interview with lawren askinosie
photography by askinosie chocolate

Lawren Askinosie, the CMO of Askinosie Chocolate, discusses her father Shawn’s inspiration for founding their family business and why it prioritizes people and purpose over profits.

What was your family’s reaction to your dad forgoing his lawvpractice to start a small-batch chocolate company?
We thought he had lost his mind. [Laughs] He had devoted himself to his career for twenty years, but in 2006, he told us he wanted to spend a few months in the Amazon to learn about cacao and work with cocoa farmers on their farms. He came back, bought our building and some equipment, refurbished other equipment, and started making chocolate. It took two years from the time he incorporated the business to us selling our first direct trade chocolate bar. We were one of only three craft-chocolate makers in the country.

What does direct trade mean?
For us, it means literally working directly with our farmer partners, so we know the names of the people we’re working with and have met them in person. We pay a premium for a premium product, profit-share directly with our farmers, and document everything in a transparency report on our website. Very few companies have eliminated the middlemen and work one on one with the people growing the beans; to our knowledge, we’re the only chocolate maker in the US that’s the actual exporter of record for cocoa beans.

Since you import your beans, how did the COVID-19 pandemic impact your supply chain?
Great question. We are grateful to have these longtime direct-trade relationships with our farmer partners, which protected us from having an enormous supply-chain issue. We also did as much as possible virtually. But we did also see the effects of the pandemic on exporting. Containers were scarcer, and costs skyrocketed—in some cases, tripling the cost of getting our cocoa beans here.

Your company values kinship and even has a chief kinship officer. What does it mean to Askinosie?
We want to promote a culture of community and support within our company. That became even more important during COVID-19. It’s also an enormous part of our passion for direct trade—we have a true relationship with our farmer partners beyond a business transaction.

In addition, kinship means we’re always trying to be conscientious of growing sustainably. Something we talk about in our book [Meaningful Work] is “What is enough?” In other words, can we scale at a level where we’re still people and farmers first? We won’t compromise our team’s quality of life to grow the company quickly.

Where are your farmer partners located?
We have four origins: Davao, Philippines; Zamora, Amazonia; Del Tambo, Ecuador; and Mababu, Tanzania. We’ve been in the Philippines and Ecuador since the beginning and Tanzania almost as long.

What are some initiatives you’ve started in these areas?
In Tanzania and Amazonia, we’re working with female farmers, who are the unsung heroes of the cocoa industry. In Tanzania, we are partners with a grassroots organization called Empowered Girls, which runs an afterschool program where young women are educated and encouraged to raise their voices and hone their leadership skills. We also created a similar program, Enlightened Boys, to help young men there reach their potential.

Tell us about your Chocolate University:
In our early years, the city’s largest homeless shelter was a block away from our chocolate factory, and the children who lived there went to school around the corner. My dad wanted to connect with these kids. He started going into classrooms regularly, bringing chocolate and showing them cocoa pods and pictures of our farmer partners; we still partner with schools in our neighborhood to this day. That also evolved into our four-week summer school program at Chocolate University, which ends in a capstone project where students create their own small business and present it to our team and the public.

We’ve also had a high-school program since 2010. Juniors and seniors from southwest Missouri apply, and those selected learn about small business, entrepreneurship, the cacao industry, and agronomy. They spend time in our factory and a week on the university campus, getting a crash course on the chocolate-making process, learning some Swahili, and taking leadership courses. Then they go to rural southwest Tanzania with us to work with our farmer partners for a week. That trip’s challenging—about sixty hours from door to door—but one of my favorite parts of my job.

What does quality mean to Askinosie Chocolate?
We have a phrase, “It’s not about the chocolate. It’s about the chocolate.” What we mean by that is we prioritize empowering the cocoa farmers we work with and supporting their communities and ours. But it’s about the chocolate because if we weren’t making highquality chocolate that people love, then we wouldn’t be able to do all those other things.

That translates to constant attention to quality. As a team, we taste different chocolate bars every week, fill out reviews, and discuss them. It’s a neverending process of not only maintaining quality but also continuing to innovate with flavors and proving the value of this luxury treat.

What are some of your popular flavors?
We have a dark milk bar that’s dark chocolate made with goat’s milk. We were one of the first companies to create such a bar, and it’s one of our biggest award winners. Our vegan Coconut Milk Chocolate bar is also a bestseller and one of my favorites. And then there’s our Dark Chocolate and Red Raspberry CollaBARation bar, which tastes like a bowl of fresh raspberries with whipped chocolate drizzle on top.

How do you juggle priorities and profits?
It’s challenging. We’ll never sell something we don’t feel good about, even if we lose money. In the past, we’ve received beans that were not up to spec, and we might have spent thousands of dollars on them. Would we try to make them work or change our formulation to cover up subpar flavor? No. Every time, we’re going to ask, “Does this align with our mission of making the best-tasting chocolate possible and supporting our employees and communities?” If not, it’s not the right move for us.

In your book, your dad says the company tries to “get better at staying small.” What does that mean?
We sometimes turn down opportunities that would require us to compromise our ideals. We are growing, but staying small maintains that feeling of kinship with each other and with our farmer partners. That said, Target contacted us one day for a seasonal opportunity. My dad and I agreed that it wouldn’t work because they’d never agree to us paying a premium for the cocoa beans and profit-sharing. But they did! We became the first craft-chocolate makers to be featured in Target.

Do you have any stories of how your business impacts people and vice versa?
Some people have been inspired to start a Chocolate University for their field, such as a Mechanic University. Other people have sent our chocolate to long-distance family members during the pandemic. A husband brought our chocolate bar to his wife in the maternity ward. These messages may seem minor, but we get so many of them. They impact me deeply, and we share them in our weekly team huddles so that everyone understands how the work they’re doing is making a difference to people. This is what it’s about—this is literally why we do what we do.

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