Co-Founder & CMO
Twrl Milk Tea
Tell us about yourself, Twrl Milk Tea, and how Ascend NorCal inspires the work you do.
Both Founder & CEO Pauline Ang and I started Twrl Milk Tea with the mission to make delicious Asian milk tea healthier and more ethical, namely better-for-you ingredients that we feel comfortable giving to our children.
Our work embodies the essence of what Ascend represents, including empowerment, growth, and collaboration with a connection to our respective Chinese and Taiwanese heritage. We think Taiwanese and Chinese culinary traditions deserve a spot on the global stage and we’re doing our part to elevate underappreciated cultures.
While I was born in the Midwest and grew up in Bay Area, CA, my parents emigrated from Taiwan. I was a typical American Born Chinese (ABC) kid. Even though I learned about Chinese traditions and stories, it all felt far removed from me.
This changed in middle school when my extended family came to visit us. I was suddenly exposed to a new world of Taiwan culture. My aunt and cousin told me about a new craze in Taiwan called bubble tea, and brought tapioca balls! We made our own bubble tea (so much cream was used!). I have fond memories of brewing different types of teas and experimenting with different toppings including taro and red bean. Eating and drinking together transcended that cultural and language barrier I felt.
What advice would you offer fellow Ascend members who are thinking about starting their own business?
Because it’s more challenging for women and minorities to start a new business, it’s important to find your community. Seek out people that believe in your mission and vision and keep them close! We’ve also come to appreciate the importance of paying homage to your heritage. Sharing the parts of your personal history and culture that aren’t mainstream is a powerful lesson in self-acceptance.
With regards to our products, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the impact of determining your fundamental brand tenets and staying true to them throughout the process. For Twrl, we’ve always prioritized premium ingredients, low sugar, and low calories even when it requires more effort and a higher cost.
Overall, what have you learned about yourself through your entrepreneurial journey?
Here are a few lessons I’ve come to appreciate along our journey:
COMBINE RESEARCH WITH PASSION: Beverage is a crowded space, and even more ready-to-drink beverages launched during the pandemic. As obsessive milk tea drinkers ourselves, we saw a gap in the market for something we both loved that no other brand was doing.
REACH OUT & DON’T BE SHY! To validate our instincts, we are constantly testing our product development and marketing messages to make sure they resonate with our target audience. We’ve done everything from meeting strangers at a cafe to chat, to using our pop-up events as a way to get customer feedback and help further develop our product. We do it all ourselves because we want to hear the most unfiltered, authentic feedback possible.
RECOGNIZE & ENVISION: Understand what value your product brings to the table. Our goal is to be the next go-to coffee-alternative, while being committed to great taste and sustainability. Be open-minded to feedback, understand what feedback is worthy of change and when.
RE-EVALUATE: Think about if you have the bandwidth to do this 24-7. It’s all consuming as a founder, especially with a family and young kids! Often times, there are too many great ideas and lots of people love giving well-intended advice. It is important to prioritize and think about what projects will produce short-term and long-term results.
EXECUTE: Plan the product development and have good marketing to back it up. As a small business it is important to iterate and see what resonates with consumers as you test your products and messages. Understand your core message but keep in mind there are a million ways to message your consumers.
There must’ve been so much you and your co-founder didn’t know in the beginning. Did you have mentors who helped guide you through the process?
The mentors and community I've found along the way, much like those within Ascend, have been instrumental in navigating the challenges of entrepreneurship. They’ve helped us navigate the constant changes and fluctuations of the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) landscape.
Here’s a few key lessons from a small sampling of our mentors:
Vanessa Dew, Co-Founder of Healthade Kombucha who taught us this is a long game, like think 10 years. You can't flip it like a house, and it’s not a sexy tech startup.
Ellen Chen, Co-Founder of Mendocino Farms who taught us the importance of understanding what customers want.
Jenny Eu, Founder of Three Trees who stated the obvious - It is not easy! It is a grind! She was delivering her plant-based milks on her own for two to three years before she could hire staff.
What’s next for you?
With American tastes opening up to Asian flavors, we hope to usher in a new generation of boba milk tea drinkers. Plus with our focus on health and sustainability, we hope to attract former boba milk tea drinkers who stopped regularly consuming boba tea from cafes because of too many calories and too much sugar. In the next few months, we’re launching into several new retailers with a very strong footprint across the US. Also, we’re always tinkering with new flavor ideas so keep an eye out for some new products in the next year!
Both of us dream of having Twrl Milk Tea becoming a heritage brand. In bringing cafe-style milk teas and boba toppings to the home, we are changing what’s in our pantry and fridge. Growing up, I didn’t see brands that had founders who looked like me or understood the cultural importance that food has for us. I’m excited about the future and we jokingly wonder which of our kids will take over Twrl so it will thrive for generations to come.
Pauline and Olivia with Twrl Milk Tea