It was the Indian Australian Business Community Awards night and the finalists for the Business Woman of the Year 2016 award were being shown on the big screen.
An entourage of family members, friends, business partners and mentors surrounded all but one of them. That oddity was Uppma Virdi, a Melburnian lawyer and the founder of Chai Walli. She had arrived alone and was sitting at an almost empty table at the back of the room.
Not everyone there that night knew of the young Punjabi entrepreneur who had inherited her grandfather’s love for chai and more importantly, his gift of creating the extraordinary ayurvedic spice blends.
But that was about to change very quickly.
Uppma, who doubted her chances of winning, was lonesome and had texted her family to tell them she would be leaving the awards night early. She was in the midst of creating a video of her name on the screen for social media when she heard the winner’s name being announced.
“I was like, no way. I won? I was in complete shock. And I hadn’t even mentally prepared a speech!”
One month on and a deluge of publicity later, Australia’s only chai walli is finally registering the events of that night and the significance of the award.
The recognition is not just of her business but also of the bridges her chai has built within and beyond Melbourne.
A total blur of back-to-back interviews, mass social media publicity, an Uppma Virdi fan page and tons of emails. Oh, and marriage proposals on Twitter!
I’ve also reduced my full time work from four days to three because I need an extra day to recalibrate, strategise and go forward from here.
My interview with SBS went viral and all the Indian media, even in the US, Canada and the UK, picked it up. So most of the messages were from the Indian community who are so proud that an Indian in the West is doing something so close to their hearts and culture.
In the early days, I hesitated to launch Chai Walli as a business because in my culture, an educated woman has a professional job. I was socially conditioned to not think about entrepreneurship.
This award has definitely created a lot more respect for women in business and for work that might not be considered “professional” in the traditional sense.
Many people, especially older men, can’t believe that a young Indian-Australian migrant woman is doing something as mundane as chai. It’s unheard of in the first-generation community.
When I was three or four, I remember sneaking into the lounge room when my parents had catch ups with adult guests. I would steal a biscuit from the table and sneak behind my mum and dip my biscuit in her chai cup. Most of the time my biscuit would break into her cup. She would scold me as her chai was now undrinkable and I would run away with her chai cup sniggering and drinking her chai.
Chai represents a culture of giving and sharing with the community. Many people in Melbourne have told me that they drink my chai at a certain time of day with their friends and family.
One of my customers said that she and her best friend used to drink my chai together. Then her best friend moved to Ireland. This girl sent her a packet of my chai and they drink it together at the same time every week. That’s how they connect. And this is why I do what I do – to connect people.
I didn’t realise how much chai was part of me until I was travelling alone in Europe. I’d travel with spices in my backpack or I would seek out an Indian shop to get my supply of spices.
Once I arrived at a hostel, I’d size up the situation and then go to the kitchen to make a big pot of chai. I made so many good friends that way. That was when I realised how much chai connected people, and that my language is chai.
Oh my god, so many things. Firstly, being able to honour my grandfather. He taught himself to become a homeopathic ayurvedic doctor and was later the first man in his village to allow his daughters to travel interstate for higher education because he believed in equal opportunities. In a time where women in his village were only to grow to become housewives, he was truly one of a kind.
There’s also the ability to be myself. Chai Walli is basically me in a brand. My self-expression was missing before this. My family comes from a certain culture whereas I’m the inbred Indian-Australian trying to make my own way.
Chai Walli allows me to express that Indian-Australian fusion and inspire people from other cultures who may also be struggling to find that balance.
You need a gas stove. Do not ask me how to make chai in a coffee machine! But I have a great story to tell you about this.
I was recently contacted by an older Australian surfer who is also a great white shark researcher in the Mornington Peninsula. He read my story in The Age and wanted to stock my chai in his food truck.
Because he wanted to make chai properly he bought a gas stove, a big chai pot, strainers and chai cups. And he actually came to meet me to learn to make chai. To have that reach is amazing. It’s so beautiful to see people giving chai that respect.
There’s a misconception in Australia that chai is a female’s drink. About 85% of my followers in Australia are women. But on the streets in India, it’s a man’s drink. Over there, it’s the men who make and drink it. I get told off when I photograph and talk to the chai wallas in India!
Favourite Aussie phrase: “She’ll be right.”
Favourite park: Westerfold Park in Templestowe. It’s amazing. You see kangaroos, wombats and wallabies.
Best place in the city for Punjabi food: Delhi Streets
Best hidden city spot: Eau De Vie. It’s a cocktail bar behind a hidden door at the back of a hotel on a laneway and you can’t hear any music until you open that door.