25 Sep Finding Your Call & Feeding Your Soul – Lawyer Turned Chocolatier, with Shawn Askinosie
Back in 2005, my guest, Shawn Askinosie left a successful career as a criminal defense lawyer to start a bean-to-bar chocolate factory and he’s never looked back. Askinosie Chocolate is a small batch, award-winning chocolate factory located in Springfield, Missouri. They source 100% of their cocoa beans directly from farmers across the globe. Askinosie Chocolate was recently named one of the 25 Best Small Companies in America by Forbes and Shawn himself was named by “O,” Oprah’s magazine, as one of the 15 guys who is literally saving the world. Very cool.
Shawn and his daughter, Lawren, who is the Chief Marketing Officer for Askinosie, recently published a book together called Meaningful Work: A Quest To Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul. One reviewer wrote, “‘Meaningful Work is not only a book about saving the world, it’s about how businesses can and should solve problems in the world, and how positive change begins with individual action.” I love it.
I knew when I heard his story that I had to have Shawn join us for an episode.
Shawn, welcome to DREAM THINK DO.
Thank you, Mitch. Appreciate the intro and I’m looking forward to this.
Me too! You know, I look forward to every interview, but some I look forward to just a little bit more than others. I’ve been really, really excited about this.
Many DREAM THINK DO-ers, have navigated a career change, or are contemplating a career change. How did you go from defense attorney back in 2005 and decide you want to make chocolate?
The way it started, I loved my job and I think a lot of your listeners can probably relate to what I’m about to say, but I loved it and I loved it for a long time. I did it for almost 20 years. I never lost a criminal jury trial.
I specialized in super serious felony cases and built my reputation in the defense of murder cases. To say that comes with a little stress would be an understatement.
When you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel stressful until you stop loving it, and that’s what happened. I stopped loving it But I didn’t have any hobbies, I didn’t have an idea of anything else to do. I’d always wanted to be a lawyer.
The real struggle for me in this transition, which was five years long by the way, was a struggle of choices. I just didn’t feel drawn. I didn’t feel called. I couldn’t find my vocation. It seemed as though the more desperate I became, the further away it was from my reach, so to speak. Then it was just like this vicious circle of, “What’s going to happen?”
I really prayed a very simple prayer that went like this: “Dear God, please give me something else to do.” I said that, sometimes many times a day, but I said it every day for almost five years. It was just a simple prayer, one born of desperation.
I had no hobbies at first, so I started some hobbies. I bought a Big Green Egg grill and did all the meals on the Big Green Egg and loved it. Then I started baking, making cupcakes. I made thousands of cupcakes. Then I started making chocolate desserts and I had no idea where chocolate came from, zero.
But one day, I was driving to a distant relative, driving to her funeral, and it was out near my grandparent’s farm about an hour from here in southwest Missouri. I just had this idea. “Hey, what about making chocolate from scratch?” I had no idea where it came from.
Yeah, where does that come from? Yeah.
And this is the doing part. Within three months of that light bulb, I was in the Amazon, learning how farmers influence the flavor of chocolate by how they harvest the cocoa beans. Then I started to wind down my law practice. I bought equipment from all over the world, completed my last jury trial, and here we are.
That’s incredible. I love that. I know we’ve been back and forth a little bit, so you know I’ve got a book called Dream Job Redefined where I interviewed 200 plus people who had either found or created dream jobs. Experimenting was at the core of so many of their stories, giving themselves the chance to not necessarily just quit their job and with reckless abandon try everything, but just to experiment on the side. I love that that’s a part of your story as well, that you started to dive in, started to test it, then to go to the Amazon.
How did this decision happen? Would you say it was a microwave moment where, zap, you just knew, or was it more of a Crock Pot moment of over time, where you said, “It’s chocolate and I’m going after it”? Was it when you were in the Amazon and said, “Oh, this is it,” or was it more just a feeling that grew over time?
Man, I love that question. I don’t really like microwaves, but I do love the Crock Pot
Really the answer is both. The idea of making chocolate from scratch was quick, but the time that it took to get there was really long. It was nearly five years of just this slow cooking of this windy path to even get to the place where I could listen, where I could see these opportunities. That was the real challenge.
The problem is we’re so overloaded with information, and everything looks like a possibility to us, that we can’t decide and/or we don’t feel the calling to it. So that’s what happened with me. It was kind of both. It was this long-term process to get to the place where I could even find the idea in my head, which came pretty quickly once it did.
