MU alumnus Shawn Askinosie sweetens humanitarian efforts with chocolate business

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 | 10:28 p.m. CDT; updated 11:56 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 16, 2014
MU alumnus Shawn Akinosie talks about his chocolate business at the MU Law School on Wednesday. Akinosie was a lawyer before he started his business. Some of his chocolates include dark milk chocolate with Ancho chiles and pistachios and dark milk chocolate with black licorice.

COLUMBIA — After 20 years as a successful criminal defense lawyer in Springfield, Shawn Askinosie knew he had to make a change. 

"I loved that, but I needed to love something else," the MU alumnus said Wednesday afternoon to a group at the MU School of Law, as attendees nibbled on samples of his chocolate. 

Making chocolate and lifelong friends

Becoming a chocolatier doesn't happen overnight. When Askinosie started his business in 2008, getting the chocolate's texture correct seemed impossible. 

In June 2007, Retail Confectioners International had its national convention in Springfield. Askinosie had talked to chocolate aficionado and researcher Ed Seguine, but never met him in person. Lucky for Askinosie, Seguine was the keynote speaker at the convention. 

"He spent two days in my factory, sleeves rolled up, helping me figure this out," Askinosie said. "I wouldn't be standing here talking to you if he hadn't help me in that time." 

Askinosie called Seguine a friend and mentor — a useful friend who knows more about the science of chocolate than himself.

Seguine will speak about "Chocolate Now and Future:Where demand, sustainability and flavor intersect" at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in Monsanto Auditorium in the Bond Life Science Center for Missouri Life Sciences Week. Both men will be present for a question and answer after the presentation.

So Askinosie embarked on a mission to find the perfect hobby. He first attempted grilling, then baking cupcakes.

"I made thousands of cupcakes. I thought that might be my future," Askinosie said. 

But they weren't quite right for Askinosie. Through his daily prayers, he realized he wanted to be a chocolate maker.

Now eight years after his decision, Askinosie has created a successful chocolate business that sells to thousands of stores worldwide. Askinosie Chocolate works directly with farmers around the world to produce the highest quality chocolate while supporting the people who make its ingredients.

Direct involvement  

Unlike most chocolates that have a long list of ingredients, Askinosie's line is composed of almost entirely cocoa beans and sugar. But instead of buying his beans from a distributor, Askinosie buys directly from the farmers in the Philippines, Tanzania, Honduras and Ecuador.

In order to get the best chocolate, Askinosie wanted to develop a relationship with the people growing the beans and help them develop the best-tasting bean.

"You can tell more about what the beans are going to taste like by looking at it than if I were to put in in my mouth," he said. 

Directly trading and importing beans is the biggest and most rewarding challenge of his business, he said. 

"The thing about the law is the case ends at some point," Askinosie said. "But business never ends. There's no verdict." 

Every farmer and employee not only benefits from the sale of the bean, but also from the profits the company makes.

This principle, which Askinosie adopted from the Open-Book Management system, includes every employee in a profit share. When Askinosie returns to the farms, he translates his financial statements and calculates the farmer's share of the company's profit in front of them. 

"I thought it was important too for everyone to understand the financials of the business," he said. 

Once Askinosie buys the beans, they are shipped back to his store in Springfield. From there, they are roasted, ground up and made into chocolate bars at the store. 

Along with dark and white chocolate, Askinosie Chocolate makes "CollaBARation" bars that have different foods added to the chocolate, including one with black licorice and Anise seed, and another with Ancho chile and pistachios. 

Humanitarian Efforts 

The Missouri Hotel, the largest homeless shelter in Springfield, is only one block from Askinosie's shop. Askinosie works with the kids who live in the shelter, teaching them about being a global citizen and solving world problems through business. 

"By the end of the year, I want (the students) to feel like they're part of the business," Askinosie said.

Another part of Askinosie's business is the Bean to Bar immersion program, part of his company's Chocolate University, which teaches kids of all ages about global business. Through a partnership with Drury University, every year, 12 outstanding high school students spend a week at the university learning about cocoa beans before visiting Tanzania with Askinosie.

"The students get a front row seat to business transactions," Askinosie said. 

Allison Yoakam, now a freshman at MU, was part of the second Bean to Bar immersion program. She heard about it through promotions in her high school and was interested in a chance to travel to Africa. 

"I enjoyed working with the school and the kids," Yoakam said. "I latched on to the business aspect of it." 

Since her trip, Yoakam has stayed in contact with Askinosie. She has even started a scholarship fund, Kyela Student Foundation to sponsor education for Tanzanian children.

While in Tanzania, the students are not just business tourists, but they also raise money to help the community. During previous trips, they have helped provide a clean water supply, raised money to buy textbooks for local schools and supported Empowered Girls, which teaches girls self-confidence and self-worth. 

Askinosie knew that his work, in his business and humanitarian efforts, would be a success when one of the students on the Bean to Bar immersion trip sent a text message to his mom about how much the trip meant to him.

"I didn't need a study to tell me, when a 17-year-old guy says that, 'This is the best day of my life,' I'm on to something," Askinosie said. 

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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