Students start business to support local refugees

GVL/Courtesy - Autumn Modena

GVL/Courtesy – Autumn Modena RefuTea

Colleen Schonfield

Starting a business as a college student can be one thing, but creating a business that raises awareness of a small unknown sector of the community that is adjusting to cultural circumstances is an entirely new approach to the modern business model.

Grand Valley State University alumna Jenna Petersen and senior Autumn Modena are prepared to take on that challenge, as the two teamed up to establish RefuTea, a tea company that raises awareness of the refugee population in Grand Rapids.

“It’s bringing a lot of awareness to refugees, because a lot of people just don’t know what that term means and don’t even realize that the people they see around their city have their own stories about their journey,” Petersen said.

Petersen, who graduated last April with a degree in English, and Modena, who will be graduating with a degree in International Relations, were in a class together called “English as a Secondary Language” which prompted the idea of integrating employable work for those unaccustomed to cultural norms. 

Combing Petersen’s past experience of international mission work and Modena’s volunteer work at Bethany Christian Services, as well as networking through multiple business pitch competitions, the two decided to pursue RefuTea as a company that would give refugees an opportunity to integrate into the U.S. workforce.

“It came from, ‘Well, what’s a practical way to employ them (refugees) and what’s something simple where they can learn a task that’s easy, where they don’t have any formal job experience,’” Petersen said.

Petersen said many of the refugees in Grand Rapids come from places such as Burma, Nepal, Sudan and Cambodia.

Taking into consideration the language barrier, Petersen and Modena picture their business as a place where customer interaction would enable refugees to practice their English-speaking skills, all the while bringing awareness to the community of who they are.

Once steady funding is established, RefuTea will make the transition from a strictly online company to a greenhouse tea café. A tentative store location is set for the Wyoming area near 28th Street, located on a city bus line that would provide easy transportation for refugees.

“We are using a three-stage business model to get to where we are, so right now we have packages of tea we’re selling on our website with a portion of the profits going toward refugees in the local community,” Modena said. “If we can get to where we generate enough sales to employ refugees to package the tea with us, then we could get enough revenue to invest in a space where we would employ them to make specialty tea beverages and help with running the shop.”

Aside from helping to fine-tune their English skills, Modena and Petersen hope their business will help refugees gain the necessary work skills to use within their own career paths and possibly spark an interest among them to become entrepreneurs themselves.

RefuTea also acts as an employable resource for refugees in aiding them with removal from governmental-assistance programs.

“You see a lot more now in the business world with people promoting diversity and inclusion, and this is just a practical way of helping people here – because it’s the only way for them to survive and it’s a way for us to generate that diversity and awareness,” Modena said.

RefuTea currently offers three flavors of loose-leaf tea, but Modena and Petersen said more flavors are to come. The company officially launched on Tuesday, Feb. 24 with a portion of the profits going toward helping refugee employment services.

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