MBA student’s search for authentic chai leads to a new business—and a $10,000 prize

  • June 5, 2024
  • By Suzanne Koziatek
  • 3 minute read

When Shradha Challa, MBA 2024, was challenged to develop a business idea that solved a problem, she focused on a problem she had experienced in St. Louis: Getting a good cup of chai.

Finding the solution set Challa on a path to founding her own business, Rasa Chai. It’s also brought recognition in the form of a national entrepreneurship prize.

This award is so big for Rasa Chai. It’s big in the fact that somebody was believing in my idea and my vision—and believing in me, too. It was really such great validation. 

Shradha Challa

The student from Hyderabad, India, came to WashU after several years with KPMG and then working for her family’s insurance brokerage during the COVID pandemic. That experience piqued her interest in small businesses. “I thought it was time to get my MBA and to learn more.” She said she was drawn to Olin by its entrepreneurship track.

The seed for Rasa Chai was planted in her Intro to Entrepreneurship class, taught by Professor Doug Villhard. He encouraged students to look for a problem they could solve with a new business.

“I thought about it and realized my own problem: I don’t have chai,” Challa said. The Indian spiced tea, sold at tea stands everywhere in Indian cities, was unavailable to her in St. Louis. She said chai-flavored drinks she found in the US were generally not the same.

“Here in the US, I can’t find one cup of authentic chai,” she said. “And that’s how I came up with the idea for Rasa Chai. It started as my own problem, but the more I did research, the more I found that other people share this problem. There are so many South Asians here and they want the convenience of going and grabbing a chai somewhere.”

So Challa started working on a business plan to meet that need. In the Hatchery class, she developed her idea, starting with a line of consumer package goods for home brewing. Her tea and spices are completely Indian-sourced. Challa’s long-term goal is to create a national chain of cafes offering an authentic chai experience. “How Starbucks is for coffee, this would be for chai,” Challa said.

As she has developed Rasa Chai, Challa has leveraged opportunities available through WashU, Olin and the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

She had the chance to showcase her products at WashU’s Women’s Diverse Supplier Marketplace. “The night before the marketplace I worked for seven hours straight, roasting the spices, making the chai, putting stickers on.”

Shradha Challa at ICSC

Challa at ICSC's national conference in May

Through Olin’s entrepreneurship office, she learned about an awards program offered by the ICSC Foundation. The Roslyn and Elliot Jaffe Retail Entrepreneur Prize is open to undergraduate and graduate students pursuing retail projects. The prize comes with a $10,000 check and mentorship resources. Challa wrote essays about her work with Rasa Chai and interviewed with foundation representatives, then waited an excruciating week for the results.

“I didn’t think about anything else,” she said. “In my classes, I was just staring at professors, thinking, ‘Maybe I should have given a different answer to that one question.’”

When she got the call that she’d won, she was sitting in the Skandalaris Center. “I was screaming, I was so happy,” Challa said. “I called my parents as well. It was 1 a.m. in India, and I woke them up. They’re both entrepreneurs, so they were very excited for me.”

Challa traveled to Las Vegas May 19-21 to attend the ICSC national conference and accept the award.

Since graduating with her MBA in May, she’ll spend the summer participating in the Skandalaris Launchpad, an accelerator program for WashU student ventures. Challa will also spend her summer pitching Rasa Chai at the Boulevard Farmers Market in Clayton, to get more feedback on her products.

“At least for the summer, I’m focusing on Rasa Chai,” she said.

About the Author

Suzanne Koziatek

Suzanne Koziatek

As communications and content writer for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to seek out the people and programs making an impact on the Olin community and the world. Before coming to Olin, I worked in corporate communications, healthcare education and as a journalist at newspapers in Georgia, South Carolina and Michigan.

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