Age 23, and with just $795 (£600) to his name, Rupesh Thomas set off from his home in Kerala, India to make a new life for himself in London.
Today, the 39-year-old entrepreneur has gone from earning $5.30 (£4) an hour in McDonald’s to owning a company worth millions, thanks to his start-up drinks business Tuk Tuk Chai. He tells us how he became a self-made millionaire.
Born in May 1978, Rupesh had a happy childhood growing up with his mother Shyla, dad Joseph and younger brother Rakesh, even though the family faced financial hardship. 'Our family came from absolutely nothing, I grew up in a small rented house with our mom and her brothers. I must have been 13 when my brother and I finally had our own bed to sleep on,' recalls Rupesh.
His family's financial worries didn't stop Rupesh from making the most of his education. Aged 18 he headed to Chennai, nearly 400 miles away in eastern India, to study engineering at the University of Madras. 'In school I excelled in maths and science, which meant according to the times we lived in my only choice was to go for engineering,' explains Rupesh.
Throughout his childhood, Rupesh had a gut instinct that he could build a better life for himself on the other side of the world. 'Freedom of expression, creativity and openness were very important to me, and with my way of thinking I knew for sure that my future was meant to be in the Western world,' says Rupesh. 'I am extremely proud of my Keralan heritage but I always knew I could only reach my full potential outside of India.'
So aged 23 and with only $795 (£600) in his back pocket, Rupesh set off for London. 'There wasn't one defining moment for me, but as my dad used to work in a travel agency in the UAE, he got the opportunity to visit Europe. I used to dream about how people used to live in Europe and the possibility of this happening to me.'
'The very first thing I did after arriving in London was to visit the iconic Houses of Parliament and Big Ben,' says Rupesh. 'Stepping out of Westminster tube station and standing on Westminster Bridge was a defining moment in my life that I will never forget. My dream was fulfilled on that evening.'
Rupesh found a flat in Stratford, east London and got a job at McDonald's. 'The early days were very exciting as I felt so lucky to be in the UK and to have the opportunity to make something of my life. I was so happy and always smiling while working long hours at McDonald's, even though it only paid around $5.30 (£4) per hour,' says Rupesh. Within weeks however he had found a second job as a carer before moving on to work as a door-to-door salesman.
With his unshakeable work ethic, Rupesh soon became the best in the company and was promoted to team leader in 2002. He also met his wife Alexandra in the workplace and they married in 2007. 'It was love at first sight and I knew the very moment I met her that we'll be finishing our life together,' says Rupesh.
While Rupesh excelled at his day job, he was also itching to do something more creative around his passion for food. 'Although I enjoyed working in sales and the telecoms business, I always thought it lacked passion and life. So I was always looking for other businesses and opportunities and always romanced with the idea of doing something in the food industry,' says Rupesh. Luckily inspiration struck while on holiday with Alexandra in India…
Originally Rupesh had considered producing a drink in the style of the yogurt-based lassi drinks found in India. But he soon realized there wasn't a big enough market for it in the UK. It was only on a trip back to Kerala in December 2014, when Rupesh realized just how much Alexandra loved drinking the Indian milky tea chai, that the idea for Tuk Tuk Chai became more fully formed.
A world away from the low-quality teas that were then on the market in the UK, Rupesh immediately spotted the drink's potential for a more discerning customer. 'It occurred to me the amount of chai Alex drank and how popular chai was getting in the UK. It was sold everywhere but was overly sugary, yet a vast majority of our chai-loving market knew what real chai should taste like. The ones sold in the UK were just sweetened milk.'
'After the idea hit me, I decided to set up the company straight away using the $199,000 (£150,000) I'd saved through my telecoms business,' says Rupesh. After two years of perfecting the recipe and the production process, the drinks were snapped up by luxury Knightsbridge store Harvey Nichols in May 2017 and more recently UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's in December 2017. An infusion of black tea, whole spices and creamy milk with just a hint of sugar, Tuk Tuk Chai is as authentic as you'll find in the UK.
In October 2017, the tea was voted as the most innovative product at the highly-regarded lunch 2017! trade show. Being acknowledged by others in the food industry was a major achievement for the couple.
Who knew that an infusion of black tea, whole spices and creamy milk with just a hint of sugar could prove so lucrative? Today, Rupesh and Alexandra's company is valued at $2.6 million (£2m), although the couple still do all the day-to-day legwork themselves.
Rupesh's success hasn't just benefited him, but also his wider family. Rupesh's brother Rakesh still lives in India and Rupesh has used his fortune to invest in a laundry business in his hometown of Kerala.
Rupesh says there's no magic formula to becoming a millionaire. 'My success has nothing to do with luck. It's down to hard work and grit. I have a real hunger for success and the attitude to never ever give up,' explains Rupesh.
The journey hasn't always been straightforward. 'The six-month period before I set up my telecoms company was financially one of the most challenging times we ever faced. We were living on the income Alex got by working as a receptionist. Our weekly food budget was $26.50-$33 (£20-£25) per week,' says Rupesh.
So what advice would Rupesh give for other budding entrepreneurs? 'Consider any failure as a battle scar and proudly wear it and move forward as it's proof that you can overcome the tough times and still stand proud with your head held high, as success is the reward ahead for all this hard work,' he says.
'The journey isn't close to being over yet. But so far the best part is my family. I am lucky to have all these people around me,' says Rupesh, who still lives in Wimbledon with Alexandra and their son, Kian, who's seven.