How The Qi’s Lisa Li Built A Wellness Tea Hit


by Deanna Pai
Originally Published: 
The Qi Lisa Li
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If you were to ask Lisa Li, founder of The Qi, whether she feels like she’s made it, she would laugh. “Let me call you back in a couple years,” she says to TZR. But that belies the success of her line of holistic, whole-flower teas, which has been featured in Food & Wine and The New York Times — not to mention attracted a dedicated following on Instagram.

It was an unexpected career move for the entrepreneur, who was raised by a single mom in a small city northeast of Beijing. “I didn't feel like I could do anything creative,” she says. “I grew up in a traditional Asian family. That was never part of my upbringing.” That said, tea wasn’t entirely out of Li’s ballpark. Growing up, she most looked forward to drinking tea with her grandmother. It was, as she puts it, “one of those very nourishing and wonderful memories of my childhood.” This holistic ritual ultimately set the stage for her future endeavors, inspiring her to take the leap to start a business that prizes — and prioritizes — self-care.

Of course, it took a bit of time to get there. Li and her mom moved to the United States when she was 14, and she began to work in the fashion industry after graduating from Parsons. After 10 years in the grind, she started to feel burnt out. “I wanted to go back to a time and place that — when remembering having tea with my grandma — felt simple and nourishing,” she recounts. “So I took a trip to the birthplace of tea.” The place in question was Shangri-La, a remote village bordering Tibet in China’s Yunnan province. Not only is it the only location where Puerh tea is harvested, but it’s also known for a Shangri-La Rose grown by and beloved among locals.

When Li tasted the rose tea on the first day of her trip, she had a mini-revelation. “It was the most beautiful and unique experience, like a ritual,” she says. “I'd been drinking tea my whole life, but this felt like my secret little paradise — I just felt lifted and transformed, between the aroma of the rose and seeing this beautiful flower come back to life in water. And I wanted to tell everybody about it.”

She knew she’d stumbled across something unique — because, as with wine, the terroir matters when it comes to tea. “Depending on the soil, how much sun they get, the temperature, how much rain, how humid, and where it's facing on the mountain, and the elevation — all these things come into consideration when it comes to the taste, the aroma, and even the nutrients in the tea,” says Li.

She stayed in Shangri-La for two weeks, touring mountains to learn about the various terroir for growing tea. Still, “throughout my trip, I just couldn't get this rose tea out of my head,” she says. “Nobody knows about these flower teas that are so beautiful and so different.”

That ultimately led to The Qi, which she began in 2019 as her side hustle while still running a sustainable-fashion business. Anchored by the Shangri-La Rose Tea, it now includes Royal Chrysanthemum and Blue Lotus teas, along with gift sets, teapots, and other accessories to round out the ritual.

Li discovered early on that running this wellness venture wasn’t as simple as sourcing flower teas and introducing them to customers. “I feel like tea in the United States has such a limited range in most people's minds,” she explains. “When they think of tea, they think of tea bags from the supermarkets that will cost $5 to $10. But there’s so much more to it.”

To this day, education has been one of the big priorities of the brand. “All I do every day is try to explain what it is,” she says. And not only do hand-picked, family-grown, organic teas require a learning curve, but flower teas even more so. “People get confused,” she explains. “They don't know what it is.”

Still, flower teas have a natural appeal among people who, like Li, want to take time for themselves during the day. That’s due in part to the sheer aesthetic: Flower tea is just flat-out pretty. “It’s a whole flower flowing in the water,” she says. “It's just this visual appeal that you can't compare to many tea dusts, leaves, some different bits of whatever, especially in a tea bag.”

Plus, they’re herbal teas, and therefore caffeine-free. That makes for a restful, relaxing experience versus the functional fuel of, say, a double-shot of espresso. “Modern day life is quite stressful, for myself included,” she explains. “Caffeine a lot of times gives me a lot of jitters and anxiety.” That makes flower teas a welcome swap for those trying to wind down or minimize caffeine intake in the afternoons.

Not only that, but they also pack nutritional benefits. Shangri-La Rose, for instance, is brimming with vitamins A, C, and E as well as iron and calcium — all key for healthy skin and hair — while Royal Chrysanthemum eases stress and anxiety.

Finally, they’re also surprisingly versatile, since they’re edible flowers. “They're super potent in terms of aroma and flavor,” says Li. “In addition to drinking it, you can make ice cream or use them as a garnish, put them in a mocktail or cocktail, or combine them with honey or lemon.”

Despite the success of the brand — with the Floral Tasting Box becoming the brand’s bestseller — Li handles curveballs all the time. “No matter who you are in life or in business, you always have problems,” she says. “You can have a team of two or three people or you can have a 10,000-person team — it doesn’t mean you don’t have problems. They just change.”

Her advice for other (and future) wellness entrepreneurs is to figure out why you’re doing it, which can see you through the hard parts of running a business. “Hopefully, it’s something you're super-passionate about. That can fuel you and bring you joy and fulfillment,” she says. And in the case of The Qi, it’s clear Li is walking the walk.

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