Daina Slekys-Trout is a California-based Lithuanian who has set up a successful Kombucha tea company. Kombucha is a natural fermented tea, the fastest growing non-alcoholic beverage market – growing approx. 25-35% each year in the last five years. Every bottle is adorned with Lithuanian coat of arms Vytis, and her husband, an American from New Jersey, has learned to play the accordion to impress her.
Jurgis Didžiulis together with the ToBeLT (To Be Lithuanian) mission spoke to Daina during his their latest trip to the West Coast, CaliforniaJurgis: Please tell us a bit more about yourself
Daina: I am Daina Trout, before I was married, I was Daina Slekytė. I’m the founder and CEO of “Health-Ade Kombucha” – the manufacturer of these great kombucha teas you see here. We have 13 different flavors and we are the fastest growing company in our market. We started it all five years ago with my husband and my best friend in our apartment storage space. Now we have 107 employees and our tea is sold in about 7,500 stores across America – and we are very excited about it.
But to tell you who am I … I grew up with Lithuanians parents, Arūnas and Rūta, and my first language was Lithuanian. Every summer I went to the Neringa camp in Vermont, where I was left by my parents for four weeks, as they themselves travelled to Europe. Of course, I went to a Lithuanian school every Saturday – it meant a lot to my parents, and we only spoke Lithuanian at home.
We traveled to Lithuania every four years, and being Lithuanian was my identity. However, since I became an adult, I haven’t had time to go to Lithuania – I began my studies at the university, as a student, I didn’t have any money, and then we created our tea company. But in the coming summer, we will finally go to Lithuania for a big celebration, which is why I am very pleased, and also because Henrych, my son, and my husband Justin will accompany me. My husband is from New Jersey, but he is able to say a few phrases in Lithuanian, such as “I am an American”. I think his Lithuanian language improves, depending on how much beer he’s had (smiling).
Jurgis: In what places did you live and what were the Lithuanian communities there?
Daina: I grew up in Calgary, Alberta in Canada. At that time, I felt Canadian, I spent a lot of time in Toronto. So my main Lithuanian community growing up was in Toronto. Then, going to Vermont summer camps, I met many Lithuanians from the East Coast of the US – most of my friends were from Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, but not so much from Chicago. Then I studied for five more years in Boston.
Jurgis: Do you think that Californian Lithuanians are more friendly? Some people say that for instance Chicago Lithuanians, are pretty cold.
Daina: It’s possible, but I think people in California are generally friendlier, probably because of the sun. After all, you’ve seen Los Angeles in the Lithuanian days – October, and people are having fun without interruption. It comes easy, when it’s so warm here.
Jurgis: Okay, tell us, how did Vytis (Lithuanian Coat of Arms) got on your bottles
Daina: I’ll just tell you that I learned to make kombucha a very long time ago – my grandmother was always engaged in fermentation, so I learned from her both fermenting and cooking. When I was in Boston, my house always had a variety of things – pickling, fermenting or sprouting. Of these – there was definitely sauerkraut, but also much more than that. So I learned how to make a kombucha while I was in Boston, while working on my masters degree – it was 10 years before the birth of the “Health-Ade” company.
And about Vytis, it’s a separate story. When we started to make kombucha in my apartment, we couldn’t continue for long as my house became a fermenting cellar, and we were thrown out of the apartment because it’s illegal to run a production facility out of a private dwelling.Then we needed to find where to continue the production, and I went to the Lithuanian bank in California, CLCU, led by my good friend and family member Albinas Markevičius. I asked him to lend me 40 thousand dollars so that I can buy the first production line.
I remember how he sat in his office and began to look at my bottle from all sides, then he said: “I like everything very much, but how do you expect to flourish if there are no Lithuanian symbols on the label?” I completely agreed with him – and so Vytis appeared on our bottles and will always be there. That small step brought me a lot of internal unity with Lithuania, and Lithuanians can now recognise that this product has something in common with Lithuania. We have a nurse from Lithuania, Rima, and she tells me that growing up she would drink a very similar drink – so it is possible that Kombucha has more Lithuanian roots than we imagine.
