“Zakti is not a concept, but rather a way of being,” says Janeil Engelstad, co-founder of Zakti, a Dallas-based specialty tea purveyor. The company’s name is a nod to the Sanskrit term that translates to “positive energy.” This ethos permeates every aspect of the brand’s culture.
“Holding and projecting positive energy, both inward and outward, is the guiding mantra for our lives, thus it naturally extends to our business,” Engelstad says.
Engelstad wears many hats: artist, curator, educator, writer. She is an affiliate artist at the Social Practice Arts Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has taught at universities throughout Europe and North America and is an artist in residence at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Artistically, Engelstad’s work incorporates strong social themes. Take, for example, her work as founding director of Make Art with Purpose (MAP), an organization that produces interdisciplinary art and design projects addressing social and environment issues. In order to execute projects like Voices From the Center — an interview series focusing on the changes of post-communism life in central Europe that included exhibitions, panel discussions and lectures through Central Europe and the U.S. — Engelstad immerses herself within the communities she is researching while working closely with universities, governments and various NGOs.
Somehow, amidst all this work, she also manages — along with her partner Pamela Miller — to provide access to unique, high-end specialty teas to the DFW market and beyond as co-founder of Zakti.
She grew up in Seattle, where a large Asian population has created a strong culture around embracing the history of tea as well as its various cultural practices. Her experience there nurtured her infatuation with tea.
“Tea provided entry into the Eastern world and point of view, which offered an expansive, nonlinear way of looking [at] and embracing life that was 180 degrees from Western thought,” she says.
The culture of tea also lent itself nicely to her artistic inclinations, making the business an easy addition to her professional life.
“The art and business of tea is a natural complement to this work, as tea has a deep social history that intersects with many concerns and practices,” she says.
For Miller, who got into tea later in life through her relationship with Engelstad, tea didn’t meld as seamlessly with her professional life in retail operations management. Back in 2000, Miller was arriving in Dallas to assume the role of vice president in operations for Neiman Marcus, a company with which she spent 17 years, including stints in Chicago and Beverly Hills.
“I left Neiman Marcus because I knew that it was time to do something for myself, where I could express myself, my values, ideas and passion through business that I create from the ground up,” Miller says. “I bring Zakti into my practice as a way to slow down and share thoughts and ideas.”
Zakti isn’t the only thing Miller has helped build from the ground up, either, nor has she completely abandoned the corporate sphere. She is also founder and co-partner of Lead2Success, a coaching and consulting firm that produces leadership development programs that promote emotional intelligence, communications and employee engagement and boasts clients like Microsoft, ConocoPhillips and Southern Methodist University.
Miller and Engelstad share a love of travel and tea, and they were on a trip to Malaysia in the early aughts when they decided they wanted to take their appreciation of tea to the next level.
“In the large outdoor farmer’s market in Kuala Lumpur, we stumbled upon a tea house and it was there that our love of tea moved from the personal to the professional,” Engelstad says. “I say stumbled because we were literally stumbling about in the chaos of the place, full of people and activity in crowded stalls with pungent odors of poultry, meat and spices sweltering in the thick, humid heat. The tea room was an oasis.”
Miller recognizes that trip as the provenance of the company. “Our visit to the tea house in Kuala Lumpur was, for me, life-changing,” she says, recalling how that trip started her down a rabbit hole leading her to become a member of the Specialty Tea Institute, taking her to World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, and sending her down the path of becoming a Certified Tea Specialist, a goal she will achieve later this year.
Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world after water. Historically it hasn’t developed quite the cultural significance in the United States as in many other areas of the world, but according to the Specialty Tea Institute, it is the fastest-growing beverage in the U.S. market, boasting a $10 billion market value.
According to Engelstad, part of the difficulty in converting stateside tea-drinkers is perception, which is why Zakti emphasizes education with consumers and wholesale partners alike.
“One of the challenges is that people associate tea with the bagged variety, which in most cases is low-quality tea made from stems and dust from the leaves,” she says. “Even higher-quality teas in bags cannot be enjoyed to the fullest, as the leaf does not have the optimum amount of room to expand in the bag.
“Part of our mission at Zakti is to provide people with opportunities and knowledge to experience the beautiful flavors of tea. Tasting and drinking tea is much closer to the experience of drinking good wine.”
While some markets in the U.S. have caught on more quickly than others, Miller takes pride in helping pave the path toward a tea-fluent DFW.
“If you go to New York, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles and a few other cities, you will find a big, vibrant tea culture,” she says. “Since we began, we have seen the appreciation of specialty loose-leaf tea grow along with its presentation and consumption here in Dallas.”
The brand also forms relationships with producers that represent the same values they do, focusing on partnering with producers that employ sustainable growing practices and treat the workers doing the picking and processing fairly.
“It is important to us that our teas come from family-owned farms and larger tea estates that treat their workers well,” Miller says. “As much as possible, we source fair trade and certified organic teas.”
Initially these teas were only available through the company’s website; however, the brand has garnered a loyal base of wholesale partners — including local favorites like Davis Street Espresso and the Wild Detectives — and continues to grow in its wholesale capacity, recently becoming the exclusive tea purveyor of the Adolphus Hotel.
As time marches forward, Egelstad says they plan “to let the business expand and grow naturally while we continue to source and share some of the most beautiful teas in the world.”
Miller and Engelstad may have entered the world of tea in different ways, but what they clearly share is a passion for tea, and more than that, a passion for people. In finding a way to do what they love, they have also found a way to spread that positive energy one cup at a time.
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