Alumna's Social Enterprise Brings Progress through Tea
Charlene Wang '03 Started Tranquil Tuesdays to Showcase China's Finest Teas and Empower Women
“A woman is like a teabag: You never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water,” says the proverb often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. For Charlene Wang ’03, tea itself has become a way to empower women in difficult circumstances. Her Beijing-based luxe tea business, Tranquil Tuesdays, has become a premiere provider of the world’s most popular beverage as well as an exemplary social enterprise that has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, Audrey, CCTV, Beijing Television, and Time Out Beijing, among others.
When she first came to Wellesley from Fountain Valley, Calif., Wang became interested in global women’s issues, and took classes on the subject across disciplines from anthropology to economics. In an economics course on women, class, and gender, “Julie Matthei also opened up a whole new perspective of thinking in terms of defining and redefining value and work within the business context,” said Wang, and “I think about the concepts from Professor Roxanne Euben's Feminist Political Theory regularly in my work now.” As a student, she also maintained her childhood passion for good tea: Wang describes on the Tranquil Tuesday website how she procrastinated on final exams by shopping for loose-leaf tea samples online.
Wang joined the U.S. Foreign Service after graduation and worked in the American embassies in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Beijing, China, and served for a time with the United Nations Security Council. Her work brought her into regular contact with women’s rights activists, an experience Wang cherished after her time at Wellesley. Wang was particularly inspired by the dynamic, efficient nature of the social enterprise movement. “Instead of the nonprofit or NGO model of applying for funding,” she explained, “a social enterprise generates its own funds to address social issues through the products and services sold commercially, which we then use to reinvest in the women we are working with.”
When the Foreign Service took her to China, Wang established a ritual of observing “Tranquil Tuesdays” with a friend, taking time once a week to relax, rejuvenate, and enjoy a good cup of tea. Then, “I had this moment in Beijing,” she said, “where I realized I could combine my passion for tea and career aspirations of working on women's empowerment in a social enterprise together.” Over time, and with the encouragement of her entrepreneur husband, Wang decided to leave her career as a diplomat and pursue her dream full time, and in 2010 established the organization she named Tranquil Tuesdays.
Tranquil Tuesdays sells distinct and proudly Chinese tea and teaware. Teas are sourced from small family-owned tea farms, which Wang and her team visit periodically throughout the year, and the teaware is designed and handcrafted exclusively for the company. To run the business, Wang partners with NGOs and other Chinese social enterprises to offer disadvantaged women meaningful employment and long-term skills training.
The W Network
From older alumnae who mentored her during her first days in the Foreign Service to the former classmates who invited her into their homes in Dhaka, the Wellesley network has touched Wang’s journey at each juncture. With Tranquil Tuesdays, “it has been so many amazing Wellesley alums’ and friends’ support that helped it grow,” she said. Friends introduced her to Anne-Laure Py ’02 in Beijing when the two women started small businesses; after years of mutual encouragement, the pair recently hosted a joint trunk show in New York. When the Smithsonian Museums placed its first wholesale order with Tranquil Tuesdays, Wang sought advice from her first-year roommate, Elena Park ’03, now a professional retail buyer. This professional collaboration, Wang said, has added “such a fun dimension to our long friendship that started on the first day the housing office introduced us to each other.”
Wang has extended the reach of the Wellesley network to younger women through participating in the 2013 Wellesley College-Peking University Conference on Women’s Leadership, and hosting 2013 Madeleine Korbel Albright ‘59 Institute for Global Affairs fellow Sara Simon ’13, who pursued her Albright global internship with Tranquil Tuesdays last summer. “I loved working with Charlene, and it was really special that we shared the Wellesley connection,” said Simon. “Her expertise in Chinese tea and her enthusiasm for sharing it were both so incredible and made the work both significant and so fun… I never could have guessed that there would be so much involved in running one's own social enterprise, let alone one that worked internationally.”
“I've always loved nerding out in research, finding the story and then sharing what I've discovered with others in various creative or fun ways, which is what I get to do all the time when introducing, showcasing, and revealing our teas and Chinese tea culture and history,” said Wang. “I deeply appreciate, need, and love the yin of quiet soothing relaxation to that yang Wellesley drive that is inside of me. It is like I'm equally committed to be tranquil, relaxed, and in a state of ease as I am to chasing my dreams and all the creative visions I want to bring to life. And the act of preparing and drinking tea is the perfect practice to bring more tranquility to your life.”