A Zest for Innovation
Alum Secures $1M to Pep Up Energy Drink Company Zest Tea
At his first post-college job, James Fayal’s late nights meant he had to give up a rite of passage for many of the newly employed: happy hour. His unconventionally long hours as an investment analyst called for a different kind of 5 o’clock beverage.
Fayal became an avid tea drinker, and when the caffeine jolt wore off, he turned to stronger or more sugary beverages for energy.
“I really hated making that compromise,” Fayal ’12 said.
In 2014, Fayal quenched his guilt and founded Zest Tea as a low- or no-sugar energy drink alternative. Now, he’s secured $1 million in funding from the University System of Maryland’s Maryland Momentum Fund and other investors, which will support the eight-employee company’s plans to expand.
“We can finally look out a year and say: What can we do now to increase our chances of success in the future?” Fayal said.
As early as high school, Fayal was constantly dreaming up new ideas for the next big startup. In ninth grade, he was on the winning team at an invention convention for a device that helped restart dying fireplaces.
Zest Tea outlasted Fayal’s other ideas because it was a tangible product that was relevant to him, he said. He worked with friends and relatives who had engineering backgrounds to develop over a two-year period to create a process that infuses the tea leaves with an additional natural tea extract, he said.
According to the company website, its teas contain triple the caffeine of an ordinary brew, and are augmented with the amino acid L-theanine. The ingredient is thought to promote relaxation and reduce the jitter-and-crash feelings potentially caused by typical high-caffeine energy drinks. It comes in traditional flavors like Earl Grey and more exotic ones like pomegranate mojito.
Between his day job at CincyTech Ventures and his startup, Fayal was working an unsustainable 100-plus hours a week. But a $40,000 grant from Venture for America, a fellowship program for recent graduates interested in entrepreneurship, was the green light he needed to stop his his work in investments and focus solely on Zest Tea.
While “nothing on the planet prepares you to be the CEO of a startup,” Fayal said, his studies in finance at UMD provided him with helpful tools. He’s kept in touch with Mark Grovic, an adjunct professor, who predicted Fayal’s intelligence and self-starter attitude would lead to professional success.
“He was impatient – but I say that as a compliment,” Grovic said. “He needed to get right to building and working with early-stage companies.”
Zest Tea carries tea bag and loose-leaf pouches, and in the past year, has added a sparkling iced tea to its line of products. It’s also expanded its retail market, selling to places like 7-Eleven and Safeway. In March, Zest Tea will make its way to stores in New York. Fayal hopes the company will crack $3 million in sales this year.
“The end goal has been and always will be to be a staple consumer product in the U.S.,” Fayal said. “There are a lot of challenges to overcome, but that’s where we want to take it.”