Fearless Females, Part 1: Adding Value
How does one become a chocolate maker?
What does it take to pack up and move your entire life across the country?
Wait...which one should I try next?
These were the questions swirling through my brain as I feverishly stuffed chocolate samples into my mouth, ostensibly trying to focus on the nuttiness, the creaminess, the complex flavors. But, in actuality just wondering what my next taste should be. It was in this theobromine-induced state of euphoria that I found myself face-to- face with the very person who was making my chocolate haze possible: Debra Music, co-owner of Seattle-based Theo Chocolate. Trying to swallow the decadent mouthful as gracefully as possible, I shook Deb’s hand and followed her through the retail portion of Theo, the company she owns with ex-husband Joe Whinney. She stopped briefly and scooped up a few more freshly made confections for me to try. Ummm...yes, please!
I recently moved from California, and I have to confess that my knowledge of Theo Chocolate was initially limited to my recognition of the unique font on the labels of the chocolate bars that I occasionally see at my local Whole Foods. I had even (wrongly) assumed that the moniker on the bars referred to somebody’s grandfather or favorite uncle. (It is, of course, a nod to the scientific name for chocolate: Theobroma cacao.)
The fact that Theo is not only a local business but also co-owned by a
divorced couple and just happens to be the country’s first true “bean-to-bar” chocolate company (meaning that the Theo Chocolate is involved in every step of the process from growing the beans to making the chocolate) seriously upped the "cool factor" and made me eager to know more.
I caught up with Deb smack in the middle of the holiday rush. Luckily for me, she was willing to take a break from her "Wonka-esque" work environment to sit down with me and share a bit of her journey. A journey that is one part love story, one part business venture, one part adventure tale, and all inspirational.
Growing up on the East Coast, Deb didn’t imagine that one day she would be running one of the most successful chocolate companies in the country (and located in the Pacific Northwest, no less). But then, she didn’t count on meeting Joe. Having lived and worked in Central America and Africa, Joe was already heavily involved in the lives and land of the people there. He had recognized injustice in the way that both were being exploited and wanted to make a difference. While Fair Trade practices were relatively unknown in mainstream America at the time, Joe was a pioneer in the field and was dedicated to the idea of one day making chocolate himself and sharing this passion with the world.
Deb and Joe’s love story began slowly. As he pursued his dream of chocolate and travel, she wrote him long letters to keep him occupied on his explorations. One rainy spring day, between trips, he showed up for dinner at her tiny apartment in Massachusetts, and, well, kind of never left. At least that’s how they tell it. Somewhere along the way, there was a marriage, a child, a divorce, and then...a chocolate company. In that order.
Which, by anyone’s standards (even Deb's) isn’t the way it is usually done. But Debra Music is no ordinary woman. And when the chance arose for her ex-husband to realize his long-held vision of owning a chocolate company, Deb knew that there would only be one thing standing in his way: her. He had approached her with the idea of moving to Seattle to open a chocolate factory, knowing that the only way this could happen would be with her emotional, and, perhaps more importantly, physical support.
At the time the two were co-raising their 8-year-old son, Henry. Joe was not the kind of guy to ever leave his child on the other side of the country, no matter how great the career opportunity, and fortunately for all of us, Debra was not the kind of gal to let him pass on that opportunity. It was, as she describes it, “a huge leap of faith.” So despite all the potential challenges that moving across the country with your ex could bring, Deb, Joe, and Henry packed up and set out on their greatest adventure yet.
At first, Deb was ambivalent about getting involved in the business itself. After a time, however, it became apparent to her that both her skill set and her experience as a marketing professional was needed, so she decided to join the venture. Was it difficult? Were there perhaps moments when she wondered what she had signed up for? As she puts it, “Here we were a divorced couple trying to build a business together, and dealing with all of the unavoidable boundary issues that come along with that.” In a word: absolutely.
And yet here were these two very idealistic, creative people, both of whom had a clear vision for where they could, and would take their fledgling chocolate company. Two people who weren’t willing to accept the norm, who knew that they had the potential to do something better
than what was being done, whose inherent strengths balanced each other out, and who were not willing to rest until they had accomplished their goals. And who just happened to have once shared a last name.
