Imagine being a recent college graduate and turning down a Fulbright grant or passing on a lucrative job offer in consulting to move to Ecuador. Brown University graduates Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie did just that. In 2009, days after getting their diplomas, they moved to the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Gage and MacCombie were on a mission. While in school, Gage had conducted ethno linguistic research with indigenous communities in South America. He witnessed the struggles communities faced to both protect their environment and also make money to feed their families. One morning, while in the rainforest Gage tasted guayusa, an Amazonian super-leaf loaded with antioxidants and caffeine that made him feel like he could conquer the world. Gage drank gourd after gourd of the tea with different local Kichwa communities. Guayusa not only tasted great but had a “clean energy” that Gage wanted to immediately bring to a global market.
Meanwhile, MacCombie spent a semester in Ecuador, focusing his studies on high impact non-profit management with the hope of bringing a fair business ethic to social work.
Back at Brown, the old friends teamed up in an entrepreneurship class and wrote a business plan for a new company. They moved back to Ecuador and founded Runa, which began producing beverages based on the exotic and invigorating guayusa leaf. “Runa means ‘fully alive human being’ in the language of the Kichwa, the main group we work with,” says MacCombie. “It’s how they describe themselves with pride, and with their gracious permission we chose that name for our company to represent both the traditions of the Kichwa and guayusa, as well as our commitment to supporting people everywhere in achieving great things.” The business now employs upwards of 40 people and supports 2,000 farming families in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Runa connects customers to ancient traditions while preserving the culture and environment in Ecuadorian rainforest communities.
Guayasa tastes good and boasts many health benefits including immune support, digestive aid and appetite suppressant. Runa’s products include a clean energy drink – one can has 50% more caffeine than a Red Bull so don’t guzzle it before bedtime. There are also six different bottles of guayusa tea (flavors include mint, guava and hibiscus) that offer “focused energy.” MacCombie says that guayusa doesn’t have the same negative side effects associated with caffeine. “No jitters, no crash,” he promises. And you can get your guayusa in boxes of tea that you can brew yourself and start the morning with a warm cup of Runa. It gets better – when you buy a Runa product, part of the profits go to social programs for indigenous family farmers in Ecuador.
Based in Brooklyn, Gage and MacCombie travel back to Ecuador frequently. They made Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in the Food & Wine category and were praised in Richard Branson’s book “Screw Business as Usual.” “For Runa, every product sold means that we are directly supporting livelihoods and conservation in the Amazon,” MacCombie explains. “So our goal is to build a brand that shares guayusa with the world in as broad a way as possible. Beyond that, we will forever work hand in hand with the Kichwa to think about other ways they can support their lives and ecosystems, while creating new products that share their rich cultural and biological heritage with the world.”