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Inspiring Conversations with Devin Li of Cha Community

Today we’d like to introduce you to Devin Li.

Hi Devin, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
I am a child of Chinese immigrants. At the age of 13, I moved to Houston, Texas and eventually attended Baylor University studying Mechanical Engineering. I enjoyed problem-solving as an engineer in the corporate world but I found myself desiring to make a difference through working with people and supporting young people in their goals. Through an unexpected job layoff, I transitioned my career to become an Engineering High School Teacher in Waco, Texas and truly enjoyed teaching young minds.

In 2018 my wife, Jaja, and I started our boba tea company – Waco Cha- in Waco, Texas with the mission of bridging cultures & creating community. Waco Cha – now known as Cha Community – was inspired by a span of time where learning to cook and make tea were essentials for creating community. As Asian Americans with Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant backgrounds, we had difficulty finding not only a diverse and representative community where we felt we belonged but also the food and drinks we grew up loving in our current city.

We combined our passions for authentic Chinese and Taiwanese food and beverages with our values of diversity, community, and courage. Although we didn’t have a business plan, our mission, values, and boba tea recipes pushed us to apply for a boba tea pop-up at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market. 茶 (chá) – the Chinese word for “tea” – was incorporated into our name a logo, and after a year of waiting, we were able to launch at the Farmers Market on Saturday, June 16, 2018 in a 10×10 tent.

Through the support of our local community, we were able to launch our mobile tea truck in the Summer of 2019, just one year after opening at the Farmers Market! We continued to seek and create community through events and gatherings focused around tea and dumplings, using original recipes from Devin’s grandfather. While the COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to several Waco Cha community events, in the Spring of 2020, we were able to not only open our first storefront in downtown Waco but also roll out our food concept pop-up tent at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market soon thereafter in the Summer of 2020.

In the Fall of 2021, Waco Cha, LLC rebranded from the original name of “Waco Cha” to “Cha Community” to better encompass our mission, values, and vision for the company — bridging cultures and creating community through handcrafted dumplings and premium boba tea. We plan to continue creating community within our team, with our guests, and within the local communities Cha Community is a part of.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It definitely has not been a smooth road. Even though Waco is racially diverse, Asian population is only around 2-3% based on the most recent census. As a result, Boba Teas were not as widely known by the community in comparison to other beverages. We had to do a lot of explanation and education to our customers on what boba was. We even experienced some occasional racism from customers who didn’t appreciate our products as much.

During the early months of the pandemic, we had to quickly pivot and adapt our business. We delayed our new storefront opening for about three months and we took precautionary steps by shutting down operations when some team members had potential COVID-19 exposures. Our small business received much support in the midst of this time. For example, our guests pre-purchased thousands of dollars worth of gift cards to help us stay afloat; many also came regularly to show support as we mobilized our mobile tea truck to sell drinks to-go.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
Cha Community’s (hereafter “Cha”) mission and values flow from the idea that our company plays within the ecosystem of creating community. Our company’s mission is bridging cultures & creating community through premium boba tea and Taiwanese and Chinese food. Our values are community, diversity, and courage.

Cha’s mission and values flow from the idea that our company plays within the ecosystem of creating community. Our company’s mission is bridging cultures & creating community through premium boba tea and Taiwanese and Chinese food. Our values are community, diversity, and courage.

Our team manifesto was created in 2019 and updated in 2021 to encompass both Taiwanese and Chinese boba tea beverages and food. The manifesto guides our team vision and states:

“We seek to bridge cultures and create community through authentic premium Taiwanese and Chinese boba tea beverages and food. As a team, we value community, diversity, and courage. We dare to create a community where people feel cared for and a sense of belonging. We believe community goes hand in hand with diversity. We want to build relationships with people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. We strive to show up, take risks, and lead with courage. We recognize that courage takes vulnerability and requires us to try new things and put our ideas out there. We will make mistakes and fail. When we do, we will own them with accountability and generosity – toward ourselves and each other. We are better together.”

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