Leigh Rawdon founded Tea Collection in 2002 with a dream of developing an innovative children’s clothing collection with global purpose. Since then, she’s grown Tea into a multimillion-dollar children’s brand that gives back to global communities in need and teaches kids about global citizenship. We caught up with Leigh on the “why” behind her brand, how motherhood impacted her approach to her work life, and her advice for mamas with entrepreneurial aspirations.
First, we’d love to hear about how Tea Collection began. How and when did you get started?
Leigh: Tea started in 2002 with a few boutiques, then Barneys and Neiman Marcus. We chose the name because tea is a pastime shared across so many cultures. It evokes warmth and connection. It is also timeless. Each season, we celebrate a different culture, travelling the world for inspiration. We want to bring the world to families and to make the foreign familiar.
How has your passion for travel helped differentiate Tea Collection as a brand?
Leigh: The idea of travel opened my eyes as a child, listening to my great aunt tell stories about her travels all around the world. Once I had my own passport, I experienced the transformation that comes from travel firsthand: the smells, the tastes, the sights, and most of all, the people. Tea wants to bring a taste of that experience to families.
How does experiencing other cultures through fashion help kids learn about global citizenship?
Leigh: Citizenship is about community and connection. We want kids to get curious about the world, to connect with other places, and then in turn, to feel connected. When a place feels foreign, it’s hard to feel at home. But once someone, even a child, is introduced to a place, it can start to feel familiar. You can point to it on a map, you can appreciate the unique sounds of the language, you can identify the aesthetics of the art and architecture. That connection, makes the foreign familiar, and then helps us feel at home anywhere on the globe and then identify as a citizen of the world.
How do you give back to the global communities that inspire each collection?
Leigh: We have been committed to giving back since our founding years ago. We focus on giving to grass roots, local organizations that support the dignity and opportunity of all children. That’s what Tea is all about after all. Every child deserves dignity and opportunity no matter where they are from. In the fall, we are donating uniforms for the thousands of girls whose educations are being funded by the Little Sisters Fund. Year round, we support the worldwide grass roots organizations of the Global Fund for Children. And of course, we are always looking for ways to spread the word about the beauty unique to each global community
Has social responsibility been part of your business model from the beginning?
Leigh: Yes! Ultimately we want to battle xenophobia by planting little seeds at an early age so that kids don’t fear the foreign. We can do our part by planting the seeds for our customers but also we have a long-term financial commitment to supporting the dignity and opportunity for children worldwide. We have partnered with the Global Fund for Children to make grants to nonprofits on the ground around the world, dedicated to helping children.
What is your best advice for mama entrepreneurs who want to incorporate social responsibility into their business model but worry about the impact it might have on profits?
Leigh: Always remember the why. Why are you starting the business? Is it just to make money? If a mama entrepreneur is even asking this question, then most likely they want to make a difference. You need profit to give back so social responsibility and profitability go hand-in-hand.
Did you become a mom before or after launching Tea Collection? How has motherhood impacted your approach to your work life?
Leigh: I became a mom when I launched Tea because Tea is my first baby! But I know that’s not what you mean. I had my first son when Tea was four years old. I became a better leader, CEO, and executive when he was born. Motherhood gave me so much more perspective about what is important and what isn’t. All of a sudden, a work emergency didn’t feel like an emergency so I could approach it as just another puzzle to resolve. Of course motherhood also helped because now I had firsthand, 24/7 experience with our product!
How have the communities you’re part of helped you thrive as a mother and as a businesswoman?
Leigh: I rely on my family, my lifelong friends, my mom friends, and everyone at Tea. I am a big believer in the importance of the people around us. I am lucky to have a tribe of thoughtful, engaged, optimistic, and fun people. I love having friends who inspire me with the incredible impact they have in the world and who challenge me to see the world in a different way.
First and foremost: define what “a good mother” is for yourself. Don’t let your Instagram feed define it for you. Every mother will (and should!) have her own definition. Mine is to raise my kids to be ready for the world: independent and engaged. I keep coming back to that so that I don’t get distracted by throwing a Pinterest-worthy party or feeling guilty about not volunteering enough at school. A picture-perfect party and volunteering is rewarding, of course, but those are just about me and not about what really matters to me as a mom: raising my kids to be independent and engaged.
My kids roll their eyes, but they also know my mantra by heart: “every family is different.” It’s my mantra when they tell me about their friends’ later bedtimes, screen time rules, or fancy cars.
Put your own oxygen mask on first. It’s kind of cliché at this point but that is probably because it’s so, so important. We can’t take care of our families if we are exhausted, uninspired, lonely, and stretched too thin. We also must be role models for our kids about what’s important. Life is to be lived and every person deserves to pursue their best life. I have to remind myself that being home a little later so that I can get to my dance class or taking a weekend with my girlfriends or putting the kids to bed a little early so I can watch HBO with my husband. My kids then learn that the world really doesn’t revolve around them and that it’s important for everyone, even their mom, to take care of themselves.