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Royal Docks: How UEL student Ashlea Cromby won a £5,000 grant for her startup

How Mansimble Tea And Estate impressed at the university’s Female Founders Demo Day

Ashlea Cromby, co-founder of Mansimble Tea And Estate and UEL PhD student

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Business is about remaining agile.

Mansimble Tea And Estate – an importer of rare Kangra tea from India – was founded by University Of East London alumni Ashlea Cromby and Vanessa Browne in response to a problem. 

“I never thought I’d be in the tea business – my whole family is from Hainault,” said Ashlea.

“I grew up wanting to be a hairdresser – a stylist at London Fashion Week, because I always had pretty high goals.

“But I went to Epping Forest College (now New City College) and studied piano, then came to UEL to read music as an undergrad for three years because it was the university closest to my house.

“That’s where I met Vanessa – we lived a bit of a wild life for a few years and then I started working in schools, teaching music.

“I’d been to India when I was 18 and volunteered in some local schools – then I went back in 2018 after my masters at UEL in special educational needs. 

“On my last night during that second trip, I was speaking to the owner of the Mansimble Tea Estate and he told me he wanted to build a school – I said I’d love to work with him on that.

“We did extensive fundraising at UEL with cake sales, music events, fairs and auctions – and we built the school.”

But then a problem arose. The arrival of the global pandemic saw a drop in donations to keep the school running.

Ashlea and Vanessa needed a plan to fund the school sustainably, protecting it from the ups and downs of charitable funding.

“It hit me like a lightning bolt that the estate’s Kangra tea could be used to fund the school,” she said.

“I Whatsapped the owner and asked if he exported the tea to the UK and he said no, so I messaged to say: ‘Now you do’.”

Now studying for a PhD at UEL, looking at autistic identity and internet memes, Ashlea had no experience in the sector, but she and her business partner dug in and launched Mansimble Tea And Estate in 2021. 

Mansimble’s Kangra tea comes in hand-tied cotton bags

“In the early days there were issues with borders – much of the world was still in lockdown – but we got the tea and launched it as an ethical brand targeting Yoga studios and hippy communities,” said Ashlea.

“The estate is owned by Indians who pay the pickers a fair wage and provide free education for their children through the school.

“However, we did some market research, looking at the big afternoon teas at the Dorchester and the Ritz and we realised we could target them.

“These hotels always want rare teas that come with a story, so we looked at branching out – offering heritage and rarity, but also an ethical brand that is sustainable.

“Kangra tea accounts for less than 1% of production in India and our teas come in hand-tied cotton bags.”

Combined with a blossoming gin collaboration that’s set to be stocked by Sainsbury’s, this all makes Mansimble a compelling story of a business starting to gain real traction.

That’s perhaps the key reason why Ashlea’s presentation to UEL’s Female Founders Demo Day – a competition that recently saw six women pitch their business venture ideas to win a £5,000 grant – won out.

Held at UEL’s campus on Royal Albert Dock, the contest saw a total of £10,000 in grants awarded to female entrepreneurs with support from Ankh Impact Ventures whose founder, Pierre Rolin, chaired the judges. 

“The money will make a huge difference to Mansimble,” said Ashlea.

“It will allow us to pay up front for tea chests, that will help us to scale the business and then we can start really expanding.

“That will help the core part of the business, which is to raise funds for the school in India.

“With regard to the tea itself,  we want to be the leading Kangra specialist in the world – the Coca-Cola of that business.

“We want to see it featured on as many afternoon tea menus as possible and to truly re-establish it.

“Going back to Victorian times, it was the most prized tea in Britain.

“It won gold and silver awards in Amsterdam in the 1840s and was the very best of the Victorian high society teas.

The tea is grown on an Indian-owned estate, which pays its workers fair wages and provides education for their children

“Then there was an earthquake that hit the region where it is grown and, because of that, the British pulled out.

“They already had Assam and Darjeeling and the rest of India so they decided they didn’t want to waste their money on this tiny place and its crop of tea.

“Today the estate is owned by Indians and it produces this incredible product.

“It is not bitter at all – it’s the smoothest, most amazing tea, served with no milk or sugar.

“If you liken it to the spirit world, then you’re getting a beautiful, full-bodied whisky.

“The tea itself – which is called a liquor when it’s brewed – is smooth, full of flavour and amber in colour.

“What we want to do is return Kangra tea to where it used to be in the UK market – right at the top.

“As a brand we are doing something different to what’s out there.

“There are lots of ethical tea brands and there are many speciality, high-end tea brands. Then there are everyday brands like PG Tips and Typhoo.  

“With Mansimble, we are both an ethical brand and one that is targeting the top end of the market.

“We are approaching tea in a different way, because the Indians are in control of the estate in contrast to its colonial past.”

  • Two other students were also given grants at Demo Day. BSc computing for business student Nicole Ihemadu was recognised with £2,500 for her Uzuri Tribe venture aimed at using AI to create a bespoke selection of products based on customer preference and aimed at black women.

Kiri Scamp, who is studying business management at UEL, also received £2,500 for Millér, a brand developing muti-purpose, recyclable and sustainable makeup kits and vegan and ethical products to go in them.

Also presenting on the day were Angela Rixon with coaching venture My Wisdom Career, Jasmine Shroder’s trauma-based therapy business and Ashantae Samuel-Maragh of ASSM Waves, making workout gear from recycled fishing nets.

Read more: Discover volunteering opportunities with Canary Wharf Group and The Felix Project through its Green Scheme

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via
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