FAIRFIELD, Conn. — It was 1945 when interior designer-turned-entrepreneur Ruth Campbell Bigelow found an early Colonial recipe for tea and decided to try her hand at brewing it.
After weeks of trial and error in her New York City brownstone, she took her unusual blend of black tea, orange rind and sweet spices to a party for some of her lady friends to sample.
Returning home, she proudly told her family, “It was the source of constant comment.”
And thus, one of the country’s best-selling specialty teas — and a business empire that has now spanned three generations — was born.
On Thursday, her granddaughter, Cindi, who is now CEO of Fairfield-based Bigelow Tea Co. since 2005, told stories of the internationally known business at Women Can Have It All, an informal discussion at Sacred Heart University’s Martire Forum.
Hosted by Linda McMahon, co-founder and former CEO of Stamford-based WWE, the series gives women leaders a chance to inform and inspire both their peers and SHU students.
While Bigelow, 56, had been working for her family’s business since she was 16, she said she didn’t want her father, David, to just hand her the keys to the corner office. After graduating from Boston College, she took a sales job at Seagram’s Liquor Co., then earned her MBA at Northwestern before joining Bigelow as a cost accountant.
She worked a few years at several jobs, learning the ins and outs of the tea company before assuming the top spot.
“People think you’ve got the last name and it’s going to be really easy,” she said. “But it’s not.”
Her dad inspired her philosophy of business, which includes a careful eye on the company’s culture and quality.
“It’s trying to create an environment that’s fair,” she said.
Asked whether women can truly ‘have it all,’ she said she thinks having it all means different things to different women.
“I believe you set your priorities for what you want and then you can have what you want,” she said.
Bigelow encouraged SHU students to see the value in every job they have because each teaches you what you want to do — and what you definitely don’t want to do. Trying to follow a passion early in a career can be a mistake, she said.
“Any job is a great job. I believe your ‘passion’ comes.. over time,” she said.
Bigelow said she’s proud that her family's company, which produces about 1.8 billion bags of tea annually, is known for its philanthropy. Now in its 28th year, the Bigelow Tea Community Challenge, raises about $110,000 to $120,000 for 18 local organizations each year.
In recent years, the company launched Tea for the Troops, which has provided 5 million tea bags — along with thank you notes — for service people around the world.
She also finds it rewarding to have a business focused on comfort and healthy living.
“My grandfather had three cups of Earl Grey a day and he lived to 103,” Bigelow said. “Enough said!”