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Tea founder brews more startups

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Sunday, February 01, 2009
She’s no longer CEO of Oregon Chai, the company she founded in 1994 in her mother’s kitchen that grew to more than $35 million in sales and sold for $75 million in 2004.

Heather Howitt’s got a much less official-sounding title these days: VP of trail running for Portland venture capital firm The Meriwether Group.

“Though it should be president,” she says, digging at her husband, David, who founded the firm and bestowed the title on her.

The 40-year-old mother of two definitely likes her runs through Forest Park, but she’s been up to more than that since selling her renowned tea company to the Kerry Group almost five years ago. She’s been a partner at The Meriwether Group since its founding, and about four years ago she became intrigued by a small Canadian startup now called Living Harvest Conscious Nutrition, which promotes the nutritional benefits of hemp seed.

With her background in natural foods and aseptic packaging — the sort of “drink box” packaging that helped boost Oregon Chai — Howitt saw huge opportunities for hemp milk.

“I became so impressed and excited,” she says. “It was just like Oregon Chai.”

In addition to an investment from The Meriwether Group, Howitt put some of her own money into the company, which then moved to Portland. Last June, Living Harvest raised a couple million dollars from a group of Hollywood investors, including Cindy Crawford and Ed Norton, hired a CEO and kicked into high gear. Last year’s sales were projected to be $6 million.

“We’re jamming,” says Howitt, who holds a seat on what she calls the company’s “very hyperactive” board.

She also says she can see Living Harvest becoming an even bigger company than Oregon Chai.

Howitt says she’s wiser these days when it comes to business, but she still thrives off the buzz of small startups, just as she did when she brewed her Oregon Chai as a 20-something in search of a drink she’d stumbled on during a Himalayan trek.

“I just love that startup passion, the energy and that enthusiasm,” she says. “I’m still that entrepreneurial freak, and now I get to be totally involved but I don’t have to do the 60-hour weeks.”

She’d like to be with Living Harvest throughout its growth, but she also knows that other opportunities in the natural food realm may come calling in the future.

“I can’t see myself not being involved in the natural food business,” she says. “Although I could run eight hours a day.”                         


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