Yeah. You kind of almost had to open yourself up to it. And then be able to continue to experiment with it and all of that.
I did, yes.
I love it. I think a lot of DREAM THINK DO-ers can relate. I know I can because back years ago, I was in a great job that had become a bad fit. And kind of like you, I had success, but all of a sudden I was starting to feel like I was a fish trying to climb a tree. It’s like, “Wait a second. This doesn’t fit anymore.”
I know a lot of people can relate to that feeling, but maybe they haven’t even been able to put their finger on it yet. But I love that part of your story from the standpoint that you really did give yourself that chance to experiment.
It’s better to test it and experiment and all of that. I think that in the book, you really do talk about the concept of exploring and finding a vocation and how important that was to you. Walk us through what that means for you personally and how you went about that. And then how did you decide to take things beyond experimentation?
One of the great poet philosophers that I quote in the book, Khalil Gibran, said that “Our greatest joy is our sorrow unmasked.” What I was really looking for in a vocation, was that sense of joy. I had great joy in my law practice for many years until I didn’t, and so I needed to find that.
I came to this realization that I needed to explore the sorrow in my life. I talk about this a lot. I talk to high school students, middle school students. The point is that I needed to take a look at my own broken heart, and for me, that was my dad’s death. He was a lawyer like me and he died when I was 14, was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was 12. It was really, really a hard time for me.
There was a group from our church that would come over and pray really loudly over him, and lay hands on him, and speak in tongues, and do stuff that kind of freaked me out. The leader of the group told me to never speak with my dad about death because if I did, it would be a sign of doubt and he wouldn’t be healed.
Oh my, oh my.
And so every time my dad tried to talk to me about it, I would push him away and say, “No dad, you can’t talk like that or you’ll die.” So I was with him when he died and the cancer had really spread throughout his body at that point. I stood by his bedside. He had a stroke from his brain cancer at that point and I begged God out loud, “Please don’t let him die. Please let him live.” It was a moment of just utter sorrow and desperation all wrapped into one.
Fast-forward 25 years later, I have this successful career, making a lot of money, not losing cases. I said, “I need to figure this out. I need to explore this because I have never really done it.” I volunteered at a local hospital palliative care unit. Palliative care is essentially end-of-life care in the hospital. I would go on Friday. I was still practicing law. I was basically saying, “Please God, give me something else to do.” So I would just visit patients. They would give me a list of five or 20 patients and they might be in oncology, cardiology, neurology, but they were all in some state of dying. Many of them had no family or friends visiting, so they’d requested a volunteer visitor. I’d go and just talk to them or read to them.
At the end of my visit, I would say to the people, I would say, “Hey, one of the things I do as a volunteer is a pray for people. Would you like for me to say a prayer?” Well, I found that nine out of 10 people in palliative care will take a prayer. I would say this – and this is the key – I would say, “What would you like me to pray for?”
That was the exact opposite of what happened to me as a teenager and so this is where I’m reaching my point here: I would ask them, “What do you want me to pray for?” And they would somewhat say, “Well, would you pray that I live two more weeks until my 60th wedding anniversary?” or, “Would you pray that my family’s okay when I die?” or, “Would you pray that I die today because I’m ready to go?” or, “Would you pray that I’m healed?” I never judged their words. I prayed their exact words right back to them. I’d ask if I could touch their shoulder or their arm and I said their exact words back to them. And here’s what happened:
In those moments, really measured in seconds, I actually thought about someone besides me. I’m really good at thinking about me and back then I was, and to this day, so there’s this mystery that happens when, as Gandhi said, “We find ourselves when we lose ourselves in the service of others.” During just those seconds of not thinking about me and doing that on Fridays, there were some days I would walk out of the hospital onto the parking lot and I felt as though my feet weren’t on the ground like I was walking on air. What is that? It’s joy! That’s what it is.
There was this space created in my soul to think about my future in this paradoxical way that doesn’t really make sense. I mean, it’s counterintuitive, but doing that over time, not Googling, not reading a book, not talking to my friends, none of that. It was service and it was simple service.
That’s a really important part of, I believe, the challenge that we face as entrepreneurs who want to change or feel really dedicated to something bigger than ourselves is this work of broken-heartedness. I think it leads to a lot of peace and joy.
