Kevin Smiley and SuraiTea: A story steeped in social change


Kevin Smiley is currently a full-time MBA student at the University of Ottawa and founder of SuraiTea Inc. Born and raised in Ottawa, he took environmental engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston and worked previously in renewable power and sustainable real estate development. Kevin has a passion for helping others and is intrinsically motivated to do his part to create positive social and environmental change in the world. He is a mentor to youth and volunteers as a tutor to high school students in math, science and business on a weekly basis. He is an organic vegetable gardener, enjoys cooking, believes in paying it forward and believes that everybody can make a difference. Kevin currently lives in Ottawa, and is a proud Engineering Intern and OSPE member. The following post was written by Kevin.

Since November 2015, I have been following the Syrian refugee issue closely. After seeing and reading many stories about the enormous strain on resources that not-for-profit organizations were experiencing, I wanted to do something to help. With an engineering mind-set, I am always wondering how things work and trying to solve problems, and so I started to do some detailed research of the resettling effort. In addition, in early February, I heard from my entrepreneurship course professor about a start-up weekend at the uOttawa Telfer School of Management with the theme of refugee resettling. I shifted my focus from some of the other ideas I had to how a business could be created to help refugees get settled in Canada, and started developing a business canvas.

The ideation phase was a type of creative chaos where everything and anything as a business idea was written down to help refugees. Then, the elimination phase began, which was a high level review of the complexity, market and capital requirements of each of the ideas to determine which was the ‘lowest hanging fruit’. Once I had decided that tea appeared to have the highest potential, I began to research it.

Over the next two months, I reached out to close friends and family and pitched the idea to receive initial thoughts about perceptions and feedback. Based on that, a second business model canvas was created and the focus turned to the minimum viable production. I built bridges into the Syrian community and the organizations active in the resettling. In addition, I traveled to the various suppliers to create the supply chain for the business.

I incorporated the company on March 15 and I began to plan the initial validation production run. I hired a videography firm, a packaging designer and some photographers to help document the process and concisely explain our message to customers.

World Skills Ottawa, an employment agency for new immigrants, played a very important role by assembling the workforce of 20 refugees for our first production day – April 4 – which is Refugee Rights Day in Canada. We shuttled 20 refugees and one translator to Urban Element, a certified and inspected kitchen in a heritage building in Ottawa, and packaged the first 1000 units of tea that day. Over $2500 in wages for the refugees and translator was created, and we also provided lunch.

We documented the day with photos and video and really had a great time. There was song and dance and everybody was happy. The most touching moment for me during the day was when a man from Syria told me that it was the best day of his life over the last five years. He was formerly a gold dealer in Syria and then spent time living in a refugee camp in Jordan after fleeing the war. He was overjoyed to be taking part in the initial production.

A group photograph of the 20 Syrian refugees, one translator and Kevin Smiley on Refugee Rights Day in Canada when SuraiTea’s first production run was held.

Subsequently, the online store launched on April 16. SuraiTea’s mission is to use the power of the markets to create positive social change for refugees in Canada. The goals of the company are to:

  1. Create high value employment opportunities for refugees who have arrived in Canada; and,
  2. To establish a sustainable source of corporate donations to the not-for-profit organizations that are active in the refugee resettling effort in Canada.

The sale of the first 1000 units will allow us to donate $5000 to a not-for-profit helping with the resettling. In our first two days, we sold over $2000 worth of tea online and at two events.

I believe that as engineers, we must move fast, think big and find balance. We are busy people and are well equipped to use business to solve problems but we must also live balanced lives to stay healthy and positive to use our skills for good.

At SuraiTea Inc., we believe that business can be used for good. We believe that tea can be used as a medium for social change for refugees here in Canada and potentially, in the long term, world-wide. There is much for us to do between now and then, but the logo has six petals to symbolize the six landmasses on the planet. The more our customers support us by signing on to our online store and purchasing our teas, the more positive social change for refugees we can create.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Guy Boone, P.Eng

    Check out Video, & consider making a purchase to support Kevin’s vision…

    The PEO Ottawa Chapter /OSPE “Engineering Innovation Eco-system” (join & Search for Meetup) has been pleased to support Kevin in his journey, & his inspiration has been encouragement and resourceful to other Engineer+Entrepreniours.

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