Commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion usually doesn’t mean quitting your job to open a tea shop.
But that’s exactly what Fanni Xie, a behavioral health counselor and Army veteran, did.
Xie came to the US from China as a teenager to go to school in Los Angeles, but her father’s sudden passing put the family in a financial bind. In order to continue school without adding to the family’s financial burden, she joined the Army Reserve.
“My idea was that I go training once a month and then continue my school, but that wasn’t the case,” she said. In fact, she got shipped to Afghanistan almost immediately after basic training. A psychology major, she served as a behavioral health specialist in Afghanistan, supporting the mental health of soldiers in the depths of a brutal war.
“We were really focusing on combat stress control, PTSD, mental health issues. I learned a lot … much, much more than (I would learn in) four years of school.”
It was difficult, but she managed to continue her studies while deployed, and eventually earned that degree in psychology, then went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from UW-Green Bay. Interning at the UW-GB Veterans Services Office and the Wisconsin Veterans Home near Waupaca.
While she loved that work, she noticed something about the community surrounding her, her studies and her jobs.
“During my time in school, I found out that this area really lacks the knowledge of diversity and culture,” she said. “A lot of my classmates learn diversity and inclusion in books. But that’s a long way far from really, truly understanding all the diverse families, all their issues or traumas. … I saw the need to promote diversity and cultural inclusion in the area.”
It’s certainly a need many others have seen – but Xie took a rather unusual approach to fulfill that need – she opened a bubble tea shop, which she intended to be about a lot more than tea.
“I wanted to create an experience, a destination,” where visitors could learn about and experience Chinese culture. Part of that is the product itself – bubble tea, invented in the 1980s in Taiwan, is “something in between beverage and dessert,” Xie said, tea with tapioca and highly customizable flavor combinations.
She did this despite having zero experience or knowledge of how to start or run a business. She took entrepreneurship classes at Fox Valley Technical College and wrote a business plan – something she apparently has a knack for.
“My business plan was eventually praised by a lot of people to be the one of the best small business plans they have ever seen,” she said. “But that’s not enough.”
A good business plan, it turns out, isn’t enough to get a bank to loan you money to open a very in-person business in the midst of a pandemic.
“At the same time, this is something new in the area, and risky. And no matter how much I try to explain what my product is, there’s a lack of understanding … (banks thought) it was just another coffee shop. So they are not willing to invest in that. I was rejected by about 10 banks, but I was really stubborn.”
She was stubborn enough, in fact, to eventually land funding from the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) – and the additional support that comes with it. With WWBIC in her corner, she opened Uni Uni Bubble Tea on College Avenue in the heart of downtown Appleton.
“It’s not only not only food and drinks, it’s the experience,” she said, adding that her baristas are also artists and designers and contribute to the distinctive vibe of the shop.
“We create more like a space for you, when you enter, you’ll feel like you’re in a culturally immersive environment,” Xie said. “All the tea is imported from Taiwan. So it’s all very authentic. There are several bubble tea stores in America that use only syrup and powders. We try to be original where we use fresh fruits and real milk … food and drink is the easiest way to educate people about your culture.”
Xie said there’s still a lack of authentic Asian cuisine in the area, and she’s mulling the idea of getting a hot pot restaurant off the ground.
And as if that’s not enough, Xie has also stepped up to reinvigorate the nascent Northeast Wisconsin Chinese Association, an organization founded 40 years ago that had gone dormant. Since relaunching last year, it’s hosted a Chinese New Year celebration with more than 500 in attendance and is currently planning a Dragon Boat Festival for September.