Desperate Measures Inspired This Mom to Live ‘Life by the Cup’

UPDATED: October 10, 2015
PUBLISHED: May 10, 2015

Zhena Muzyka sized up the bleak situation: Here she was, a 25-year-old single mom whose baby needed lifesaving surgery for a kidney defect. She punched numbers into the ATM but it wouldn’t dispense cash. “I had under $10,” she recalls. What would she do?

The answer—years later—would prompt Leverage Management to buy rights to her memoirs for a potential television series based loosely on her life and produced by Mark Wahlberg. As Variety put it, the show will follow “an unemployed, modern-day hippie, with a sick infant son, who outwits some of the business world’s most successful players to build her own multimillion-dollar tea empire.”

“The ‘outwit’ part is completely their imagination,” Muzyka tells SUCCESS from the artist-haven town of Ojai, Calif., population 7,500. Muzyka nowadays has moved on to her second act: She is a publisher at large for the new Enliven Books imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Atria publishing group and author of what Publishers Weekly called an “unconventional, touching and personal guide to success” with her book Life by the Cup: Ingredients for a Purpose-Filled Life of Bottomless Happiness and Limitless Success. She hosts the Change Maker CBS Radio podcast and is a sustainable-business coach who—in answer to her original crisis—founded Zhena’s Gypsy Tea in 2000 and became a pioneer of Fair Trade organic tea.

“She has proved to the tea industry and beyond that doing the right thing can also result in a very profitable business,” says Paul Rice, Fair Trade USA president and CEO. “Ethics have been at the foundation of every single decision that she’s made. Because of this, she has had a significant impact on the lives of tea farmers around the world. “

Little did Muzyka, 40, foresee any of this happening 15-plus years ago when she was selling clothes at a boutique, freelance editing and painting houses to scrape by while living in her one-room cabin.

She remembers begging out loud: God, what do you want me to do?

After state assistance, Muzyka still owed more than $17,000 for the uninsured surgery to save her son, Sage. “I have no money. I have a sick baby.… I don’t have any skills. I’m a failed writer. I [had] dropped out of college to travel to Peru to study herbal medicine with a group of ethnobotanists because I had a crush on one,” she recounts in a YouTube speech. “I didn’t have a lot of examples of successful businesspeople in my life. I did have, though, a grandmother from the Ukraine who had survived concentration camps, and she was a gypsy…”

Finding a Way

A solution started to form in her mind. She thought two words, gypsy and tea. Muzyka, who grew up blending teas, pictured a gypsy tea party—with belly dancing, palm reading, tea drinking and happy children running around. “I’m going to start the Gypsy Tea Co.,” she told dubious parents and friends. She figured she needed $150,000 to open a gypsy tea room. From friends and family, Muzyka managed to beg just $3,000.

She thought: Am I going to return this money and move in with my parents? Or try anyway? She gave it a go, getting an espresso cart and selling tea on California street corners. Muzyka later decided to sell the cart and focus on formulating teas for cafés and restaurants. As the next step in her expansion, she threw her first gypsy tea party with musicians, a belly dancer and palm readers. She sold $1,000 worth of tea.

As Muzyka recounts in her book, “it was nothing short of a miracle” that she found a key investor to grow her business at the event. “Eventually I raised over $8 million to grow my business,” she says. “But it didn’t happen at once.”

And Muzyka wanted more than profits after visiting Sri Lankan tea workers in 2003. She resolved to end poverty for tea workers and make Fair Trade the new status quo (so far, neither has happened, she acknowledges). The low wages mean “many of them don’t even have toilets,” Muzyka says. “And when they’re too old to pluck tea anymore,” they have no savings to fall back on for basic living expenses in retirement because they make only $1.35 for picking 16,000 leaves a day, she says. Yet the average consumer enjoys conventional tea, unaware of “this suffering. Our oblivion to it is damaging.”

By contrast, Fair Trade tea workers are assured of earning minimum wage equivalent to $12.50 a day plus other benefits, Muzyka says, including guaranteed health care, clean water and maternity leave. In addition, a community development premium is earmarked for programs and projects of the farmers’ choosing. Some communities buy cooking stoves, says Rice of Fair Trade USA, “saving the women a lot of time and preventing lung damage caused by cooking over an open flame.” Some use the premium for a retirement fund, while others invest it in school needs such as scholarships. Attending a university prep school costs $250 a year, Muzyka says—which represents a big chunk of a tea worker’s annual pay.

