Alumna Toby Zhou: Off Course but On Track to Finding Her Passion at U of G

Posted on Thursday, May 23rd, 2024

Photo of Toby Zhou against beige wall
Toby Zhou - Founder of Retea and U of G Alumni

Toby Zhou, a Class of 2021 alum with a major in Applied Human Nutrition and a minor in Marketing, launched her entrepreneurial journey in the summer of 2019. With support from the Wood Centre, she now dedicates herself full-time to making bubble tea more sustainable, accessible, and affordable!

When Toby Zhou began her degree in Applied Human Nutrition at the University of Guelph in 2017, she did not foresee that her entrepreneurial spirit would soon pivot her focus towards sustainability. The launch of her business marked not only a career shift but also a deeper alignment with her personal values and a commitment to addressing significant environmental issues, particularly sustainable consumption. 

Zhou graduated in 2021, but her entrepreneurial endeavors redirected her focus towards marketing, in which she did a minor in. This change was more than just a career pivot; it was a path that reflected her dedication to personal values and broader environmental goals. 

The University of Guelph played a crucial role in shaping Zhou's future choices. The university's strong emphasis on sustainability and community engagement inspired her to minimize plastic waste in her personal life. "Participating in the Wood Centre’s incubator program provided support and foundational business skills, enabling me to pursue my entrepreneurial ambitions full-time after graduation," Zhou said. 

In 2019, Retea was born out of a desire to tackle the problem of plastic waste from bubble tea consumption. What began as a small operation using Instagram and Google Forms soon evolved into a comprehensive e-commerce platform during the pandemic. Retea's mission is to make bubble tea both enjoyable and environmentally friendly through reusable cups and DIY kits. The business also offers catering services and virtual workshops, enhancing the bubble tea experience while promoting sustainability. 

After she completed her first year of university, Zhou volunteered in Taiwan—the birthplace of bubble tea—through AIESEC. This six-week teaching opportunity not only enriched her understanding of bubble tea's cultural roots but also influenced her personal and professional development.

Transitioning from academia to entrepreneurship came with its challenges, particularly in balancing business with academic commitments. The Wood Centre's incubator program was instrumental in helping Zhou overcome these hurdles. The program provided a network of mentors and resources that facilitated a smooth transition into the entrepreneurial world. 

"My time at Guelph taught me that it’s okay to change directions. Although I started in Applied Human Nutrition, my true calling in marketing and entrepreneurship revealed itself through my experiences at university. This flexibility in my career path has been a key to my current success and satisfaction," Zhou reflected. 

Three years after graduation, Zhou remains committed to growing and evolving Retea. Her journey has been marked by continuous dedication to the business and its mission, highlighting the importance of aligning professional endeavors with personal values and environmental sustainability. 

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