This blog was originally posted on the U-M William Davidson Institute WDI Fellow blog.
26 hours on three planes and I finally make it to the Bandaranaike International Airport of Colombo, Sri Lanka. I’m greeted by Angela, the housemother at Grace, and her husband Vicki, who drove all the way from Trincomalee to receive me from the airport. And so we begin the six-hour journey to the Grace Care Center. The GCC, or Grace, a girl’s orphanage and elder care center, is my home base for the next two months while I will be traveling to Colombo and the tea region.
The normal six-hour journey soon turns into eight, due to some roadwork, plus a stop to have a spicy lunch, making my full journey 36 hours door-to-door! That’s the longest record trip for me. But it is made fun with spontaneous stops along the way to pick up coconuts and fruit: pineapple, mangostin, rambutan….mmm… I am back in fruit heaven.
And then when we arrive, I’m greeted by these lovely ladies in the most fashionable way.
I came to Sri Lanka, as a WDI Fellow, to develop a business plan to establish a new tea export enterprise from Sri Lanka that will secure the long-term viability of Grace. Zingerman’s is interested in collaborating, as long as there is a fantastic product, and my job is to connect the dots and build lasting relationships with potential business partners in Sri Lanka and a strategy for moving forward.
I have spent the last few months preparing for my internship, first learning about the orphanage and elder care center from Dr. Naresh Gunaratnam, the President of Grace’s Board of Directors, and then meeting with Ari Weinzweig to chat about and envision the partnership between Grace and Zingerman’s. So far, I have been lucky to meet extremely interesting and passionate people along the way who pointed me in new directions. For example, I met a family who owns a spice business in Montreal, and who call themselves spice (and tea) trekkers, as they travel the world like explorers: searching for and discovering unique and high quality products. They visited Ann Arbor, shared some of their secrets with me, and subsequently inspired me to convince a good friend to transfer some of his knowledge about tea to me through a private workshop.
Finally, at the end of May I officially started my internship, and it all got even more interesting.
These last few weeks at Zingerman’s I spent getting to know the Zing culture from within, through new staff orientation, classes, and meeting with everyone who would agree to meet me in Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCoB). I apparently became known as the “Tea Lady” around town (by town I mean Zingerman’s). I also interviewed contacts and friends of contacts, in person and over the phone, from those who managed a Ceylon tea imports business until ten years ago to the founder of a relatively new Kenyan tea social enterprise.
Now, since my arrival in Trincomalee, I have focused on getting to know Grace and the people who live here, Angela, the devoted house mother, Vikki, the chef, Mrs. Matthews, Jesi, Maggie, Natasha, just to name a few….. I have had nine delicious home cooked meals, and about to have my tenth. I’ve learned how to say a few words in Tamil and Sinhala, listened to the girls sing me songs in three languages, had my hair braided by them, attended their Sunday activities, including a meditation session, walked and ran along the beach and jumped into the Bay of Bengal, and even got to watch the sunrise this morning. I had face-to-face business meetings, after having met over Skype before coming, and spent some time Skyping with Angela, Naresh, and about 15 other GCC Board members and collaborators at the State of Grace Conference this weekend….I’d say that we’re off to a great start and I’m looking forward to checking in again soon.