Women Business Owners Series: Karen Blackwell, CEO and Founder of Kanda Chocolates

by Julie Rutherford

Kanda Chocolates

TorchLight is launching a new series that shines a spotlight on women business owners who are making an impact in a wide range of industries and sectors. For our inaugural post, TorchLight’s Julie Rutherford recently sat down with Karen Blackwell, CEO and Founder of Kanda Chocolates to learn more about why she started her business, its commitment to social justice, and her advice to other women thinking about launching their own enterprises. 

Julie:  Thank you so much for joining us Karen and we’re excited to learn more about you and Kanda Chocolates. I’m curious about what prompted you to start Kanda Chocolates after a successful career in corporate sales and marketing? 

Karen:  I absolutely loved working for a mission-driven healthcare organization, but the desire to do more for others was nagging at me. I explored many options and landed on starting a Benefit Corporation that was specifically created to make a difference in the lives of others. 

Julie:  Given this focus—to make a difference in peoples’ lives—how does social responsibility impact your business model and decisions? 

Karen:  Social responsibility is at the foundation of our company and we’ve built up from there.  We laid the foundation by creating a Benefit Corporation with a mission that is focused on social and environmental justice. From there, we set up an Almsgiving Campaign which gives 10% of proceeds back to charitable organizations.   

Next, we intentionally had our chocolate made in Ghana so that we could increase jobs and the local economy’s export of chocolate. We then purchased Fair Trade Cocoa so that we could ensure the farmers were receiving a fair wage. It’s a start, but we believe we can do more–and we will.

Julie:  What led you to select Ghana, in particular, as the source for Kanda Chocolates? How does the process work from cocoa bean harvest to delivery here in the U.S.? 

When I visited Ghana for the first time, I fell in love with the chocolate made there.  I learned that Ghana’s cocoa beans are creamier and more fruit forward than other cocoa beans.   

With research, I learned that even though Ghana is the 2nd largest exporter of cocoa beans in the entire world, they export less than 1% of finished chocolate. I wanted to help change that so that the Ghanaian chocolate Industry would produce more finished chocolate and thus receive a greater financial benefit from their efforts. 

Julie:  Given your goal of enabling the sale of finished Ghanaian chocolate vs. simply exporting the cocoa beans, how does the process work from cocoa bean harvest to delivery of Kanda Chocolates here in the U.S.? 

Karen:  Our cocoa beans are grown on a Fair Trade, Non-GMO cocoa farm. In Ghana, all cocoa plants and cocoa beans are owned by the Ghanaian government.  So, once the cocoa beans are grown, we purchase them back from the Ghanaian government at the Fair-Trade price.  From there, they are processed and packaged in Ghana, and then shipped to the United States for distribution. 

Julie:  Tell us a little bit about your chocolates. How many types of chocolate do you make? Which is your favorite one? 

Karen:  I love to discuss our chocolate! It’s truly a taste of Ghana. You’ll go from caramel notes to rich Ghanaian chocolatey flavors that are unique to their cocoa beans–all without the typical bitter taste we associate with dark chocolate. 

Currently, we offer Extra Dark Chocolate with 72% Ghanaian cocoa, Dark Chocolate with 56% Ghanaian Cocoa, and Milk Chocolate with 38% Ghanaian Cocoa. Our chocolate is sold either as a chocolate bar or a pouch of mini square pieces of chocolate. 

My favorite is the Dark Chocolate with 56% Ghanaian cocoa. This particular percentage of cocoa is what helps me convert people into dark chocolate lovers. 

Julie:  I’ve had the Dark Chocolate with 56% cocoa and I’m definitely a convert!  To switch back to the business side, what’s your favorite part of being an entrepreneur?  What’s the most challenging aspect? 

Karen:  There is a certain joy that comes from growing your ability to help others. I can link my hard work to real outcomes and deliverables in the organizations we support.    

The most challenging part about being an entrepreneur is wearing the hats for all aspects of the business, whether you are an expert or not. I’ve considered myself to be quite well-rounded, but as an entrepreneur, I spend late nights learning. Oftentimes, I’d rather be asleep–but the benefits of this late-night learning outweigh the downside. 

Julie:  What advice do you have for women who are thinking about starting their own businesses? 

Karen:  For women considering starting their own business, I always suggest the following: 

  • Immerse Yourself!  Start immersing yourself in that world and become a knowledge holder for that space. While the pandemic has been devastating, it has brought us virtual learning on steroids. There is a webinar out there for everything.  
  • Try It On!  As if you were trying on a pair of shoes, put yourself mentally in that role. Start to consider how you would live your life differently. 
  • Do It!  There is no better advice than to just “Do It.” Do not be afraid to fail. In business, mistakes are almost certain. There is no founder story without them. Rather than thinking of it as a failure, fail fast as a learning experience and bounce back. And if you don’t fail, keep going! 
  • Protect Yourself!  I can’t say it enough–take the necessary steps to invest in a license, DBA, and trademark. If your product requires labeling, get the correct labeling. With the explosion of entrepreneurs working from home, I’ve seen some corners cut. It’s not worth it. If you lay the foundation correctly, you’ll be ready when big-box retail comes knocking. 

Julie:  That sounds like great advice. What are your plans for Kanda (and maybe even other businesses!) in the future? 

Karen:  My mind is constantly running with ideas–it’s a beautiful byproduct of developing an entrepreneurial mind. In the near future, we look forward to offering new flavors and expanding into some big box stores.  

However, our dreams take us further with multiple manufacturing sites in Africa, an entrepreneurship academy for female founders, and making our name synonymous with giving and making a sustainable impact. 

Julie:  Karen, it’s been a real pleasure learning more about your exciting journey as a Woman Business Owner and what the future looks like for you and your company. Thank you for your time and best of luck!  

To learn more about @KarenBlackwell (and try her chocolates!), visit Kanda Chocolates.  

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