Closet Entrepreneurialism + Planning Career = Blood Sweat and Delicious Tea: Tamika Gauvin of Looen Teas


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What does a bitter refreshing drink from Barbados have in common with the field of urban planning? The answer is Tamika Gauvin.  She is part planner and part founder of Looen Teas. But trust me when I say that those parts add up to more than the whole.

After working as a planner in the private sector for several years, Tamika recently joined the Baltimore mayor's office of innovation. In her spare time she brews delicious concoctions and devises strategies to introduce these drinks to the mainstream US.  She is also focused on how to ultimately leverage her success in this venture to build on her legacy of social good.

Tamika Gauvin is part planner, dedicated to tackling tough problems in cities, and part visionary for Looen Teas.  And, trust me when I say that those parts add up to more than the whole.


What Does The Private Side of Public Work Mean to Tamika Gauvin?

“Everyone has a story. I try to remember that the people I work with in communities have histories and that these histories influence the very work that I do within the city. Everyone brings their own experiences from the neighborhoods they live in and just their life-walk. ”

Where Does Mauby Come From?

Mauby...Tamika’s version of inseparable from her own story.  Tamika’s family is from Barbados, where Mauby is popular. Mauby is an acquired taste and Tamika didn’t particularly like it’s bitter bite as a child, but she remembers its persistent presence in the refrigerator. Her mother used to add cinnamon sticks to soften the drinks hard edges. Mauby was a staple of her childhood.

Mauby Woman photo courtesy of National Archives Image Library, United Kingdom

Mauby Woman photo courtesy of National Archives Image Library, United Kingdom

As an adult Tamika has revisited the drink, toying with recipes and searching for the formula that will build the sensory bridge between her contemporary American world and her cultural heritage.

“I remember tasting Mauby and knowing it’s something I didn’t quite get. It is an acquired taste. I’m making it my own - putting my own twist on it. How would I drink this? I’m making it in a different way because of my own personal interest in it and connection to it.”

Where Does Tamika Come From?

Tamika’s family history is not only an ingredient in her Looen brews. Her heritage is also potent ingredient in her planning career. Tamika grew up in public housing in New York in an impoverished neighborhood, where people not had a voice. When she comes across people, in the course of her planning work, from neighborhood similar to that of her childhood, she can relate.  Each individual person has their own story.  Tamika works to include these stories and perspectives.  To her, that means embracing people within the planning process that are not usually included.


How to Abandon Neither Your Business Nor Your 1000 Easy Steps

Anybody that has started a company knows that it's hard work. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s a little like having a baby.  You think that you know what you're getting into until you're there at home and the baby screaming at you in the middle of the night and you think to yourself, “What have I done?”

The difference between birthing a business and a baby is that most people don't abandon babies. But, statistically speaking, most people do abandon new businesses.  So it takes a special kind of person to stick with a new business.

Tamika has managed to juggle an entrepreneurial venture with a career and motherhood and has still maintained her optimism and excitement. Yes, she is superwoman.

I asked her how she does it. 

“I don’t sleep”

With so many demands on for her attention, Tamika carves out time, where she can find it, for what needs to be done. Sometimes work takes over. Children need attention. That leaves staying up late and waking up early. It means working weekends and making that call on lunch break that will move the business forward. Squeezing in her passions amidst her joys and obligations equates to slow and steady progress forward.

“It’s a slow process and I will be at this for years. Sometimes it’s frustrating because I know I could go so much faster if I was in a bigger organization where I could go to someone for marketing, or someone who is managing the budget or who has expertise in whatever else I need. But on a tight start-up budget, that expertise costs, so sometimes you have to wing it.”

There is a lot of glamour and hype around entrepreneurialism and start-ups. It is easy to think that the moment an idea springs from your head, you will have a team of geniuses working at your side, scale the concept within 12 months, and cash in for a gazillion dollars.

An age old-brew made new in mason jars. A true picture of start-up reality.

An age old-brew made new in mason jars. A true picture of start-up reality.


What we don’t hear is that start-ups require resources of some kind...even if they are the scrappiest of the scrappy. Despite the media bias, those resources are usually not venture capital.  In the real world, sometimes that resource is savings, inheritance or family investment. Sometimes that resources is a business loan or credit cards...but good luck getting a business loan if you don’t have savings, inheritance or family investment (a.k.a. “skin in the game”).   

