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Ellis Island Tea

Detroit, MI

Nailah Ellis-Brown turns family tradition into fast-growing business

Nailah Ellis-Brown knew she wanted to go into business for herself from a young age, and she is the only person who needed to believe that in the beginning.

The Metro Detroiter went to Howard University and decided it wasn't for her before she reached 20.

"I dropped out with the intention of starting an entrepreneurial venture," says Ellis-Brown. "I didn't know which one." She adds, "I realized as I was taking classes at school that there is no cookie-cutter way to pursue entrepreneurship. It's all just trial and error."

Her great-grandfather, Cyril Byron, played a key role in finding one for her. The Jamaican immigrant came to the U.S. through Ellis Island in the early 20th Century and worked as a master chef on the Black Star Line, a shipping line started by Marcus Garvey. Byron leveraged that experience to start his own catering service in the 1940s in New York City, which supported his family for 20 years. Ellis-Brown says that when Byron died he passed down his herbal tea recipe with the instruction that it is to be sold, not told.

Ellis-Brown started to follow that advice a few years ago, launching Ellis Island Tea. She brewed the herbal tea made with hibiscus while living in her mother's basement, selling bottles of it from the trunk of her car.

"It was the most independent venture I could go with," Ellis-Brown says. "I didn't have any capital. No startup money."

Members of her family had their doubts, too. They all wanted the best for her. For members of Ellis-Brown's parents generation that meant graduating from college and getting a steady job at a big company. It’s not that they didn't believe in Ellis-Brown's abilities but they knew entrepreneurship is risky.

"Everyone fears the unknown," Ellis-Brown says. "This walk was a very faith-based walk for me because you never know."

Ellis-Brown's family started to believe when a Whole Foods store ordered her tea for its shelves. Today bottles of Ellis Island Tea can be found in 15 stores in Michigan, including every Whole Foods in the Great Lakes State. Ellis-Brown, a D:hive BUILD program graduate, hopes to have her products in 30 stores by the end of this year.

Ellis Island Tea moved into its own space earlier this year. It now occupies a 4,000-square-feet commercial space near the Russell Industrial Center on the Detroit-Hamtramck border. Ellis-Brown wants to use it as the base to take her brand of tea national. She won't have to wait that long before her family and friends are knocking on the door to get in on the ground floor of Ellis Island Tea.

"I have had several family members reach out to me wanting to invest," Ellis-Brown says. "But I haven't taken any investment from anyone yet."

- Written by Jon Zemke

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