From the beginning, Deb and Joe had a clear, solid vision for Theo Chocolate: a desire to create positive change in the world. This ethos has continued to guide them; it is the ethos that keeps them moving forward through the difficult times. As Deb explains- “Sometimes it’s hard to grow a company that is predicated on a unique value system in today’s world. It takes a tremendous amount of energy. I’ve always had a very strong need to do work that I felt was somehow connected to the greater good. Theo is trying to do something different in a world that
desperately needs to recognize the interconnectedness of everything, that values our shared humanity. That’s what this company is about. And that’s what I’m most proud of.”
It is evident that Deb Music loves her job. She has a strong sense of purpose and knows that she is where she is supposed to be. Those of us who have had the privilege of owning businesses, however, understand the difficulty of working for ourselves. It’s a proven fact that
entrepreneurs have a tendency to push themselves harder than anyone else would push them. In fact, it is their unique combination of optimism and tenacity that can also be her or his downfall (Lancaster, 2011).
We hate to miss out on any opportunity, so we have the potential to spread ourselves too thin. It has also been well documented that women, in particular, have a difficult time keeping themselves in balance (Parker, 2015). So what is Deb’s secret? “I am a fitness junkie,” she admits with a laugh. “I have a hard time sitting still, so I exercise a lot! And my husband and I love to sail and be outside.” She further gives her husband Bradley a lot of the credit for helping her stay grounded. “(He) is much better than I am at relaxing so he’s been a great mirror for me. And he’s given me permission. I’m getting better at prioritizing self-care.”
If you spend much time around this petite bundle of energy, it’s easy to see that she’s doing something right. And the experts would agree (Gunnarsson & Josephson, 2011). Besides producing massive amounts of endorphins, exercise has also been proven to fight fatigue, improve mental alertness, and increase cognitive function (ADAA, 2016). Check, check, and check!
Deb is also acutely aware of the realities involved in being a female entrepreneur. “If you’re fortunate,” she says, “as a woman you will get to have all the things you want to, but maybe not all at the same time. Sometimes you will have to sacrifice one area of your life to
have something else.” Which in my mind is the very essence of self-care: having the honesty and courage to admit that we all have personal limitations. And learning to be ok with that.
Whatever sacrifices Deb has made has clearly been worth it, as she and Joe continue to maintain their company’s guiding principles. “If you’re going to strike out and endeavor to do something,” Deb advises other entrepreneurs, “it’s really important to understand how you’re adding value. It will take everything you have to give, and there will be lots of obstacles, so you need the strength of your convictions as you build your business. And it’s going to take a lot of humility and the ability to not be afraid of what you don’t know so that you can surround
yourself with people that can help you. Because you’re not going to be able to do it alone.”
Given the story of Theo Chocolate, and Deb and Joe’s remarkable partnership, I think she might be onto something.
At 2Human Strategies we believe that strong relational abilities and health are an essential component of both business success and self-care. In particular, we are impressed by and excited about Deb’s strong, impressive ideals, capacity for creative engagement, and ability to create a positive change in our world. These are essential qualities that we seek to emulate in ourselves and also promote in our clients.
For more information about Theo Chocolate click here.
For more information about 2Human Strategies and our services click here.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2016). Physical activity reduces stress. [Fact sheet]. Retrieved from https://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/stress/physical-activity-reduces-st
Gunnarsson, K. & Josephson, M. (2011). Entrepreneurs’ self-reported health, social life, and strategies for maintaining good health. Journal of Occupational Health. 53(3). pp. 205-213.
Lancaster, A. (2011). Why entrepreneurs are bound for burnout. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/thebigenoughcompany/2011/10/07/why-entrepreneurs-are-bound-for-burnout/#3645d6053d45
Parker, K. (2015). Women still bear a heavier load than men in balancing work and family. Pew Research Center [Fact sheet]. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/03/10/women-still-bear-heavier-load-than-men-balancing-work-family/