Sometimes that resource is a full time job. Pursuing a career and pursuing an entrepreneurial venture is time-consuming, painstaking, and slow. But there is a benefit. In the end you own 100% of your business and you have zero to little debt to pay off. Many entrepreneurs choose this path.

The picture that Tamika paints does not match what we typically read about in glossy magazines and blogs and books, but it represents a far more common entrepreneurial experience.  (Ever notice how you hear about the rise of the same ten superstars of innovation over and over again? Ever wonder why you don’t hear about the thousands of other examples?).


A City Planner and An Entrepreneur Walk into a Bar...

The bartender cries, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.”

The entrepreneur is fascinated. She calls an old colleague who did a skyfall project a few years back and picks her brain for thirty minutes. She downloads When the Sky Falls in Your City: What I Learned From Forty Years in the Clouds to her IPad. She spends all night writing a proposal and devising a business model...a.k.a. figuring out how to do interesting work that will help people out  and get paid for it.  The entrepreneur's proposal is rejected and she is criticized for trying to make a profit off of people’s misfortune. But she is persistent. After three years of self-study, sleepless nights, and financial sacrifice, the entrepreneur emerges as a go-to consultant in the field of falling skies.

The planner calls DPW to get some cones in place to contain the situation and pulls together an engineer, aviation specialist, GIS analyst, The Director of Emergency Preparedness and Response, and the DIrector of Long Term Planning. They draft a plan titled, “A Comprehensive Approach to Sky Support: Today, Tomorrow, Forever.”  The plan has impressive technical detail and insightful projections.  A bond is issued to fund the project. Citizens are relocated to the next town during the three year implementation process.

All kidding aside, despite the inherent similarities across planning and entrepreneurialism - problem solving, bringing relevant people to the table, project management, Tamika underscores an important difference - support. In a planning department, you have a team. As an entrepreneur, you are essentially on your own most of the time.

"For me it has been kind of like just starting like a baby all over again. Everything is new. 
"For a year or I was stumbling through the dark until I made some connections with organizations that really helped to shed light on a lot of things. The one main thing that I brought to the table from planning was inquisitiveness. And right about now I really think it's just sheer drive that’s pushing me forward."
Be Unapologetic - A Lesson in Confidence

Comparing ourselves to other people is a stubborn and ubiquitous human trait. If you don’t do it now, chances are you have exerted significant effort to break the habit. There are so many reasons why comparing ourselves to others is a distraction at best and completely self-destructive at worst.

Tamika was brave enough to share a story demonstrating how this lesson played out in her own life.

I was in a pitch contest. I was one of five vendors giving a three minute pitch for the opportunity to be in an accelerator project. I had practiced my three minute pitch.
The two people gave a pitch in a minute or less.  I decided at last moment to shorten my pitch. Instead of telling my story, I rushed through it. I was flustered.
After that I kicked myself because the person after me took her time. She told her story. And she won the competition.

Tamika is the only person in the world who has worked as a city planner and community liaison and starting a company to bring her childhood drink, Mauby, to the US. That is not something to lose in a hasteful moment of self-comparison.  It is rich, and deep, and multi-layered.

As uncomfortable as the aging process may be, it does bring some marvelous benefits. For me, maturity has given me the opportunity to realize that I am the only person that has lived my life and has my combination of experiences. The older I get, the truer it is.

Be unapologetic for whatever it is you do. You know you have what you have to offer the world. If there is one person, or even ten people that aren’t into it, that’s ok. There are plenty others who will get you - the real you.


The Vision For Mauby

Tamika’s fantasy future for Looen Teas and for Mauby Gauvin imagines the drink with a social mission as well. includes a social mission.

“How can I tie this to farmers? What are their lives like? Who manufactures it? How can I make this beverage into something that can help people in Baltimore through a life changing opportunity?”

The social impact that Tamika wants to make requires wide market penetration. She envisions Looen Teas beyond the Caribbean stores where Mauby is found today.  Tamika wants to get Looen Teas into Whole Foods, Moms Organics, and other health food stores. Tamika wants her products to be synonymous with a healthy lifestyle.

And this is where it is impossible for the planner in Tamika - the civil servant dedicated to social change - to rest at merely bringing a product to market. Planners are built to serve the public good. Entrepreneurs can’t self-sustain without a market and a revenue stream. A hybrid entrepreneur-social-change-maker will never rest until they find the formula to integrate the two.