Have much, much more money available than you expect. This is huge, and fortunately, Stephan and I were able to continue to finance our business and live for several years strictly out of my savings. We are still completely family-owned.
- Hire the best people who share or at least resonate with your core values. We have almost no staff turnover in our company because we truly respect and care for one another.
- Cut yourself (and others) a lot of grace. I’m still learning at the well-earned age of 66 to relax and enjoy the ride, and not push myself the way I did when I was younger.
- You are going to have to learn to do EVERYTHING in the beginning years. I’m really appreciating that there are other people in charge of shipping, packaging, sales, demos, etc. instead of it being us. ☺
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe if the golden rule in every spiritual tradition which is to treat others the way you would wish to be treated was truly practiced by everyone, life would be a beautiful garden.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Live each present moment completely and the future will take care of itself. Fully enjoy the wonder and beauty of each instant. Practice the presence of peace. The more you do that, the more you will feel the presence of that power in your life.”
This quote is from Paramahansa Yogananda and has guided me through many troubled and grief-filled-waters in my life. I think it could be very useful to many people during these divisive and confounding times.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to spend a couple of hours with Eckhart Tolle. He is a deeply awakened soul and has a way of sharing his perceptions that I find engaging and inwardly moving.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.