Whew! Well, I’m glad you told that story. I think that’s one of the most profound things anybody’s ever said on DREAM THINK DO. And I don’t say that lightly. I read the story in your book of your dad’s passing and my heart broke as I read that. I was right there with you. But then to know that later in life, you’d go and spend time with folks in that exact time in their lives, it goes back to the Joseph Campbell story, the heroes’ journey, facing your heart, facing yourself, and what God did in you and through you in that is just incredible.
But I think it’s actually one of the best responses to the question. There are times we know we need to make a change in our lives. We’re surrounded by so much information, so much distraction, all of that. One of the biggest questions is, “How do I get clear? How do I even make space for that?”
Yeah and that’s a challenge.
It absolutely is and I love kind of in that space of helping others – and not necessarily, I know you go all around the world now literally helping others, but that didn’t come from being over on the other side of the planet or helping somebody in a refugee camp. That actually came by just walking down the street and helping people right in your neighborhood.
Yeah and I don’t even look at it as helping people.
My aspiration is to view it as what Pema Chödrön would call mutuality, or what Father Greg Boyle would call mutuality and compassion. That is where I’m not the service giver and they’re the service recipient, but can I encounter people in my industry or in my supply chain or wherever as mutual? I believe that is truly where the work of God resides.
Father Boyle – he’s Jesuit priest – and he says, “If you want to find where Christ is, go to the low places.” Right? Going into the hospital and speaking with the dying, that’s a low place, or maybe going into the remote part of a continent in Africa or wherever cocoa is growing perhaps, I will encounter the depth of poverty, which we would see as a low place. But this is the mystery of the low place and the mystery is that it produces joy.
You mentioned Joseph Campbell. He says, “We’re called to joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world.” I believe that. I believe it and I try to live that out as best I can in my work life and my personal life.
Yeah. Man, I love it. I know that a lot of entrepreneurs are listening. I think a lot of people that are leaders within their organizations are listening and they’re saying, “That’s beautiful. That’s right on. I’m feeling it.” But also, you run a business, not a non-profit, right?
You still have to make a profit, you still have to pay your employees, pay the rent. All of those things. I think some people, maybe the immediate thing is to say, “I want that, but can you really do that in the business world?”
I know one of the things you talk about is developing a business vocation. Even the chapter heading is, “Develop a Business Vocation or Else You Might Kill Your Business.” Talk us through that. Where is the bridge there?
The bridge is the person, the leaders, and those who are inside the company finding this thing that they can pull toward that’s bigger than themselves or bigger than one person.
Just like I tell the story in the book. The way the story goes, Jack Kennedy is visiting NASA and he’s touring around. He sees a guy pushing a broom and he engages I’m in conversation and says, “Well, tell me what you do here.” The guy was clearly a janitor and he said, “Well, Mr. President, I’m sending a man to the moon.” Well, those are people who get it. They understand that they’re something bigger than them that they’re working toward. We see this is in our businesses.
And so I think that the way to execute this is to really make an extension of our own personal vocation. The reason that we must do this, and it’s urgent, I believe, as entrepreneurs, as business people, is that we know the numbers don’t lie because they’ve been the same year after year for over a decade. Employee engagement is low and has been for a long time. Gallup says that, essentially, two-thirds of employees aren’t engaged at work. What does that mean? It means they don’t care about their job.
Again, bringing Khalil Gibran back into the picture, he said, “If you bake a bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.” Well, that’s the same for chocolate. If I make chocolate with indifference – or what about you, Mitch? If you just went through the motions in this podcast and you executed it with indifference, then it would be a bitter podcast.
And so what we need to do is we need to find ways for us and employees, those colleagues that we work with, to bake a bread that they care about. If we don’t do this, then our economy will suffer, our country will suffer, and ultimately, so will our employees. We have to find a way.
This is not about social business, by the way. It’s about business. It’s just good business. We can look at big corporations and go down the list and they all have CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility departments. Well, these started with lawyers back in the ’60s who were essentially working on risk mitigation. We’ve siloed all that charitable philanthropic work in CSR departments. We have to diffuse that kind of work around the organization.
I only have 16 people in my company. And you’re right, we are for-profit. We’re feeding a thousand kids a day in the Philippines and last year it was 2,000 kids a day. All sustainability, zero donations. I take kids to Africa as part of our Chocolate University Program. I profit share with farmers. I open my books to them in their language. We translate our books into Swahili, for example, so the farmers can see how we calculate their profit share. We do all of these things and we still make a little profit. But I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t have a big line of credit. I don’t have a ton of NOI at the end of the year to just go do stuff with.