The Tea Estate

Whenever she visits Sri Lanka, Muzyka has an eight-hour combined train and car ride from the commercial capital of Colombo to the tea plantation where her company sources most of its tea, the Idulgashinna Tea Estate. “The trains are actually awesome, but there are no seats, so you stand and you hold on,” she says in a YouTube video. She pokes her head out a train window to gaze at the “spectacular” green valley of tea plants and tall trees and Hindu and Buddhist temples.

She arrives by car and unloads refurbished laptop computers to give to excited children of tea workers. She calls it the “Robin Hood Laptop Project.” During a previous visit, she noticed the computer learning center built at the tea plantation with Fair Trade dollars had only three computers for 530 children. So when she came across an old Mac laptop in her office, she paid $20 to refurbish it and via Facebook asked friends whether they had old laptops to donate. Fifteen said yes.

At the plantation, awestruck children gather around as she demonstrates the wonders of a laptop. “It gave me so much excitement to give them something that otherwise would be e-waste in the United States,” Muzyka says.

Durga, a university-bound teenager, reaches for a laptop to take home. “This little girl who I’ve known since she was 8… she wants to be a computer software engineer,” says Muzyka, who later watches Durga demonstrate the laptop to her parents. “It was a really moving experience to see that little girl showing her parents her future.” (In June 2015, Muzyka plans another shipment of laptops. “Once we saturate this estate with computers, we can go to other countries.”)

Building Up, Burning Out

Muzyka paints a picture of pinching pennies at Zhena’s Gypsy Tea to pay a premium to tea pickers and compete on store shelves. “You’re looking at 20 percent less margin almost out of the gate” because of costs to conform to organic and Fair Trade standards. “We had a very slim staff, very slim marketing budget. We were always crammed for space. It was my MO.”

She basically camped out at her “beautiful little home-type office” furnished with couches. Her son, now 15, practically grew up there. “I was raising Sage and raising the company with full force.” While her teas were sipped in spas, hard-driving Muzyka scrimped and basically thought: I’m so glad that at least my tea gets to go to such nice places.

“There was nothing that could stop me from building that company. I had such a fire in my belly. I had so much focus,” Muzyka says. “I was herculean at building the business. I was out selling tea morning, noon and night. I was talking to angel investors every single week. I was doing brunch with customers. I was flying here, flying there. I mean, I was literally unstoppable.”

The pace came with a price. Hints of trouble came during a Mexico trip when her sweetheart, Gerard Linsmeier, locked her laptop and cellphone in a safe to keep her from working. Linsmeier (whom she later married at the Idulgashinna Tea Estate) sat her in a beach chair and said, “You have to enjoy life.”

Suffering migraines and other physical problems, Muzyka acknowledged her burnout on a different Mexico trip with her sister-in-law. “My body was telling me… I had to move on. It wasn’t my mind. My mind was like, You know what? You could muscle through it. Get it [revenues] to $100 million.’” She thought of daughter Mia, now 5. Was Mia getting the message that self-destruction is success? The idea distressed Muzyka. Now that her business had a new CEO, a new chief financial officer and a new vibe that came with an infusion of capital from professional investors in the wake of the 2008-2010 recession, “I realized that my job was done. I was complete.”

Muzyka left the company in 2013 and is writing again after what she sees as a 14-year business detour.

But she hasn’t left her gypsy roots. The Wall Street Journal covered the gypsy tea ceremony for the launch of her book. A roving tarot-card reader entertained, and Muzyka brewed five teas in a West Chelsea home in New York City.

“We had belly dancers. It was mostly working women, obviously, who didn’t normally get to have those experiences. So that was wonderful,” recalls Judith Curr, the president of Simon & Schuster’s Atria publishing group who hired Muzyka as publisher at large because of her talent at finding authors in the mind-body-spirit space. Curr also saw how well Muzyka fit in at a gathering to launch Marlo Thomas’s book about reinventing oneself, It Ain’t Over…Till It’s Over.

Talk about reinvention. Muzyka, who in her 20s fought off a meter reader from shutting off her heat, wore a Diane von Furstenberg dress to her book party. Attendees included Gloria Steinem, Diane Sawyer and… Diane von Furstenberg. The heady experience prompted Muzyka to tell friends on Facebook that she had said that morning: “I’m ready for a miracle!” And it happened. Two hours later, she was invited by Curr to the Marlo Thomas luncheon. “Lesson: Say, ‘I’m ready for a miracle!’ Second lesson? Say yes to the next thing that happens after you make that statement. Third lesson? Always bring a second good outfit in case the miracle requires you to look  good.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Hal Elrod technically died three times… but fueled by his will and optimism (like Zhena), he survived and thrived. Read his story.