how i got this business

How Lisa Li Brought Shangri-La to New York City

Lisa Li, The Qi founder. Illustration: Rachelle Baker

After more than a decade working in the fashion industry, Lisa Li was burned-out. She decided to travel to China (where she lived until her teenage years) in search of a new business venture — specifically, one that felt restorative and healthful after so many years spent with her nose to the grindstone. In a tea parlor in Shangri-La, a town in China’s Yunnan Province, Li found the flower tea that would inspire her new business: The Qi, a whole-flower tea brand. Here’s how she came to run her own business.

On starting over:
I was born and raised in northeast Beijing. I was there until I was 14 years old, when my mom and I moved to Burlington, Vermont. I grew up with a single mom, and she worked full-time. It was often just me and my grandma, who babysat me. Those were really wonderful, wonderful memories I had as a child.

When I burned out after working in fashion for over ten years, I tried a lot of supplements, but none of it worked for me. I really wanted to go back to a place and a time where I used to drink a lot of herbal teas with my grandma — I wanted to figure out a way to find more of that feeling, if that makes any sense. So I took a trip to Yunnan [Province], or Shangri-La, to be specific. It’s a real place. Most people think it’s a hotel or something, but it’s a real place. It’s in the southwest of China, bordering Tibet and Myanmar, and it’s this super-remote village that’s really beautiful. It’s actually the birthplace of tea. So I went with my mom, and when we went, I was thinking, I can probably find a really, really high-quality tea there, because that’s where tea came from. On the first day there, we actually came across the rose tea in the very first tea store we visited.

I went in thinking about something very different. I’d never seen or had a flower tea or rose tea like that before, even though I’ve been drinking tea my whole life. After I came back to New York, I realized that this tea didn’t really exist outside of that small area. So I guess if there was an epiphany, that was probably it. I was like, I really need to make this available so people can try it. 

On following her gut:
I don’t think I [asked for feedback], to be honest. In hindsight, that probably would have been smart. I just had this gut feeling. I personally was so transformed — when I was drinking it, it was just so beautiful. I’ve never had anything like it, ever. And I felt like if [the tea] was this different and this unique, I needed to do it. There was really no one else I felt could do it other than me. Shangri-La doesn’t really have a lot of visitors, let alone visitors from the U.S.

I felt like I needed to do it, and I never really thought it wouldn’t work out. Or maybe I didn’t have any expectations. I would just keep going. I’ll keep growing it. And I love doing it. I love offering something that’s so simple. It’s an herbal flower that has amazing untapped health benefits, and flowers make people happy. I felt like there was nothing about it that was harmful or bad in any way, shape, or form. And it makes me happy. It gives me a much bigger purpose. And if it never grows into a billion-dollar unicorn business, I’m totally okay with it.

On knowing her skill set:
I had a different small business before I started Qi, so that probably gave me a lot more confidence going into it, because I’d sort of done that whole thing once before already. In that case, I think I was too early. I was really obsessed with sustainable fashion, and I had an alpaca-yarn brand I sourced from Peru, which was a similar experience in a way.

Because I was born and raised in China, I speak the language. I think that sets me apart so much, and sets me up for success much better than anybody who might not speak the language, because in Shangri-La, where we source our rose from, unless you speak the language, you can’t get around. Unless you just know how to get around and talk to people and communicate, it’s extremely difficult to work with these small family farmers.

On prioritizing the product:
I poured in my entire savings and the little money I made from the last business into Qi. I try to be super resourceful and frugal. I don’t have a marketing budget. We’re not big at all: just two full-time employees, including myself, and a couple of part-time contractors. I look for other ways I can organically grow the brand and try to be very sustainable in my spending. I use all my resources to improve the product, because I think at the end of the day, the product is what sells. You have to have a marketing strategy and create buzz. But ultimately, if your product is not helping anyone, if it doesn’t do anything, that will only last so long.

Pretty early on, we went to a couple of trade shows, and at one of them, we met with Bloomingdale’s. We were so young — I think it was before we were one year old, and they placed an order and that was our biggest wholesale order ever. And I felt like, Oh, if Bloomingdale’s is placing an order, it must mean that we’re onto something. 

On the zen of tea:
I think we live in a pretty stressful time, to say the least. What makes me feel really proud is that our products help people feel better. Flowers bring joy. It brightens people’s day, and it’s deeply nourishing. It’s also very light, if you want to compare it to coffee or even alcohol. It’s just this really light, beautiful, simple ritual for anybody who needs a moment, whether it’s to de-stress or do something nice for themselves.

On preventing future burnout:
Just managing expectations. Like I said earlier, I don’t expect this to be anything more than what I want it to be. I’m just giving myself grace and giving myself time to rest, to relax. Maybe you could call Qi a hobby, but I think there is so much more power in doing things you love. I try to incorporate things that are really fun for me to do. My background is mostly creative. So I just do a lot of things that naturally sustain me, like doing tea recipes and other creative aspects of the business. Doing things that don’t make you burn out seems to be the answer.

How Lisa Li Brought Shangri-La to New York City