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The Socially Conscious “Chocopreneur”

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When Shawn Askinosie entered law school at the University of Missouri in Columbia, he wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer just like his father. When he graduated in 1989, Askinosie joined a large Texas firm and handled white-collar crime cases. Three years later, he returned to Missouri to open his own practice. He spent 17 years doing criminal defense work, specializing in serious felonies and murder trials.

“In criminal law, you can’t phone it in,” Askinosie said. “You need to be all in, especially when trying serious cases. I lived and breathed the courtroom. Eventually, I needed to do something else.”

While still working full-time, Askinosie tried to figure out his next career move. In 2005, he took a trip to the Amazon and soon after decided he wanted to try making chocolate from scratch. He started experimenting in the kitchen of his law office.

Askinosie enjoyed the process so much that eventually he sold his law practice, bought an old building, and converted it into a chocolate-making factory. One of the first small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate makers, Askinosie Chocolate today has 15 employees and sells premium chocolate to 800 stores, coffee shops, restaurants, and bakeries around the world.

Askinosie has a unique business model: He buys beans directly from farmers in Honduras, Ecuador, Tanzania, and the Philippines, and travels to those locations, profit-sharing with farmers after every crop cycle. He prides himself on open-book management—“like I did as a lawyer,” he noted— sharing financials with everyone in the company, including the farmers.

Askinosie Chocolate is also committed to social change. Through its “Chocolate University,” the company includes poor and homeless students in its business and also sends high school kids on a learning trip to Tanzania. The company also gives back to the communities from which it buys beans by funding feeding and nutrition programs in those locations.

Even though he’s now focused on making chocolate, Askinosie still uses his legal skills. “As a criminal defense lawyer, I spent a long time, sometimes many years, searching for witnesses and trying to get them to talk. I continue to use that training in how I communicate with people—asking questions, developing relationships,” he explained. “Finding farmers around the world is not easy. I credit my law career with helping me understand how to find and talk to people.”

In addition, as the chief operator of the business, Askinosie is able to maintain “a careful eye” on contracts and purchase orders. “With a litigation background, I know where things can end up if you’re not careful.”

Though managing an international business like Askinosie’s is a complex endeavor, his lawyer skills prepared him, he added. “We’re one of the only chocolate makers who imports beans directly. That requires detailed paperwork and compliance. Because I’m a lawyer, I have a better understanding of international shipping logistics. I’m not an expert, but my background helped me be a quick learner.”

Vol. 43 No. 8

Leslie A. Gordon Freelance legal affairs journalist and corporate writer/editor for law firms and other professional service firms. Former staff writer at The Daily Journal, a legal affairs newspaper in San Francisco. A "recovering" lawyer, also spent five years as an adjunct professor teaching writing at UC Hastings College of the Law. Author of the novels HEADS OR TAILS and CHEER.