Chocolate Dreams

by Lane Wallace on December 11, 2017

Given that the holidays are fast approaching, I decided to take a quick break from my book writing (still all-consuming, but I’m making progress …) to share a story that has two seasonally-appropriate, wonderful and uplifting aspects to it: chocolate so exquisite it exudes an irresistible aroma, delights the taste buds, and melts perfectly at body temperature … and proof positive that persistence in entrepreneurship really can make a dream come true.

If you scroll back through the archives of this blog, you’ll see some terrific posts by a college classmate of mine named Steve Wallace (no relation). I reconnected with Steve at our 20th college reunion, a number of years ago. And in typical reunion-small-talk-fashion, I asked Steve what he was doing, these days.

“I have a chocolate factory in Ghana,” he replied. When I recovered (”I have a chocolate factory in Ghana” is not exactly the response one expects when asking a former classmate for an update), he told me the story of how a Wisconsin boy ended up pursuing such an unusual entrepreneurial adventure. It’s a great story, summarized in Steve’s first No Map. No Guide. No Limits. post: “Why Start A Chocolate Factory in Ghana?

Even better, Steve has now put the details of that story, with all its poetic, adventurous, sumptuous, frustrating and educational glory, into a book, released just last month, titled: Obroni and the Chocolate Factory. (Obroni, for anyone not from Ghana, means a foreigner–particularly, a light-skinned foreigner.)

There are many reasons why I loved the book, and love Steve’s story in general. First, Steve is an evocative storyteller. I have spent exactly one week of my life in Ghana trying to conduct business, compared to Steve’s 25 years, but his descriptions were dead on with regard to both the beauty and the frustrations of bringing American expectations to a vastly different culture. There are many delightful passages in the story, from his father’s powerfully lived lessons of integrity in life and business, to snippets of the vernacular of Ghanaian conversation. “Not at all” becomes “Not at-TALL!” And reading those words, I smiled, because it brought to life so vividly some of the people I met saying that phrase just like that.

Second, the story of the Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company is not the kind of intimidating “and then they all became millionaires” story that’s so often published about entrepreneurs–and which then sets unrealistic expectations for aspiring entrepreneurs who follow. Steve Wallace’s book tells a story that is honest and real. The reality of starting and sustaining a business from scratch is almost always light years away from the Facebook phenomenon so many start-up founders envision. It requires vision, perseverance, scrambling to make and find helpful connections, a little luck, a lot more hard work, sacrifice not only by the entrepreneur, but by his or her family, dogged determination, and the ability to search for small victories, endure discouraging setbacks, and hope for exhilarating breakthroughs–much like the roller coaster ride of raising children.

And JUST as with raising children, there’s rarely a point in founding and running a small business where you brush your hands and say “done.” As long as you’re involved, you’re still working at it. Steve conveys all this in his book, as well as the challenges of raising a family and trying to be a financially responsible partner in a marriage while still pursuing and entrepreneurial dream, with quiet but powerful clarity and impact.

Granted, not every new business is as challenging as trying to start an international partnership with a third-world government. But anybody contemplating starting their own business should read this book just to help calibrate their expectations.

A third reason I love the story is just because it’s such a wonderful counterpoint to everyone who says dreams are impossible. The story of the Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company is the story of a young man who had a compelling dream of helping Ghana create high-quality chocolate within its own borders, but who was armed with only $13,000, no connections, and no experience in making chocolate or running his own business. And yet, he succeeded in bringing that dream to life. It gives one hope in the power of believing that something is possible, and then, against all odds, finding a way to make it real.

And lastly, I love Steve’s story because it illustrates so many important lessons–not just about entrepreneurship, but about how a person develops an authentic voice, a passion, and a life that allows both of those forces to flourish, evolve, and have a meaningful impact on the world.

How any given person develops an authentic voice, or a particular passion, is a complex process. But after researching the topic for more than two years, I can say with confidence that an essential step in either process is stepping out of our comfort zones and exploring the world. Part of the reason for that is that we can’t know what pursuits, dreams, or values might actually be an important part of who we are, or might resonate with us fiercely enough to spark the fire of passion, if we aren’t ever exposed to them. And in some ways, it’s a numbers game. The more we explore, the greater our chances are of stumbling across something that resonates with us and informs us about some part of ourselves we might not have realized was even there.

Steve Wallace would never have decided to start a company to manufacture gourmet chocolate in Ghana (where some of the world’s best cocoa beans are grown), if he hadn’t spent a summer there as an AFS exchange student in high school. In part, that’s because it wouldn’t have occurred to him. He wouldn’t have fallen in love with the beauty and pace and character of Ghana and its people. And when he found himself dissatisfied with his law career, a decade later, it never would have occurred to him to look to Ghana for a more fulfilling alternative.

But stepping out of his familiar, Wisconsin world at the age of 17 to spend three months in a rural town in a third world country, where his host family consisted of a father, his three wives, and their 21 children, also gave Steve some important strengths. It forced him to learn how to make his way through uncharted and unfamiliar territory, where mistakes and missteps were inevitable. It also taught him that mistakes and missteps weren’t fatal, which helped him become more resilient and able to absorb setbacks. It exposed him to different perspectives and creative, alternative approaches to doing business, as well as ways of accomplishing tasks without the advantage of western technology and money. And all that, in turn, helped give him confidence in his ability to make his way through uncharted territory, and to solve problems without huge amounts of cash or traditional resources.

In short, Steve’s exploratory experiences as a high school student helped give him the strength and skills he needed to take on the challenge of building a chocolate factory in Africa, including the ability to come up with the creative approaches and solutions that made the survival and success of the Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company possible.

When we muster the courage to explore outside our comfort zones, we learn important things about both the world and ourselves. We also develop confidence, more flexible thinking, resilience, and other strengths that make it easier for us to stay true to our authentic selves and dreams, instead of getting lost in everyone else’s expectations and the noise of a status-conscious world.

That’s important, because whether it’s starting a chocolate factory in Ghana, or building and maintaining a life that feels authentic, rewarding, and happy, the process never really ends. Steve’s version of “And they lived happily ever after,” with which he ends his book, is simply to say, “Twenty years later, I’m still in business.” A business, he might have added, that resonates with his authentic self and values, and which, while immensely challenging, is also rewarding and fulfilling in a way his conventional law career never could have been.

It might not involve the billions of Facebook or Apple, but in that simple statement is a victory every bit as sweet, rich … and important … as the gourmet chocolate Steve Wallace’s against-all-odds Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company makes.

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