Today, like many days, is spent finishing up last minute things, in an attempt to ready my first brick and mortar store for its opening.
In the lead up to the launch, my days are crammed with paperwork: putting together our company employment strategy, overseeing the construction and design of our new store and charming my landlord.
These are all minor obstacles compared to the challenges I faced on the road to opening Harlem Chocolate Factory back in 2016. Growing up in Harlem, New York, I thought I was doing everything right when I went to college, but with an English degree and no direction, I ended up sleeping on an air mattress in my mother’s house with my two children.
I needed to go back to go forward. My love for sweets started as a child. Growing up, my mom was a health nut. We weren’t allowed to have any refined sugar in the house. To solve this, I made a deal with my mom - if I made the sweets myself, I could eat them. That’s how the journey into business started for me.
I always knew I wanted to start my own business, but without funding and little to no guidance I didn’t know how to get started. When I first learned about Accion, a non-profit lending company, I was working as a graphic designer to make money. I reached out to Accion about getting a loan. My loan officer said I was an ideal candidate for the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program - a philanthropic program created by Samuel Adams’ founder and brewer, Jim Koch, to help support entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry. And the rest is history so to speak.
Now, my company has grown from just me to a team of four with more on the way. I’m crafting the employee handbook, putting together the training program and developing the way we will convey our company culture. We have a solid base of followers and it seems like our opportunities are endless. Our demand is so high that we have people disappointed when they can’t buy our chocolate.
I always knew I wanted to start my own business, but without funding and little to no guidance I didn’t know how to get started.
While my business is in a great place, the path here wasn’t easy. Here are a few key lessons I learned along the way that played an important role in taking me from a chocolatier to successful business owner.
1. Focus on one thing and make it great
My mind has always worked in a million different directions. I’ve had hundreds of great ideas and it was difficult for me to focus on one idea and follow it through. After I graduated from college, I started looking into all these different industries, but I couldn’t find anything suited for me. My passion for making chocolate never wavered, but I didn’t think I could make enough money as a full-time chocolatier to support my family. Once I took the chance and committed to making Harlem Chocolate Factory a viable business, everything else fell into place.
2. Your business should be part of you
While creating the chocolate satisfied my adolescent sweet tooth, it wasn’t enough to start a business. I wanted to stand out. I wanted to speak to my history. I wanted to sell what I know. My resilience comes from growing up in Harlem, a predominantly black community that has been here for years and is rich in history.
Where I’m opening my store is in an area that once didn’t allow any African Americans to buy of the homes. Being able to move history forward in this way is empowering.
For me, the idea of this being my home and my culture is the foundation of Harlem Chocolate Factory. It’s about sharing the culture and experiences that I was raised on and the experiences that make Harlem more than a trend, but a community. I pull from that inspiration every day when creating chocolate. Everything from the recipes to packaging is a piece of Harlem’s culture. I embed as much of Harlem into my business, and into myself, as I can.
Jessica Spaulding gives us career envy
3. You don’t know what you don’t know
No one can predict the future, but you can arm yourself with knowledge. I took business classes, weeded out my ideas and learned to be nimble. I had problems focusing because I was always thinking of new ideas. Now I know that I don’t have time or money to waste. I’ve shifted my way of thinking to focus on what drives me. I do my best to prepare for whatever lies ahead.
4. Be resourceful
Before I officially started the business, I knew the first thing I was going to need was money. I found Accion and the Brewing the American Dream program through Sam Adams to help me launch. You should look for opportunities in your own community. If one option doesn’t work, explore another and do your research. Never take no for an answer.
When I participated in Sam Adams’ Pitch Room Competition in New York, I was able to pitch my business in front of successful entrepreneurs including Jim Koch, Chef David Burke and food magazine editors. It was a dream come true to have these influential entrepreneurs and writers taste my chocolate. What’s more, they gave me advice on how to structure my business and how to convey my story. This experience changed everything.
As a woman, I felt like I needed to take everyone’s advice. Some of it is discouraging and you can end up tearing yourself down every day. If you have advice for me, it should come with a plan
While I didn’t win the competition, I did receive a $2,800 Brewing the American Dream loan. With the loan, I purchased the materials I needed to get my business off the ground to start making the money I needed to steadily grow Harlem Chocolate Factory.
5. Use your mind not your money
Once I got the loan, I still had to be selective with how I spent the money. I knew I had to make my dollar stretch more than anyone else’s. I used my mind instead of throwing money at a problem. I have learned to adjust to challenges and think everything through before spending.
6. Convey the numbers
The best advice Jim Koch gave me was when he told me, “your story is beautiful, but you have to be able to convey the numbers.” His advice has stayed with me and will stay with me forever because building your business is you pitching it to people to get anything from funding to awareness, and you have to remember the numbers. It’s more than just having a great story. You have to prove that you understand the numbers and you’ve thought out how you’re going to take your business to the next level.
7. Advice without a plan is actually criticism
As a woman, I felt like I needed to take everyone’s advice. Some of it is discouraging and you can end up tearing yourself down every day. If you have advice for me, it should come with a plan. For example, if you tell me the door to my shop isn’t opening in the best way, and you think I should move the door so it can open it in a better way, that’s advice. Criticism is you just saying “I don’t like your door.” When you’re building a business, you’re on edge and one piece of criticism can knock you off your rocker. You need to learn to decipher advice from criticism. There were many times when I thought I was receiving advice, but it was criticism and not beneficial to my business or my journey. Being able to identify when you hear a piece of advice that will add value is key to moving forward. You also need to learn that it’s okay to tell people you’re not interested in their advice. Take what’s of value and execute.
It wasn’t easy, but starting Harlem Chocolate Company has been profoundly rewarding. I’ve been able to follow not only my passion for chocolate, but also impact my community and become part of Harlem’s history. This impact ultimately drives me and my business forward.
A woman at work, Spaulding is getting ready to open her first brick and mortar store
During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.
When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)
This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.
By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.
But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.
I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.
If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?
At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)
At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.
They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.
- Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
- Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
- Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
- Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
- Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.
It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.
So please don't put yourself on mute.
Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.
But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.