As you may have noticed, we’re really into the idea of changing the world for the better. And, similar to almost everyone else in the world, we also LOVE chocolate. So you can imagine how thrilled we were to learn about Askinosie Chocolate – a social enterprise that creates sustainable change through the production and distribution of chocolate.
There are many things that make Askinosie Chocolate stand out. To start, their commitment to social responsibility, unique story, friendly and approachable messaging, and beautiful packaging. We had the chance to chat with Lawren Askinosie, the company’s Director of Sales and Marketing (as well as the founder’s daughter), who gave us the inside scoop on the magic behind the brand, as well as their impact.
Tell us a bit about Askinosie Chocolate and what you do.
My dad started the factory in 2006, after over 20 years as a criminal defense attorney, because he was ready for a change. I was still in high school at the time, but immediately became intimately involved with our new lives as chocolate makers, especially on the marketing side of things.
For a while, at 15, I was the one handling our social media, writing our press releases, writing website copy, and packaging copy. In fact, those things are still part of my job, except at the time I had no idea what I was doing. I learned so much as I went along though, and it was fun. Even now, we're still such a small team that we're often learning on the fly. With each new opportunity or project, we learn a plethora of new skills because, well, there's often no one else around to do it and somebody has to!
I started college a bit early and graduated a bit early, because I was honestly so passionate about what we were creating that I couldn't wait to jump in full-time at the factory (which I did immediately). I have been in my role as Director of Sales & Marketing for a little over 4 years, and every day is completely different.
We have a little saying around the factory: "It's not about the chocolate, it's about the chocolate," which sums up our philosophy of this zen-like balance we strive for between an excellent product and doing as much good as we can. Whether it's our Direct Trade practices and profit sharing with our farmer partners, our Sustainable Lunch Programs, Chocolate University, or our commitment to traveling the globe in search of the best beans and developing relationships with the amazing farmers who harvest them, it all makes our chocolate better.
As you’ve noted, Askinosie Chocolates has developed a number of incredible programs that provide food, education, and agency to members of the communities you work with. Why did you choose to incorporate social responsibility into your business model in such a major way?
We incorporate social responsibility into our business because, well, our business is founded on it. The very foundation of what we do is based on Direct Trade; without it, we wouldn't be able to make great chocolate, plain and simple. The direct relationships with farmers ensures that we have the highest quality beans possible, and the profit sharing encourages the farmers to continue to produce great beans, because it produces better chocolate, which people love and want to purchase!
As for the other work we do, it just makes sense. It made sense for us to start Chocolate University, which is funded mainly by our weekly tours, because we wanted to serve our community, particularly our neighborhood. And it also made sense for us to get involved in our origin communities. We've worked so hard to develop meaningful relationships with our farmer partners; it seemed like a direct extension to then work with their local schools and their children and help them meet this need for nutrition, which is why we began the Sustainable Lunch Programs.
Perhaps the most exciting development of the Sustainable Lunch Programs is that within 5 years, our aim is for us to be out of the picture. Right now, Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) at local schools in the communities we work with make and harvest various local products, such as rice and cocoa rounds. We then ship these products back to the United States with our cocoa beans and sell them across the country. 100% of the profits from these products are returned to the PTA to fund lunches for each student every day. Through this process, we're basically providing them access to the market. We're also teaching them to do it themselves, so within 5 years (or less), they won't need us anymore. We see that as true sustainability. In fact, both communities in which we have the Sustainable Lunch Programs (Tanzania the Philippines) are already working toward this, and are well on their way to taking their products to the next level on their own. Of course, we’ll still be involved in their communities in other ways, because being deeply involved in the communities we work with is at the core of what we do.
In a nutshell, we believe the social purpose of Askinosie Chocolate is to not only compensate our farmers fairly and treat them like the business partners they are, but to connect those farmers with our customers – to build relationships based on mutual understanding and appreciation, which makes both our chocolate and our business better. We believe transparency, social responsibility, and sustainability aren't just a part of great chocolate, they create great chocolate. It all goes hand-in-hand.
How has your role at the company evolved over the years, and what is your favorite part of what you do now?
My role has evolved as the company evolved. I work alongside my Dad and our COO to run the company, and even though we manage different small teams with various responsibilities, we all work extremely closely with one another (there are only 15 of us full-time!). It's very hands-on.
Many of my responsibilities are the same as they were in high school; and in some ways they're just more challenging. Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman's and a mentor to our factory says, "Success means you get better problems--but there will always be problems." I'd say we're lucky enough now that we encounter some pretty major problems! When I'm feeling optimistic (ha!), I like to think of them as opportunities; opportunities for me to learn something, to do better. And in many ways that's how my role has evolved the most: I've become a pretty solid problem solver and I get a chance to improve that skill on a weekly, if not daily basis.
My responsibilities are so varied that I really don't have a favorite aspect, although I must say that traveling to origin countries to meet with farmers, inspect cocoa beans, and work on community development projects is not only one of my favorite and most rewarding parts of my job – those trips have also been some of my most treasured life experiences as well.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting their own social enterprise?
I don't know that I have anything that revelatory to share here that many other experts haven't already shared, but a piece of advice I happen to believe in wholeheartedly is this:
Work hard and be nice to people. In my (albeit limited) experience I've found that pursuing tirelessly what it is that you think is right or good, while also being kind and compassionate tends to yield pretty positive results.
We couldn’t agree more: With passion, kindness, and tenacity, anything is possible. Lawren’s upbeat personality and infectious enthusiasm for change and chocolate are apparent in Askinosie Chocolate’s social media presence – check them out on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And we highly recommend that you buy some of their chocolate – but that almost goes without saying.
Do you know an individual or organization who is changing the world in a unique way? Tell us about them in the comments below, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. We would love to help share their stories.