Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hip + Urban Girl of the Week: Zoey Shamai

I had first heard of Zoey Shamai, founder & president of Tonica Kombucha through my friend Brenda, "You know someone brewing kombucha in Parkdale? And she's selling it in Whole Foods?" I exclaimed. I knew I had to meet Zoey to find out more about this crazy venture and how she ended up on Dragon's Den with her fizzy health drink. Meet Zoey, our latest Hip + Urban Girl of the Week!

So what exactly is Kombucha?

Kombucha is a naturally fermented sparkling tea.  It has been made for centuries, particularly by people in Eastern Europe & Asia, who drank it for its unique ability to aid in digestion. Common Folklore has it that kombucha was first discovered by the emperor of the Xin Dynasty in 221 BC who referred to it as the “Elixir of Life”. 

What are the benefits of this drink?

Kombucha is packed full of living enzymes, antioxidants, and liver-cleansing acids, which is created during fermentation. When bottled raw (without pasteurization), as we do with Tonica, kombucha contains all of these nutrients and is great for aiding digestion, cleansing the liver, and renewing skin cells.

How did you end up creating Tonica Kombucha and how is it different from other brands?

I first discovered kombucha six years ago while studying yoga in New Mexico and loved the effects it had on my digestion. It gave me an energized buzz and reminded me of ale because of the fermented flavour, but at that time in my life I was fully absorbed in the yoga world and wasn’t drinking any alcohol or eating refined sugar, so this was a very exciting treat!! When I moved back to Toronto I continued to brew it for myself & friends. Because there was no kombucha sold in stores at that time, I started to sell my tonic to my yoga students after class. Before long, everyone was asking for more and more kombucha and Tonica pretty much took over.

Tonica differs from other commercial brands because of our artisanal process. I wanted to keep our process as authentic as possible so that everyone could experience the benefits inherent in true raw kombucha.We brew in small batches, using all natural and organic ingredients, and less sugar than most other commercially available brands.  Tonica has only four grams of sugar per serving and 45 calories per bottle. Some other kombucha brands do not list their sugar content, but it is there because it is essential for making Kombucha. In addition, some kombucha's use an artificial carbonation process similar to soft drinks. Tonica uses a completely natural carbonation process that gives us our light champagne like bubble.

What was it like to be on Dragon's Den?

It was awesome! I spent the month before my pitch preparing with lots of friends in different fields and everyone was really helpful. When I actually walked on stage I was pumped and ready. I was nervous, of course, but as soon as I saw the dragons I felt like all I had to do was let it flow.  

The actual taping was much longer than the five minute edit aired on television. It was really quite fun to field the Dragon’s questions and present Tonica. They loved it! I was probably out there for about 25 minutes, so it was really neat to see how they edited the final segment for TV. They did a great job. 

After the show we received an overwhelming response from viewers asking where they could get some Tonica. It was great to get so much positive feedback and we have continued to have a ton of growth ever since. I learned so much from the process of preparing for the show and working with the Dragons’ team in the months that followed. I would encourage anyone who has been thinking about taking their business on the show to go for it! 

What is your typical day like?

Gosh! Nothing ever seems typical about my days. Generally, I start the day off with a home practice of yoga. Next I’ll turn on some Rock n' Roll to get pumped for the day while I pack my bags for work and the gym. I down some green algae, lemon water and head out the door.

I usually get to the "kombrewery" around 8:30 am, which is in Parkdale. Often I'll have a meeting with my production manager and brew master, and then create my do list for the day. If it’s the start of the week, I’ll hang in the office and plow through projects. I always try to break for my favourite Cardio Blast class mid morning.  

If it’s mid or towards the end week, I’ll head out on the town, pop into retail stores that carry Tonica, catch up with the staff and chat about sales, promos, feedback, our boyfriends, and of course store gossip. All the important things that keeps our brand on top of everyone's mind! Other days I’ll focus on new accounts and meet with store buyers and cafe managers. Everyone is so busy, so the key is to meet, bedazzle with Tonica and make some great new connections. End of day will often have me back at Tonica headquarters, responding to emails and following up on any left-over to do list items.

