Pauline and Olivia set out to make a quintessential Asian drink even better. Now, they’re achieving their lofty goal with Twrl — a milk tea that’s plant-based, ethically sourced, and made with minimal sugar.
Twrl uses only organic, single-origin, non-GMO tea leaves to ensure pure freshness across every flavor. The sweetest part? From Hojicha Roasted Green Tea to Supreme Jasmine Pu'erh Tea, each can contains just 6-7 grams of sugar with no added creamers.
Recently, we caught up with Pauline and Olivia to learn more about their journey and hear their advice for fellow entrepreneurs.
1. Why did you start Twrl?
Pauline: My family moved from Hong Kong to Hawaii when I was 5 years old. My dad stayed at his job in Hong Kong until I was in high school and we would always have milk tea when we visited him. And, at restaurants, my parents would order hot tea with milk and sugar (the British way) and I would be allowed a few coveted sips!
Growing up in Hawaii, Asian-fusion cuisine and Asian-inspired drinks were the norm. So, nowadays, I’m nostalgic for food and drinks that combine Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and American influences.
Olivia: I was born in the Midwest and grew up in the Bay Area, but my parents immigrated 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 Taiwanese dramas, amazing nougat candies, pineapple cakes, etc. My relatives also introduced me to a new Taiwanese craze called bubble tea — we made our own with the tapioca balls they brought (and lots of cream!) 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.
We started Twrl with the mission of making a healthier and more ethical Asian milk tea. Both of us draw upon our respective Chinese and Taiwanese heritages to bring consumers delicious products that align with our values — namely, using better-for-you ingredients that we feel comfortable giving to our children. We think our culinary traditions deserve a spot on the global stage and we’re doing our part to elevate underappreciated cultures.
2. What obstacles did you face along the way?
Starting a business is not for the faint-hearted, and founders who are women and minorities face more challenges than the norm. The beverage industry is very male-dominated, and while that posed some obstacles to getting our business off the ground, it also enabled us to tap into a new space in the market. As women, we aren’t afraid to deviate from the norm and we’re proud to be the first plant-based milk tea and the first to use pea protein as our milk base.
We’ve also had to navigate our way through America’s coffee-centric culture. Through education, product sampling, and expanding the availability of our teas and boba, we’ve been able to introduce many Americans to milk tea for the first time.
3. What lessons do you have for other entrepreneurs?
Because it’s so much 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.
4. What’s on the horizon for Twrl?
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.
Both of us dream of having Twrl Milk Tea be a heritage brand that exists in every fridge and pantry and will live for generations to come. Growing up, we didn’t see brands that had founders that looked like us or understood the cultural importance of our food. We’re excited about the future — we joke and wonder which of our kids will take over Twrl.
5. How do you keep work/life balance? What drives/inspires you?
We both make time to stay mentally and physically healthy. Pauline does Peloton every morning. Olivia does Zumba 2-3 times a week and takes a lot of walks. Olivia also loves to bake. The marketer in Olivia loves experimenting while in the kitchen. She bakes boba brownies and waffles. She even puts boba on pizzas! There's so much freedom and creativity to be found in cooking and baking.
We also carve out family time because it’s such an important part of who we are. Plus, it recharges us and gives us perspective. One of the biggest reasons we are doing this is for the next generation.