From Hardship to Entrepreneurship: Durham’s Jeddah’s Tea Story
Morgan Siegel long dreamt of creating a space for these too-connected residents to sit down, unwind, and reconnect with each other — a space that can foster relationships with real people instead of with blue-tinted screens.
But dreaming big can come with its own price tag. At the time, Siegel and her family were struggling with poverty. They couldn’t afford daycare so Morgan, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley, stayed at home with their two (and then three) kids while her husband worked around the clock making minimum wage.
“If you’re working 16 hours a day and still can’t pay rent, it doesn’t make you feel good. It makes you want to give up,” she says.
In searching for stability, they began to dream of starting a business that meant something deeply personal to themselves as individuals but also as a family. That something was tea.
Siegel and her now ex-husband Wael Suliman both grew up surrounded by tea culture.
According to an article published by IndyWeek in May: “Suliman’s maternal grandmother owned a tea, spice, and incense shop in Hargeisa, in northern Somaliland, and later in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she fled due to civil unrest. Siegel, who grew up in the Bay Area, recalls her mother’s pantry brimming with tea from her travels. The couple even met over a chance cup of chai in Berkley in 2014; they got married a few months later.”
Their dream eventually turned into Jeddah’s Tea, a color-rich and light-filled tea shop that opened in September in Downtown Durham. It’s calm, it’s cozy, and it exemplifies everything about its name.
“Jeddah means ‘grandma’ in Arabic. When you think of a grandma, you think of love, support, and a warm environment,” Morgan explains. “I wanted people to come into the space, drink a cup of tea, and be comforted.”
Morgan will be the first to tell you that the road to opening day was anything but easy. Without a lot of capital to back their venture, Siegal and Suliman started modestly in June 2018, selling and serving iced tea and custom tea blends at events and in local stores around the Greater Triangle. They focused on tea from countries underrepresented in the American market, including Somaliland, Senegal, and Egypt.
But it was while selling their products at Durham’s 2018 Juneteenth Celebration that she really started to feel like her dreams could become a reality.
“We lost money getting there that day. I had to sell some of my kids’ old clothes at a consignment shop and borrow money from my mom to rent an igloo container and a tent. But then DeDreana Freeman [Durham Council Member] came up to us while we were there and her advice was the best thing to happen,” Morgan shares. “I want the general public to know that sometimes it just takes someone having a little bit of faith in you to change your whole attitude.”
That hope was enough to push Morgan toward what she really needed to succeed: a business plan.
So when she was introduced to the Helius Foundation, a United Way-funded partner whose mission is to help people experiencing poverty turn their “side hustles” into good living-wage careers, Morgan was excited but skeptical.
“I didn’t know what the organization’s intentions were for me or how I’d be able to vibe with the people running it. Would they understand my situation and have empathy for it?” she explains. “But we were at that poverty level. We had this really good idea but we didn’t know how we could turn this thing we do at home into a business.”
During the 10-week business course, Helius Foundation’s Founder and Executive Director, Geraud Staton, taught Morgan how to create a business plan and a budget, how to fundraise or apply for financing, and even how to market Jeddah’s Tea so that when she was ready, her business had the best possible chance to surviving.
“[Geraud] turned me from someone who enjoys tea into someone who knows how to run a tea business.”
Morgan Siegel graduated from Helius Foundation’s LaunchDurham program in May 2019 and later joined the organization’s Board of Directors. Just four months later, Jeddah’s Tea opened their first brick-and-mortar location in the heart of Downtown Durham next to local stalwarts like The Parlour and Neomonde. She said the support she’s received from the whole community has made her dreams from true.
“Durham’s small business community is really open to supporting each other and working together. I’m so grateful.”
To date, 61 individuals have graduated from Helius Foundation’s program and gone on to found companies like Next Level Transportation, Wilsun’s Cleaning Service, and Wonderpuff. Thanks to a $10,000 grant from United Way of the Greater Triangle, Helius Foundation expects to be able to help at least 26 more achieve financial security.