From the Army to Herbal Tea: Meet Lisa Forsyth, MS Environmental Science '91
November 11, 2022
Joining the Pennsylvania National Guard enabled Lisa Forsyth, MS environmental science ‘91, to attend college and earn her undergraduate degree. During her 33-year tenure in the US Army, where she served as an enlisted soldier and then colonel, Forsyth traveled extensively, experiencing many different countries and cultures, and became interested in the roles agriculture and food play in daily life. When she decided to continue her education, she chose Drexel, completing a master’s degree in environmental science that drew on a lifelong interest in sustainability first sparked by her grandparents’ simpler way of life.
Now, Forsyth lives a self-sustaining lifestyle on Diablo Day Ranch in Texas and is the owner of Oli Tea Company
, which produces all-natural, sustainably grown herbal tea. It may seem like an unusual career pivot, but according to Forsyth, making your unique idea a reality is "a very Drexel concept." Read more about Forsyth’s journey in the Q&A below.
Q: Why did you decide to join the Army?
A: I grew up in western Pennsylvania and came from a blue-collar family of six. Money was always tight. It was clear to me that if I wanted to go to college, I had to figure it out myself. With limited opportunities, I decided to enlist as a private in the Pennsylvania National Guard while I was a senior in high school. I liked the Army because of the opportunities. I took advantage of the Guard’s education program that paid for most of my college expenses. My commander recommended me for officer candidate school. I successfully completed that program during my senior year of college and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Once I graduated from college, I was an officer in the Pennsylvania National Guard and landed a job with DuPont in Philadelphia.
Q: Why did you choose to attend Drexel for your master's degree?
A: DuPont had great education benefits. Several of my colleagues were enrolled in various universities in and around Philadelphia and they encouraged me to start my master's degree. I considered other universities but was attracted to Drexel because I could take classes at night, and the co-op experience was a big plus. If you have ambition, Drexel is there to provide opportunities that maximize the student experience. Once I graduated with my master’s degree and came on active duty, I was immediately promoted to first lieutenant because of my education level in my career field.
Q: Can you share a few highlights from your military career?
A: My proudest accomplishments during my military career were raising two amazing kids who are successes; achieving the rank from private to colonel; deploying into harsh conditions around the world and doing the best I could with what I had; and never, never giving up on myself and my goals. The best lesson learned, from my perspective, is to prioritize and focus on what is most important. Usually, it is the people around you. Also, never underestimate the power of determination. It gets things done.
Q: What inspired your transition to your current career as owner of Oli Tea, an herbal tea company?
A: This idea started after I retired from the military and worked at a commercial olive orchard in south central Texas. I always wanted to be a farmer. I know it is a complete 180 from Army life. Ranching and farming is not without challenges, but I find it to be one of the most rewarding, peaceful occupations. I own and live on a 40-acre ranch in Seguin, Texas. We planted an olive orchard and grow most of the herbs for my tea business on the ranch. Our licensed tea manufacturing facility is also located on the ranch. No logistics tail, no middleman, just fresh herbal tea.
Q: Diablo Day Ranch is committed to sustainability. Why is that important to you?
A: I looked at my grandparents’ lives. They grew up on generational farms. They learned important skills that were passed down by doing. Their lifestyle was self-sustaining and created little to no waste. Now, we are over-consumers that contribute to bad stewardship of the environment. I want to live a simpler life and be an example for others to follow. We raise our own beef and poultry and garden year-round. I enjoy canning and preserving food. I did not grow up ranching and farming—I learned how to drive a tractor, fix a fence, tend to animals and garden by watching YouTube videos. Technology can be really great.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
A: I am not one for sleeping in. My day starts at sunrise and finishes well after sunset. The ranch and herbal tea business keep me very busy. I do like coffee and enjoy a cup while walking down to the barn with the dogs at sunrise. Chickens and cattle are attended to, followed by any ranch maintenance. I try to be done before it gets too hot outside. By noon, I am working on the herbal tea business. That could mean processing raw material, blending, packaging, or dreaded paperwork. I recently employed a social media team to handle Instagram and Facebook. I would rather be doing other things than posting.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job? The most challenging?
A: I love my herbal tea business. Since starting the company three years ago, I interact with diverse, creative, talented people every day. I would have never met them in the Army. Our paths would have never crossed. It is fun and exciting. The most challenging part of my job is recruiting and retaining talented people.
Q: Has it been challenging to be both a woman in the military and a female entrepreneur?
A: I was 17 years old when I enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard. I did not have a lot of life experience. The hardest obstacles were attitudes and biases of what women should or should not do or become. As a woman, those obstacles can be extremely difficult to overcome. For example, the first time I applied to officer candidate school, my application was denied. My battalion commander said since I was a woman it would be a waste of training dollars—I would get married and resign. I applied again and graduated.
As an officer on active duty, I wanted hard jobs, but found myself being steered toward desk jobs. I had to remind my assignments officer that I don’t mind breaking a nail or having my hair messed up. I really wanted to be airborne. I got my chance to attend airborne school and met merciless hazing every day. I responded to this inappropriate behavior with a smile and overzealous enthusiasm. I had a purpose and would not be distracted. I was making the most of this opportunity. I graduated top of my class. I wanted a Fort Bragg assignment. Every officer I knew and admired had a Fort Bragg assignment at some point in their career. I was told women do not have those jobs. It took me 13 years, but I got there and secured an airborne slot, and later a coveted assignment at the Pentagon.
Honestly, I found myself at times exhausted from struggling to climb over, run through or sidestep obstacles. That was all part of my learning process. I was able overcome and put those obstacles behind me. Sometimes the biggest obstacle is the mental one. It takes courage to take that first step and start moving forward. The same can be said as an entrepreneur. In my experience, success starts with finding your passion. Set your goal and move forward. Success will come.
Q: How do you apply what you learned in the Army and at Drexel to your job now?
A: Just like the Army, learning and employing processes that work, quality assurance and quality control are very important to my current and future business success. I also believe persistence and determination are key qualities that directly apply to my current business. But unlike the Army, I can run my own race and create a path that is right for me.
It is kind of strange for a retired Army Colonel to own an herbal tea business. I mean, who does that? I love unique ideas. To build on an idea and make it a reality is a very Drexel concept. What I learned at Drexel is that ambition is a good thing and to proceed with courage.