Now we have received a great investment from other sources, but everything started in the Lithuanian community – both my grandmother’s fermentation secrets and the first money invested from the Lithuanian bank. I think that my zeal for achieving a goal is Lithuanian. So although was not born in Lithuania, I grew up with the Lithuanian spirit – and the desire to work harder than others is our trait.
Jurgis: What do the Americans say when they see Vytis on your bottles?
Daina: If they notice Vitys, they always want to know more. Then I tell them, which is adorable or me, because I am like a bridge between Lithuanian and American communities. This is a real symbol of history, and not some kind of emblem created by investors. All Americans think that it is very cool that I have my own culture and language and that I teach my son that language. It’s very interesting for them to find out that I was dancing polka or wore the great unusual traditional clothing. You may have noticed that there were many Americans, not Lithuanians, in Los Angeles during the Lithuanian Days. They all want to be part of this. Maybe it’s a matter of generations or places, because when I grew up and I would spend a lot of time in Philadelphia, it was not always a good thing to be a Lithuanian. But I myself was always proud that I am Lithuanian – all of us who traveled to the Neringa camp feel this way. I am singing all those Lithuanian songs for my son now.
Jurgis: What does your husband think about your heritage?
Daina: He really likes it all! My husband is a historian – he just always liked history, and he is also a musician, so he really likes all our musicality and songs. He is looking forward to our trip to Lithuania, and I am also very pleased about this. We plan to spend a week in Vilnius and then drive to Palanga or somewhere on the beach.
Jurgis: I have this idea that we do not need to try to protect Lithuanian identity, but rather we need to share it with others – and in this way it will thrive even more. What, in your opinion, are the most important Lithuanian things that people would be impressed with once shared?
Daina: There are really many things! I personally feel a strong connection with our pagan roots and the old songs, the ethnic arts of that period – I think that all this is very unique, no matter what your religion, you will appreciate this culture.
I also love Lithuanian fairy tales. And the food – who might not like potatoes, pork, bacon, beets? Also, the language is very interesting – when I tell people that our language comes from Sanskrit, they can not believe it, and want to know more.
Our history is also terrific – many victories, many sacrifices to protect our land, our language. Look around – many nations that were occupied at the same time, lost a good part of their culture, lost their language – but not Lithuanians, because we are proud people.
I do not saying that I experienced it all myself, because I did not live in Lithuania, but I consider it all part of my own history. And Americans like these things – history, art, music. Now, Justin learned how to play the accordion in order to seduce me – because my dad told him that this would be the best way to draw my attention, and it totally did.
Jurgis: Very nice! Is there something in the Lithuanian culture that you do not like? Something we should fix? As surely passing down this culture to your kids you will add a cultural filter of sorts?
Daina: Well, there have been some stories … For example, if I meet Lithuanians from Lithuania, whether in America or Lithuania, and I am very excited to speak Lithuanian with them because I feel this connection, although my language is not perfect, but then I hear , “You are not a real Lithuanian, you are an American, so you do not have anything in common with us.” Then I feel like I’m not welcome in Lithuania. But I am also a Lithuanian, only living in another country, as the circumstances of life would have it, so certainly that perspective surprises me.
There is one more thing – I grew up so that we could not express too many feelings. Regardless if I broke up with a boy or hurt myself, I always heard: “Don’t cry, everything is fine, you are strong.” I’m not sure if this was just the case in my family or is this a broader Lithuanian trait, but it probably made me stronger – at least that’s what my friends used to say.
It’s interesting you touched upon this topic. Studies show that Lithuanians have the least amount of empathy around the world. It is very difficult for us to express solidarity or to identify ourselves with another person. Therefore, the key is to begin understanding your own emotions – only then will we be able to create empathetic relationships with other people.