by Valerie Beck, chocolate expert and Kendall College Adjunct Professor
In addition to being an entrepreneur, founding the original chocolate tours years ago, and today doing speaking engagements about chocolate, and consulting in the chocolate space, I love teaching at Kendall College because I can contribute to the amazing and energizing students, and because I can create applied learning experiences – not just lectures but activities and excursions for real-world learning.
I had the opportunity over spring break this year to create a series of 8 excursions for a cohort of French business majors studying abroad in Chicago from their school in Paris, the ESCE. Our theme was American Business Explorations, our classroom was the city of Chicago and beyond, and our focus was on networking, volunteering, and mentoring as crucial to success in American business success.
My friends and contacts opened their doors to welcome us and speak to us. We toured companies such as Google, had a private tour of a gallery with an international light artist, participated in a speed-mentoring event held by Business Journals, and heard from speakers ranging from entrepreneurs to non-profit founders to executives to yours truly (chocolate supply chain and chocolate tasting!).
The experiences were meaningful to the students, who wrote blog posts at www.parischicagosafari.blogspot.com. The experiences were also meaningful to me in ways I hadn’t expected: I connected more deeply with some of my friends and contacts, thought more intently about the themes I built the course around, and got to see Chicago and American business through the eyes of my bright and perceptive students. See our posts online, including my tie-it-all-together post at the top showing the theme of each excursion, where we went, and links to our hosts.
As the saying goes: “school is never out for the pro.”
November 2014 marks the 9th anniversary of my chocolate services business. The dream that led me here started more years ago than that, when I was in college. Here’s the essay I wrote for my college reunion book this coming spring, describing the chain of events.
One day toward the end of our junior year at Harvard, I woke up thinking of Paris. The thought stayed with me, indeed it permeated me, and I decided to spend the next semester in Paris.
As you’ll recall, studying abroad wasn’t common in those days. My roommates had no reason to expect I’d abandon them. Professors raised an eyebrow when signing a form stating that my Sorbonne courses would give me the same credit as Harvard courses. No one knew what to make of my announcement that I was going to study in Paris. I didn’t know what to make of it either. I loved being at Harvard. I only knew that Paris was calling, and I had to answer.
My semester in Paris was transformative. I loved the lifestyle, the history, my classes, the soft lavender early morning air, and the chocolate. Above all, the chocolate. I had been a chocolate maniac all my life: at age four I declared to my mother that the only way I was going to drink milk was if it were chocolate.
I can still taste in my mind the first piece of fine French chocolate I had during my semester in Paris. I had gone “chocolate scouting” – as normal a thing for me to do as finding my classes, the bookstores, and the Seine – and I selected a square of ganache at the great French chocolate house Debauve et Gallais. The richness, power, and purity of flavor in that tiny, perfect bonbon made me determined to enjoy chocolate of exalted quality for the rest of my life, and to take others with me on the journey of fine chocolate.
I began immediately. I asked a few Sorbonne friends if they wanted to come with me and sample the best chocolate and pastries in Paris. They looked at me for a moment as though I had invited them on a tour of paradise, which in fact I had. They said yes, and off we went on the first chocolate tour that I created. I didn’t call it a tour, or imagine that I would grow the concept into an international chocolate tourism and chocolate services business. I was simply sharing my passion.
After we had eaten our way through the truffles and chocolate croissants of Paris, I decided we needed to go to Belgium and do the same thing. And we did. We celebrated my 20th birthday in the glorious chocolate shops of Antwerp, Brussels, Bruges and Ghent, during a weekend in December of our senior year. Thus took place the first chocolate travel club trip that I created; I didn’t imagine that there would be more.
Today, after a not atypical career diversion into the practice of law, and some additional time in the chocolate and pastry centers of Europe, my passion, mission, and career are one: “uplift through chocolate.” I founded a business 9 years ago which was the first chocolate tour company, then I expanded into multiple cities, and now the company has grown to provide chocolate services such as tours, travel, and “Eat Chocolate, Be Skinny” wellness seminars for the chocolate-loving public, and consulting and importing for professional chefs and chocolatiers as well as for cocoa-growing and chocolate-producing nations.
The next step is to continue the current chocolate revolution by ending the child slave labor practices and other monstrous abuses that occur behind 70% of the world’s chocolate, and by replacing slavery chocolate with delicious fair trade chocolate for the public and culinary professionals. Chocolate can uplift chocolate lovers, chocolate workers, cocoa growing nations, and the planet. For irregularly-timed posts chronicling some of this journey, you can join me on my blog at http://www.chocolateuplift.com.
I’m grateful it all flowed from a thought I woke up with when we were at Harvard.