In a turmeric-drenched world full of yoga, one would imagine the wellness secrets of India which have permeated the mainstream would be shared into the world by Indian brands themselves. When Bala Sarda realized the answer to this was, indeed, no, the native Delhiite set out to change the playing field. The absence of an Indian wellness brand with authentic Indian provenance was all the motivation Sarda needed to launch Vadham teas.
“It was the West which had started embracing our herbs, yoga, and Ayurveda, all of this which is native to India. And I realized that there was no Indian brand which is taking this to the world. And it was very surprising,” the founder says.
Launched in 2015, the then 23 year-old Sarda began Vadham outside of the structure of his family business; a business that has been steeped in the tea industry for nearly a century. He, being the eldest son and the 4th generation in line to take over the enterprises, was expected to continue the lineage but instead decided to break out on his own.
“To be very honest, growing up the industry looked very boring and commoditized from the outside. It was not sexy, it was not something honestly I wanted to do,” Sarda explains. “But I always had the entrepreneurial bug and I realized I needed to take a step back and build something valuable and scalable, which I can do for the next ten years or more. I decided to go to Darjeeling where we have a small family house and I spent a few months researching ideas and it was in Darjeeling where it actually hit me.”
What Sarda means when he speaks of what hit him is that while India produces nearly 30% of the world’s tea and 80% of the world’s turmeric, there was not a single Indian brand of either of these products that succeeded in permeating the global market.
“India is this land of magical ingredients–we’ve been using turmeric for 5,000 years–yet London is selling more Darjeeling tea and Starbucks is selling more Chai than any Indian brand,” Sarda laughs. “And that’s where, I decided that, ‘Okay, wow, I’m going to take up that challenge and hopefully change that. I need to get into this industry.’”
Trust was the biggest issue in Sarda’s endeavour. Not trust of his sources or his vision, it was the trust Western and global consumers had towards Indian products of which there was little to none. So independently of his family, Sarda, through storytelling, authenticity and transparency, set out to build a global Indian wellness brand that’s made in India, by Indians.
It started with the supply chain. Sarda first and foremost cut out any middle men, including the auction houses from where tea is traditionally bought by brands. Instead, he sources his raw material directly from the farmers, estates and cooperatives–nearly 200 of them. Next came process and technology. Because in order for consumers to trust the brand they had to know what they were purchasing was simply a better product than competitors. Sarda spent 4 years setting up the systems which influenced the quality of his product such as processing, cleaning, manufacturing, and packaging. It was imperative to use the highest grade technology in all these areas so the end product in a consumer’s cup was the freshest and most flavorful tea on the market.
“We are now one of the better factories in the world in this category, we are a BRC certified, A-grade facility,” Sarda says proudly. Also, by cutting out the middle man and going directly to farmers Sarda achieved two things. First, he added to the brand’s transparency in terms of quality assurance. Second, proudly positioned the brand as Indian. After all, Darjeeling tea is so fine and rare that it’s the only tea in the world with geographic indication trademark similar to champagne in France or parmesan from Italy. This helped to create the authenticity factor but more importantly, created value for local Indian farmers.
“Of course, all Vadham products are organic, natural and ethically sourced because organic and natural is something which is default,” he says. “High potency, however, that is is the word I will use about our products, because high potency spices are exponentially more beneficial for wellness.”
The formula worked. So well that Vadham was included on Oprah’s famed Favorite Things list twice, celebrities from Martha Stewart to Mariah Carey are fans, and the teas have won over 30 awards globally including the Global Tea Championship and the Great Taste Awards. As for Sarda’s entrepreneurship, his work has earned him a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list (Asia).
All the while, Sarda never lost sight of the core principle of Vadham. He has been able to successfully simplify the best practices, ideas and wisdom of Indian wellness philosophy and streamline it into one unified narrative that originates directly from India. Today, Vadham teas–which is an affectionate nod to Sarda’s father whose name it is but spelled backward (Mahdav)—is sold everywhere, from Walmart to Bergdorf Goodman, and from Erewhon Market to Amazon.
“We take the best of everything and take it into the world,” explains Sarda. “It is, honestly, a super set of even Ayurveda. Ayurveda, yoga, teas, everything we are talking about are basically subsets, so we don’t do an Ayurveda range, per se, but what we do is that, being from this country [India] with the experience and lineage we have, we intrinsically understand what is good. And we work with doctors, experts, and tasters in our product development and I still spend 30-40% of my time developing and tasting product.”
These findings inform the final product such as sourcing the right turmeric to create blends with increased potency and absorption, or ensuring their green tea is healthier by including only longer leaf tea leaves which has higher amounts of antioxidants, minerals and vitamins.
“To be honest, it feels incredible,” Sarda says when asked about Vadham’s success. “More than the recognition, I think the fact that we are able to take India to the world and take the best of Indian wellness to the world it’s just heartwarming to be able make lives better by doing something which is good for the farmers, good for the consumers, and enjoyable for our teams. Everything aligns when you see something like this. So, yes, it feels incredible.”