A Book Review

THE REPUBLIC OF TEA: Letters To A Young Zentrepreneur by Mel Ziegler, Bill Rosenzweig, and Patricia Ziegler (Currency Doubleday, 1992).

Reviewed by Claude Whitmyer. This review originally appeared in Trycycle: The Buddhist Review, Spring 1992.

Traditionally, best-selling business books rely heavily on warfare metaphors. From The Business Secrets of Attila the Hun to Waging Business Warfare: Lessons from the Military Masters in Achieving Corporate Superiority, the message is clear: business is the moral equivalent of war.

Language has a powerful effect on how we see the world and consequently on how we behave.

Cover of Republic of Tea

As author Sam Keen points out in Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, our economic life is organized around “military metaphors and words such as war, battle, strategy, tactics, struggle, contest, competition, winning, enemies, opponents, defenses, security, maneuver, objective, power, command, control, will-power, [and] assault.”

The media reinforces this world view by creating cliches with phrases such as: corporate raiders, hostile takeovers, white knights, industrial espionage, underground economy, head-hunting, golden parachutes, and making a killing.

It is refreshing indeed, then, to discover that one of the most heralded new entries into the genre of “how I did it” business books is selling well without resorting to any battle cries whatsoever. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Republic of Tea: Letters to a Young Zentrepreneur proposes that we live life “sip by sip” rather than “gulp by gulp” as most of us do.

The book is written, or, more accurately, compiled, from actual faxes, letters, and drawings that passed between Banana Republic Founders Mel and Pat Ziegler and entrepreneur Bill Rosenzweig. Interspersed with commentary that ties everything together, The Republic of Tea tells the true story of the birthing of a business designed to sell tea in an entirely new way.

Like the early Banana Republic mail-order catalogs, this book is a kind of travelogue. This time the journey is through the land of an evolving idea about how tea might be sold as if people — customers, suppliers, and employees — really mattered. Scattered among the organizational memos and statements of vision and purpose are the whimsical, lighthearted, gentle, even delicate illustrations reminiscent of those earlier catalogs.

As Mel Ziegler explains: “We were in a highly charged no man’s land, outside space and time, where The Source of an Idea was revealing itself to us in its as yet unborn state.”

1980s Banana Republic Mail Order Catalog

This is the premise upon which the new business is created. Not from the point of view that “I conquered the world and the spoils are mine” but rather from the Taoist-like vision that we are only creative vehicles who serve a cosmic Idea, an idea that waits patiently for the right people and circumstances to align, so that it can manifest itself in the world.

As we follow the story through the exchanges between Mel Ziegler and Rosenzweig, punctuated by Pat Ziegler’s brainstorms and illustrations, we see more clearly than ever just how practical this world view can be.

This book also presents the notion that, for better or worse, business has become the dominant metaphor of our time. Whatever long-term, meaningful changes we wish to make in the world will be made, more often than not, through business. But not business as we have known it. The new economic world-view can and will be marked by creativity, cooperation, community service, openness, honesty, interpersonal communication, personal growth, sharing, and, above all, friendship. The military model need no longer prevail.

The Republic of Tea is an exemplary case study in one possible way to replace military metaphor. The book offers a clear vision of the emotional difficulties inherent in starting a business: the lack of confidence, the fear, the feelings of being almost overwhelmed by an idea that is much bigger than ourselves. But it also proves the point that we can fulfill the dream of taking a kitchen-table business to the limits of its potential.

The book motivates us with its story, but it also contains a practical appendix made up of the business plan and financial projections that were used to start the real-life company, The Republic of Tea, plus sample pages from the first catalog.

This is a vision of business unmatched by any popular story of the last two decades. It is a story we have longed to hear, and a story with substantial credibility. It is a story of mindfulness and aesthetic sensitivity, of business that serves inner peace and enlightenment, not through social or political action but through simple acts of commerce.

CLAUDE WHITMYER is a consultant to organizations, big and small, about meeting, learning, and teaming online. He also provides career guidance to executives and managers who want to master the new workplace requirements or employees and entrepreneurs who want to find more meaningful work.

Mr. Whitmyer is also the coordinator of the Briarpatch, a worldwide network of businesses that practice right livelihood and simple living. He is co-author of the best-selling book of its kind Running A One-Person Business (Ten Speed Press, 1994, 2nd edition) and editor of and contributor to the anthologies In the Company of Others: Making Community in the Modern World (Tarcher, 1993) and Mindfulness and Meaningful Work: Explorations in Right Livelihood (Parallax Press, 1994).

Copyright © 1994 by Claude Whitmyer. All rights reserved.