Paula Hershman’s life orbits the brim of a teacup.
Lips perched on the edge, it’s a ritual that orders her days, a revolution that transformed Hershman from fledgling tea party host swearing off caffeine to owner of her own organic, fair-trade Storehouse Tea Co., serving shops and grocery stores across four states.
But her favorite cup comes when shared with a new pair of employees on their first day, refugees from Rwanda, Congo, Puerto Rico or maybe Iran. While sipping on the low, long couch in her wood-paneled Hildebrandt Building office, Hershman starts by asking what tea they drank while growing up.
Since 2015, Storehouse Tea has provided part-time work for refugee women and their families. Partnering with resettlement agencies and outreach programs such as Us Together and Metro West’s community development group, Hershman hires and trains local refugees to pack and prepare her 50 tea varieties.
She even moved the small operation, which has just a handful of employees, from Bainbridge to the Clark-Fulton neighborhood to better reach Northeast Ohio’s refugee community.
“They’re so eager and so grateful to have a job and to see what’s going on here in Cleveland,” says Hershman, who initially started selling teas out of her family church in 2007. “A lot of them are terrified of what’s ahead of them. For me, it’s a wonderful way to love on them, encourage them and maybe do a little bit of mentoring.”
For Hershman, hiring refugees, especially women, was a natural extension of her commitment to fair-trade, organic business practices. Worldwide, most people who pick tea are women, including many of the pickers and processors overseas who provide Storehouse Tea with its organic oolongs, green, white, rooibos and black teas.
When Hershman founded Storehouse after years working as a graphic designer, she did so with a personal commitment to help women around her, entrepreneurs and employees alike. She applied for organic, fair-trade status to help improve the quality of life of the workers by sourcing from gardens that pay equitable wages and use organic processes that prevent illness from pesticides.
Some refugee employees Hershman has hired over the years are high schoolers from Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy. So she and her native employees have helped them fill out college applications or walked them through the driver’s license process. In another case, after hiring an Iranian refugee, Hershman also signed on the woman’s two college-aged children who needed work.
“Some of the countries that we have employees working for us from, our tea comes from that country,” says Hershman. “It’s pretty amazing to have come here and work on an ingredient that comes from the very place they came from.”
It’s a practice that crystallizes such connections. Take the first refugees Storehouse hired. Alice and Emima were teenage sisters from Rwanda who’d lived most of their lives in an African refugee camp before coming here. In mere months, the sisters were hand-blending many teas on their own. One day, they found themselves filling an order for Storehouse partner Back To Jerusalem, a nonprofit that created a charity tea to benefit a refugee camp and school in Northern Iraq.
“That was a really cool full-circle,” says Hershman.
The approach has been good for business, too. Since being certified organic in 2014, Storehouse Tea has expanded outside Ohio to distributors in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Indiana. Hershman is rolling out a new line of loose-leaf teas in pyramid-shaped, biodegradable nylon sachets sold 13 to a box, expected to hit stores this month.
Since 2015, Storehouse has employed seven refugees as part-time tea processors and blenders. Most don’t stay long, graduating to college or a skilled trade job — which is fine by Hershman. “They have a dream to build their families and to create a whole new life for them and their families,” she says. “They should be able to embrace that.”