Tell us about some cool opportunities you've experienced because of your job!

I travel across Canada and frequent delicious organic shops & cafes and get to write them off as business research. 

One very cool and special opportunity is when I’ve been invited to speak to high school students about entrepreneurship. It’s so lovely to see their eager teenage faces and share what I know. The question period is always hilarious and I feel good after the talks, really good.

I’ve also become friends with some starlet types and other CEO’s because of their love of my product- this can mean fun invites to hang out with internationally famous speakers behind the scenes, VIP passes to fashion events and participating in unique shows like Idea City. 

Oh, and such great food and products! Everyone in our industry (organics) loves to share and shower us with delicious items in exchange for Tonica. THAT is fantastic!

What is a disadvantage of your job that maybe we don't think about?

Lots of hard work. At the end of the day if I don’t steer this ship, no one else will. There are a lot of long days and nights I’ve put in over the last five years and there is still a lot I want to accomplish.

I’m lucky to have a SUPER supportive family and the best boyfriend ever, and amazing friends who were so supportive through the early years of Tonica and still are. It would've been very difficult to create this company without every ones support.

Where did you go for college/university and what did you study?

I went to George Brown for Clothing Design and then out west to Simon Fraser University.   Although I really enjoyed it, I only lasted one year at University before heading to New Mexico to study Yoga. At university I studied Women’s Studies and Moral Philosophy. I was compelled to leave because of the strong connection I felt with the Yoga community.  

However it didn’t all go to waste-I continued to make yoga clothing to help pay for my yoga studies in those years, and today I still ponder the moral philosophy behind current fashion trends. Ha! And of course, my yoga practice is what keeps me flowing through all the ups and downs the day brings.

Is there anything you would have done differently or advise others about?

Listened more and talked less in business negotiations. This is advice all the women in my family gave me, and it’s taken me awhile to keep my mouth shut and see how well it works!

Where are your favourite places to hang out in Toronto? 

For Brunch I love going to Liberty Street Cafe which has such a nice atmosphere and delicious menu. After work, the Drake Hotel has ½ priced Sushi at cocktail hour, so I’m often there with one of my girlfriends for a drink and a snack. 

Though my boyfriend is a total carnivore, and I LOVE going to Live Organic cafe, we both concur on Milagro, which has delicious authentic Mexican food and yummy margaritas. Also Drift Bar is cozy and has surprisingly good food with veg options - last season they had a Beet burger! When the weather’s good I love hanging out in Trinity Bellwoods park. My friends and I will often grab a picnic from Fresh and spread out on the grass.

Who inspires you?

People who create with the cards life hands them, taking the reins and steering to positivity to the best of their ability. Although I didn't end up picking Arlene Dickenson on the Dragon’s Den, I am totally inspired by her story. I loved reading her book Persuasion and learning how, piece by piece, she figured out how to rebuild her life through her own will, seizing opportunities as they presented themselves, and her drive to have what made her happiest, family.   

What would you tell your 20 year-old self?

Get ready girl, the ride just started! Also, you don't know everything!

What life advice do you have for hip + urban girls out there trying to figure out what they want to do?

Follow your hunches about the ideas you get. If you think you have a unique idea and you notice a lot of positive response to it - follow that lead. Talk to as many people as you can to get information. If you find your energy keeps building around it and feel energized about pursuing the idea, go for it!  

Over the years I've really come to embrace an old adage that I never bought into in my youth, but now I believe it to be true. Nothing worth having comes without hard work. The things I find the most rewarding are the ones I've worked the hardest to obtain. The bigger the reward the bigger the efforts required. It's not a free ride, but if your tenacious and keep up with your dreams, you'll make them come true!

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Looking for more inspiration? Meet some of our past Hip + Urban Girls of the Week

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