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
Following are excerpts from "Unleash the Girls, The Untold Story of the Invention of the Sports Bra and How It Changed the World (And Me)" By Lisa Z. Lindahl
There is an idea that has popped up everywhere from Chaos Theory to Science Fiction and New Age memes known popularly as the "Butterfly Effect." Simply put, it is the notion that one very small thing—the movement of a butterfly's wing say, or the ripple in a lake caused by a pebble being thrown into it—can cause tremendous effect far away: the butterfly's wing a tornado, the ripple a large wave on a distant shore. Cause and effect, does it have limits? The field of physics is telling us that it takes only observation to bring a thing into being. We cannot consider these areas of investigation and not acknowledge that everything—everything—is in relationship in some way or another with everything else.
So, it is evident to me that commerce of any kind is, also, just about relationships. It all boils down, on every level to this simplicity. While we usually think of relationships as occurring between people—it is far more than that.
I used to teach a course in entrepreneurship specifically for women in The Women's Small Business Program at Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont. I made this concept of relationship and its importance central in how I taught the marketing thought process. I would stress that for a product or service to be successful, it had to meet a perceived need. There is a need, and it wants to be met; or it may be thought of as a problem to be solved. Or there may be an existing solution that is less than adequate.
For example: In my universe as a runner there already were a plethora of bras available, but they were inadequate for my purpose. The relationship between my breasts, my running body, and my bra was creating discomfort and distraction. A new solution had to be found, the relationship occurring when all these things came together had to be fixed. Utilizing this point of view, one sees a set of issues that need to be addressed—they are in relationship with each other and their environment in a way that needs to be changed, adjusted.
Nowhere is this viewpoint truer than in business, as we enter into more and more relationships with people to address all the needs of the organization. Whether designing a product or a service or communicating with others about it—we are in relationship. And meanwhile, how about maintaining a healthy relationship with ourselves? All the issues we know about stress in the workplace can boil down to an internal balancing act around our relationships: to the work itself, to those we work with, to home life, friends and lovers. So quickly those ripples can become waves.
Because Jogbra was growing so quickly, relationships were being discovered, created, ending, expanding and changing at a pace that makes my head spin to recall. And truly challenged my spirit. Not to mention how I handled dealing with my seizure disorder.
"My Lifelong Partner"
Let me tell you a bit about my old friend, Epilepsy. Having Epilepsy does not make any sort of money-making endeavor easy or reliable, yet it is my other "partner" in life. Husbands and business partners have come and gone, but Epilepsy has always been with me. It was my first experience of having a "shadow teacher."
While a child who isn't feeling she has power over her world may have a tantrum, as we grow older, most of us find other more subtle ways to express our powerfulness or powerlessness. We adapt, learn coping mechanisms, how to persuade, manipulate, or capitulate when necessary. These tools, these learned adaptations, give a sense of control. They make us feel more in charge of our destiny. As a result, our maturing self generally feels indestructible, immortal. Life is a long, golden road of futures for the young.
This was not the case for me. I learned very early on when I started having seizures that I was not fully in charge of the world, my world, specifically of my body. There are many different types of epileptic seizures. Often a person with the illness may have more than one type. That has been the case for me. I was diagnosed with Epilepsy—with a seizure type now referred to as "Absence seizures"—when I was four years old. I have seen neurologists and taken medications ever since. As often happens, the condition worsened when I entered puberty and I started having convulsions as well—what most people think of when they think of epileptic seizures. The clinical name is generalized "Tonic-clonic" seizures.
In such a seizure the entire brain is involved, rather like an electrical circuit that has gone out as a result of a power surge. I lose consciousness, my whole body becomes rigid, the muscles start jerking uncontrollably, and I fall. Tonic-clonic seizures, also known as "grand mal" seizures, may or may not be preceded by an aura, a type of perceptual disturbance, which for me can act as a warning of what is coming. The seizure usually only lasts for a few minutes, but I feel its draining effects for a day or two afterwards. Although I would prefer to sleep all day after such a physically and emotionally taxing event, I have often just gotten up off the floor and, within hours, gone back to work. It was necessary sometimes, though definitely not medically advised. I'm fond of saying that having a grand mal seizure is rather like being struck by a Mack truck and living to tell the tale.
Having Epilepsy has forced me to be dependent on others throughout my life. While we are all dependent upon others to some degree—independent, interdependent, dependent—in my case a deep level of dependency was decreed and ingrained very early on. This enforced dependency did not sit well with my native self. I bucked and rebelled. At the same time, a part of me also feared the next fall, the next post-convulsive fugue. And so I recognized, I acquiesced to the need to depend on others.
The silver lining of having Epilepsy is that it has introduced me to and taught me a bit about the nature of being powerless—and experiencing betrayal. I could not trust that my body would always operate as it should. Routinely, it suddenly quits. I experience this as betrayal by my brain and body. It results in my complete powerlessness throughout the convulsion. Not to mention an inconvenient interruption of any activities or plans I might have made.
Hence, I am the recipient of two important life lessons—and I was blessed to have this very specific and graphic experience at a young age. It made me observant and reflective, giving me the opportunity to consider what/where/who "I" was. I knew I was not "just" my body, or even my brain.
So, who or what did that leave? Who, what am I? Much has been written about trauma, and about near-death experiences, both of which seizures have been classified or described as. I won't delve into that here except to say that experiencing recurrent seizures and the attendant altered states of consciousness that sometimes accompany an episode (the euphemism for a seizure) changes one. It deeply affects you. It is both illuminating and frightening. It opens you up in some ways and can close you way down in others. For me it made it easy to consider the possibility of other ways to perceive, of other realms. And as an adult I became interested in quantum physics, where Science is pushing and challenging our long-held perceptual assumptions. Me, who was poor in math and disinterested in Science while in school! So if not merely body and brain, who am I? Spirit. And with Epilepsy's tutelage, I was encouraged to question, seek, try to understand what lies beyond.
Living with Epilepsy has also given me great strength. In realizing the futile nature of trying to have "power over" Epilepsy, I developed a deep well of "power within"—that inner strength that comes in the acceptance of that which one cannot change—and looking beyond it.
Through my experience building the business of Jogbra with the unique lens afforded me by my Epilepsy partner, I came to understand more fully the nature of power and what it means to be truly powerful.
Specifically, that having power and exercising it is not simply a manifestation of the ego. It need not be "power-tripping." It is how I wield my power that matters, making the all-important distinction between creating a situation of power over, power with, or empowering and having and creating strength in oneself and others.
Being powerful is a big responsibility.
To put all this another way: do I choose to create situations in which I am able to wield power over others? Or do I choose to empower others, sharing my strengths with them, while nurturing their strengths as well? The first is not true power. It is control. The second I believe to be the essence of true and positive power: strength. And integral to creating a more harmonious world, oh by the way.
While this may be apparent, even basic to others, it was an "aha!" moment for me. Too often in the years ahead I would give away my power and question my own strengths,. Time and again, however, my inner strength, my shadow teacher's gift, helped me survive and thrive until I could take responsibility for and embrace more fully my own power.
© Lisa Z. Lindahl 2019