For more than a decade, Shawn Askinosie has been searching for a way to make an impact. “For me, the sense of purpose comes from my faith,” Shawn explains. For more than 17 years, he has been associated with a Trappist monetary near his home in Springfield, Missouri. “And, I think it really springs forth from my compassion that results from my dad’s death.” Shawn’s father died of lung cancer when Shawn was only 14 years old. His mother also died at a young age. “When those things happen to us, whatever sorrow it may be: we have a broken heart. And then we’re better able to see others who have that kind of broken-heartedness. And I think, over the years, that’s what has drawn me to this kind of purpose.”
Shawn tells the story of his search for meaning in his book, Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul, which he co-wrote with his daughter Lawren.In Search of Meaningful Work
In 2005, Shawn was a criminal defense lawyer. “I made my reputation in the defense of murder cases,” Shawn says. “I loved everything about it, until I didn’t. When you don’t love it anymore, you feel it, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The only problem was, I had no other skill. I didn’t know how to do anything other than cross-examine people.”
Over the next five years, Shawn began exploring hobbies outside of work. However, he says, “It just wasn’t coming.” For the next five years, he tried a wide variety of hobbies. “Even 12 years ago, Google was in full force,” he explains. “I was distracted by all of the possibilities.”
He thought of buying a franchise. He tried making cupcakes. “I went to Magnolia Bakery in New York, just to look at the cupcakes and taste them, and see the place,” he says. He thought about baking pies. He looked at a frozen custard franchise. And yet, he never felt fully drawn to any of these possibilities. “I told myself I would feel it when it was right. I would sense deep down that this was what I was supposed to do, and it just wasn’t happening.”Creating Space for the Right Idea
“As I approached this from a very traditional Type A, hard-charging entrepreneur, I said, OK, let’ research all the possibilities. What makes sense financially? How much savings do I have? What can I invest? What’s the ROI? What’s the barrier to entry? I asked all the questions, but I didn’t feel it.” Pushing forward through a logical path was not leading him to the outcome he was looking for.
“This process was five years. And during that process, I prayed this very simple prayer, ‘Dear God, give me something else to do.’” The answer to Shawn’s prayers came unexpectedly. “During this 5-year search, I got this volunteer opportunity to work in our local hospital in palliative care, which is essentially end-of-life care,” he describes. Every Friday, he would visit with patients in the hospital. “It had nothing to do with my search,” he says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, the fifth thing on my list was, go volunteer at this hospital.’”
However, Shawn was open to volunteering at the hospital because of sorrow in his own life. When Shawn was 14 years old, his dad died of lung cancer. “I thought, I can go help people who are experiencing the dying process.” The patients would request a volunteer to visit them. “I would go in and talk to them about whatever they wanted to talk about. Then at the end, I would offer to pray with them. When people agreed, Shawn asked, “What would you like me to pray for?” This opened up a new avenue of conversation.
“For those seconds,” Shawn recalls,” and I mean seconds, I actually thought of someone besides myself. I was so driven to find the next thing. And for those seconds, it was not about me. And then, many times, when I left the front doors of this big hospital, walking out to my car, I felt like my feet weren’t on the ground.”
In this five-year period of volunteering, “There was this space created in me, to contemplate, to think about what would be in my future. I needed that. I love the quote, and I put it in the book, Khalil Gibran, ‘Our greatest joy is our sorrow unmasked.’ Well, my greatest sorrow was my dad’s death. It created this space for me to think about something like chocolate.”Chocolate is the Answer
Eventually, Shawn settled on a single idea – chocolate. “I went from making it one pound at a time to 500 pounds at a time,” he says. “Back then, nobody knew what bean to bar chocolate was. We import cocoa beans from places like Ecuador, Tanzania, the Amazon, and the Philippines. We bring in these containers. They pull up to the back door of my factory. We roast the cocoa beans. We grind it and add the only other ingredient, which is organic sugar, and make chocolate bars. We sell them directly. We don’t have a distributor. There are just 16 people in my company, including me and my daughter.”
How do they distribute their chocolate bars? “Back in the beginning, nobody even knew what bean-to-bar chocolate was, so that was a real uphill challenge.” To sell the bars, they call stores and ask them if they want to carry their chocolate. “Year after year, through word of mouth, and winning some awards for our chocolate, we’ve made a name for ourselves.”Small Business as a Force for Good
Askinosie Chocolate practices open-book management and profit sharing. Shawn explains, “What that means is, we share the numbers. We teach what they mean. And then, we share in the outcome.” They translate the profit sharing reports into the native language of the farmers. They also publish their reports on their website. “Anybody can see what I paid farmers in every single bean buy for the last 11 years.”
Askinosie Chocolate also works with local students. “My factory is in a revitalizing part of our community, around a lot of poverty,” Shawn describes. “That’s where I wanted it to be. There’s a homeless shelter nearby. We wanted to start a program that engages the kids of our neighborhood.” Shawn started Chocolate University over ten years ago. They have an elementary school, middle school and high school program.
“Every other year, we take the high school kids that are in this competitive program, to Tanzania,” Shawn says. “Remember, we’re only 16 people. The people in my company go to the elementary school, and the elementary school kids come to my factory.”
“We want to teach them about two things: One, that small business can be a force for good in the world. And the second thing is, there’s a world beyond Springfield, MO.”Practicing Reverse Scale
Moving against cultural pressures, Shawn had decided to not rapidly scale his business. “One of our vocations is not getting bigger, but getting better at staying small. That is a real push against the pressures of growing, growing, growing at all costs. Investors want you to scale. Chambers of Commerce want you to scale because it means more jobs for the community. Your family wants you to scale because it means you’re going to be richer, supposedly. So, there’s this myth that top-line growth, just grow, grow, grow, is going to be better for everyone.
“But, I was drawn to this business because of all the things that we’ve talked about: farmers, students, just to travel and meet people,” Shawn explains. “But, if I scale, then what I’m doing is, I’m writing checks, I’m supervising, I’m managing, I’m delegating, I’m finding people to do the things I did before so that I can grow…If I’m not careful, what I’ve done is, I’ve lost the sense of what drew me to this business in the first place.
“So, what I want to do is hold on to a tether, and the tether is a practice we call reverse scale. When you grow at all costs, it becomes hard when you are distant from others. And when you become distant from other people, it’s hard to find yourself.
“I want to say to people, look, if you have an idea, don’t subscribe to this cultural pressure, this if it doesn’t scale, then it’s not worthy, that it’s not valuable. Because my message is, it is valuable If it helps the people on your street, near your business, that’s valuable.Social Entrepreneur Quotes by Shawn Askinosie
“I prayed this very simple prayer, ‘Dear God, give me something else to do.’” @shawnaskinosie @askinosie
“It didn’t have to be chocolate. It could have been anything.” @shawnaskinosie @askinosie
“To work with farmers and students, and to make a product, that’s what was missing.” @shawnaskinosie @askinosie
“We share the numbers. We teach what they mean. And then, we share in the outcome.” @shawnaskinosie @askinosie
“This summer, I begin my 40th origin trip.” @shawnaskinosie @askinosie
“Small business can be a force for good.” @shawnaskinosie @askinosie
“Travel gives us a sense of connection; that we really are connected to each other.” @shawnaskinosie @askinosie
“Back then, nobody knew what bean-to-bar chocolate was.” @shawnaskinosie @askinosie
“Go find somebody who needs you, and start.” @shawnaskinosie @askinosie
“Where does it hurt? Begin from that place of sorrow, because you’re going to find great joy.” @shawnaskinosie @askinosie
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