Specialty Food Entrepreneur Shares Story

Tyler Gage 1

Written by Eva Meszaros

Immersing himself in the indigenous communities of Ecuador gave Tyler Gage insight into the daily lives of the Kichwa people and their struggle to embrace cultural traditions while making a living to support their families. Through those very traditions, he found a way to help.


As a college student, Gage traveled to Ecuador in 2008 to study Amazonian plants, and found an inextricable connection between nature and the indigenous Kichwa tribes. “For the native community,” he explains, “the supermarkets—they’re the rainforest.”

He became absorbed with their culture and way of life, but soon recognized a stark dilemma. “I’d spend all night in incredible ceremonies with rich expressions of these native traditions,” he recalls. “But then, as soon as the sun would rise, you’d hear chainsaws cutting down hardwood trees.”

His hosts often spoke strongly of the importance of protecting the environment and, through them, he learned of the daily challenges these communities face. In an increasingly globalized world, giving up valuable rainforest land was the only means of income to support their families’ needs of health, education and basic necessities.

Gage found a solution from within. Guayusa, a native plant the Kichwa brewed into tea, offered a daily source of energy and antioxidants with a smoother taste than many typical teas. Americans’ love affair with healthful energy drinks was growing, so in his final year at school, Gage and Dan MacCombie, a classmate who had also spent time in Ecuador, set to work on a business plan. They named the product Runa, meaning “fully alive” or “fully living” in Kichwa. Today, the line comprises bottled and canned tea drinks in sweetened and unsweetened varieties, tins of loose leaves and bagged teas in boxes.

Runa 1


Returning to Ecuador after graduation in 2009, Gage and MacCombie launched the business with a grant from the Ecuadorian government. Sourcing guayusa solely from those indigenous communities, Runa now supports some 2,400 farming families—more than 10,000 people, Gage estimates. “This year we’ll generate $275,000 of direct income for these farmers,” he says. Funds have had a holistic impact on the region, with more than $20,000 funneled each year into community development projects, and some 150,000 trees donated to farmers and planted annually on their land.

Gage says a nonprofit platform drives the business and its efforts to be as high-impact as possible. “We’re not a supply chain. We’re not just buying stuff and selling it, but we’re using the sourcing of goods as a way to create value,” for the local communities, the land, the country and consumers, he explains.

Runa is currently working with the Ecuadorian government to implement partial employee ownership, to make the farmers shareholders in the business. Gage plans to have a minimum of 10 percent of the company farmer-owned.


Runa has its sights set on continued growth. In 2013, Gage says, the business grew about 300 percent over 2012 numbers. “We’re on track [for 2014] to hopefully triple our sales again and triple our impact for the farmers,” he adds.

International expansion has also begun: the organization is aiming to replicate Ecuador’s successes in neighboring Peru and its native Quechua and Shipibo communities. “We’ve seen that this whole model we have—sustainable agriculture and what we call forest gardening—is one of the few tools that can be a stimulus for sustainable economic development for rural farming communities in the Amazon, but then also be a conservation tool,” Gage says.

In looking to the future, Gage, now 27 years old, reflects on past specialty food leaders that he says have paved the way for Runa’s achievements: “Our advisers and the people we see in the industry who have built incredible brands that we admire—it’s on their footsteps that we’re able to do what we do.”

For more information on how to book Tyler Gage for your next event, visit premierespeakers.com/tyler_gage.

Source: SpecialtyFood.com

Tyler Gage: CoFounder and CEO of RUNA Tea, Award Winning Entrepreneur

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