Her name is Nailah Ellis-Brown and she’s a boss, running her natural tea manufacturing company, Ellis Infinity, LLC. The entrepreneur is defying the odds. At the age of 20, she started her hand-crafted tea business inside her parent’s basement in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan where she was born and raised during the height of the Great Recession in one of the hardest hit cities in America. She should have failed. Ellis-Brown did not and she was then just 20-years-old.
Driven and inspired by a family recipe, her Jamaican Sweet Tea has been passed down from her immigrant great-grandfather who came to America through Ellis Island and was a master chef for Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line. A young woman of vision, Ellis-Brown began selling bottles of tea from a cooler in the trunk of her car back in 2008.
“People would see me and say ‘Hey aren’t you that lemonade girl?’ and I’d say ‘No, I make tea,” Ellis-Brown said. “There is a lot of history in the recipe for this tea. It was handed down to me from my great-grandfather Cyril Byron, who was a Jamaican immigrant. He knew his recipe had value. He passed it down through the generations with the caveat that it was to be ‘sold, not told’ – meaning take the tea to market. I am honoring his legacy every single day with every bottle of Ellis Island Tea I brew and sell.”
Now just 30-years-old, she’s putting her efforts into growing her business and in 2014, she opened her first beverage production and co-packaging facility in Detroit landing numerous commercial accounts.
Ellis-Brown’s business is thriving and has just inked a deal that will test her family recipe for Jamaican Sweet Tea in every Sam’s Club adding to the list which includes more than 1,500 stores such as Whole Foods, Meijer and Kroger, in high-traffic airports nationwide, in niche markets and online.
A young entrepreneur with many glowing accolades and awards to applaud her accomplishments which now include the 2017 The Root 100; 2017 All-Star Forbes 30 Under 30; 2017 National Television Winner of the Centric TV’s business reality series Queen Boss; Recipient of MSNBC Your Business Makeover; 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30; 2016 Magic Johnson’s Playbook 32 under 32; 2015 Crain’s Detroit Business magazine 20 in their 20’s Award; 2015 National TV debut: Meredith Vieira talk show guest; 2015 Black Chamber of Commerce Next Gen Entrepreneur of the Year; 2015 National Manufacturing STEP Ahead Emerging Leader Honoree; 2015 Innovate Michigan! Summit Keynote Speaker; 2015 Detroit Young Professionals Vanguard Award; 2014 Michigan State University Product Center Entrepreneur of the Year Award; 2014 Spirit of Detroit Award; 2014 Achiever’s Award from Detroit Black Women’s Business Expo; 2014 Pretty Brown Girls Dream Big Award; 2014 NEIdeas grant recipient.
It’s in the taste buds. You can’t fool a happy palate. Last fall when Ellis-Brown’s bottled Jamaican Sweet Tea – known as Ellis Island Tea – hit the shelves in Sam’s Clubs in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio the response to the Sam’s Club exclusive 64-ounce bottles of her hibiscus-based tea was so good that Ed Romero, Sam’s Club Sr. Vice President General Merchandise Manager of Fresh, decided to give Ellis-Brown a shot at the rest of the Sam’s Club locations.
“We’re heading into summer so the timing couldn’t be better,” Ellis-Brown said. “Ellis Island Tea is the perfect party beverage for summer celebrations, backyard barbecues or holiday festivities. It is an antioxidant-rich, beautiful red tea with a smooth, exotic flavor. It offers iced tea lovers a fresh, innovative beverage made from all-natural ingredients.”
Romero said he enjoys the tea’s “complex flavor and fantastic color.”
“Bringing high quality, unique items that are exclusive to Sam’s Club is what we’re all about,” said Romero. “We think our members are going to love this item. And we’re proud that Nailah even uses our Member’s Mark All-American Fancy Clover White Honey as one of her ingredients.”
Ellis-Brown is the only African American female beverage maker in the United States with her own manufacturing plant. Since opening her state-of-the-art facility, she’s been able to provide services for other small beverage companies who can’t afford the minimum batch requirements of larger production outlets.
While others doubted her potential for success, Ellis-Brown knew deep down that she had the right ingredients to make it. One of those was resilience, and the other determination.
“Growing up in Detroit, I knew nothing was going to be handed to me. I expected doors to be closed and knew I would need to work hard and never take ‘no’ for an answer,” she said. “I’ve heard ‘no’ but I haven’t let that stand in my way. There is always a way forward.”
Here is what Nailah Ellis-Brown had to say about what makes her Jamaican Sweet Tea so “sweet” and what it takes to become a success in the tea business.
Los Angeles Sentinel (LAS): What makes a good iced tea and what makes a great iced tea?
Nailah Ellis-Brown (NEB): A good iced tea is steeped from real herbs and all natural ingredients. It is not made from concentrates, syrup or artificial ingredients like many national name brands are.
A great iced tea is one of a kind, handcrafted and steeped from real herbs, all natural ingredients and offers innovative flavors. Of course, I think Ellis Island Tea is a great iced tea. It is the only Jamaican Sweet Tea in the entire country. It is 100 percent natural, brewed from real hibiscus herbs, rose hips, peppermint and sweetened with honey and pure cane sugar. It’s rich in antioxidants, has a flavor that is unique and a color that is beautiful. It is a tea made from a recipe with more than a hundred-year family tradition.
LAS: What’s the best thing about living your dream? Assuming that this is your dream!
NEB: For me, living the dream is freedom, having the freedom to choose what I want to spend my time and energy on, the freedom to travel, the freedom to spend time with my family. Am I living the dream? Almost. At this stage, I am still building my company so that it has the momentum to grow without me having to manage every single aspect of it myself. I love entrepreneurship because it truly allows me to shape my own destiny through hard work and prayer. Once Ellis Island Tea becomes a bona fide, well-known national beverage, financial freedom should follow. I’m still hard at work on that!
LAS: Do you remember your first glass of great ice tea?
NEB: I do. It was during a family gathering. What’s funny is that I watched as others tried my great-grandfather’s recipe for Jamaican Sweet Tea and their reactions were so dramatic. They loved it and could not believe the taste. I remember my first sip like it was yesterday. It was bursting with flavor and literally the best beverage I had ever tried.
LAS: On a deserted island besides your tea, you would take what along?
NEB: My family of course! Where would I be without Rob and Aaliyah?
LAS: How do you balance your busy life?
NEB:Balance is sometimes elusive. I work very hard to ensure that running Ellis Island Tea does not become a 24-7 job, but when you are an entrepreneur everything really does depend on you and your decisions. I try to set time aside in the mornings for exercise and to take Aaliyah to school. I also try to ensure that we have family time, meals together and map out time for travel. Life isn’t perfect, but when you have a partner like my husband Rob and a mom like mine, who tries to lend support when needed, life is pretty good!
LAS: Please, finish this sentence: I love being a boss … because …
NEB: I know that whatever I am building will benefit my family, my community and me personally. It’s not for the benefit of some faceless corporate executive or corporation. As I mentioned before, I like the freedom that comes with being an entrepreneur, but it comes with a lot of responsibility. I don’t mind that. Knowing that I am creating jobs for fellow Detroiters is another great aspect of being a boss.
To learn where you can pick up Ellis-Brown’s Jamaican Sweet Tea go to her website for more information:
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/ellisislandtea
Twitter – https://twitter.com/ellisislandtea
Instagram – http://instagram.com/ellisislandtea