So my message is that even us little people in tiny companies, can do these things. Not to change the world, but to make it a vocation for us personally and for our businesses that we want to transform ourselves, just us. That’s what I’m shooting for. That’s my vocation. I want to transform me.
I couldn’t agree more. I get pumped up because, talk about a sleeping giant, and helping people to be engaged, not just because it’s their job description but because they’re lit up.
One of the best leaders I ever worked for, a guy named Greg Walker, he would sit down with every member of our team, and he would ask everybody. He asked me about my personal goals. I thought, “I know how to answer this. I’ve been through job interviews. I know to say that, ‘Oh, one of my problems is I work too hard. That’s going to be one of mine. I just work too hard, I’m a dog to a bone.'”
Right, “I’m too punctual.”
Exactly! Right? He just looked at me, turned his head, and called me on it. He said, “No, I really want to know who you are because if I know who you are, then I can know how to help you get what you want and do it through the job you’re in currently.”
He would always tie before we ever talked about goals or numbers or bonuses or anything, he would always relate it back to those things that were important to me. He would also check in and say, “Are those things still important to you? Lives change, people change.” I can remember. I never worked harder for anybody on the planet than that guy.
See, that is cool because what you have demonstrated by telling me this is that if we can work for people and with people who simply care about us and behave toward us with kindness, that will overshadow all of the ping pong tables or snack bars or bean bag chairs that you could put in your company.
They’re nice perks, but all of those things don’t really make us happy and give us joy at work. But when your supervisor or your boss demonstrates care for you, man, we’ll work. We’ll work for that person and we care about the work that we do.
I always say, because we get to work with a lot of tech firms, and I do a lot of speaking with different organizations, and I always say, “Snack bars and game rooms, that is awesome for dating, but this is the stuff that makes for good marriages.” You know what I mean?
It’s that whole thing. It’s sexy on the front end, but you gotta make the relationship work, you know?
Let’s talk about scale. Entrepreneurs, everybody, always say “We need to scale our business. Is that idea scalable? Can we grow that business? Can we do it over and over again?”
One of the things you talk about is that you’re really focused on the reverse scale. Talk to us about that and why it’s important to you.
Thank you for bringing that up. Everybody asks us about scale because they have good intention. Investors want to know because it means return on investment for them, and Chambers of Commerce want to know because it means more jobs, our family wants to know because they think it means we’ll be rich, so people have good intentions.
So my challenge to folks is can we just take a step back in that question and say, “Why are we scaling and what do we risk or possibly sacrifice if we do?” I’m not saying that it’s bad, but I’m saying scale for scale’s sake can cause problems. Obviously, there are exceptions. Cases in emergency exceptions or imminent human need, Ebola, food, that kind of things.
But beyond that, I think it’s important for leaders and entrepreneurs to keep in mind. I encourage people to not suppress ideas that they might have to bring up in their own companies because they think that it doesn’t affect enough people or enough “locations.” I say, “What if this idea just changes one person? What if it just changes me? It still has value.”
This practice of reverse scale for me is a tether to the original reason that I started this business to begin with. If I’m not careful and if I don’t have the practice of maintaining this tether, then I will lose sight of what drew me to chocolate in the first place, and what drew me to working directly with farmers, or working with students, and teaching them about business and entrepreneurship. I’ll lose that because what will happen is I will find myself worried more about writing checks, supervising, growing, finding somebody to do what I used to do so now I can do the next thing up on the scale chart.
So I describe in the book and I talk about these practices that have come true. Even just two weeks ago, I was in Tanzania with a group of local high school students that we brought there to meet cocoa farmers. Well, I could have delegated that to somebody else if I was worried about scale, but I was there in Tanzania with those students meeting other students, meeting cocoa farmers, and I had the chance two weeks ago, while I was there, to experience the divine.
I think reverse scale gives us a greater likelihood to possess than if we’re so focused on growing, growing, growing.
That is awesome. I love that, I love that perspective. I do think you’re not anti-growth.
I think listeners, today, as they hear this, might be able to say, “Okay it might not be taking kids to Tanzania, but what are some of those things that I want to do?”
How do I stay open and to these moments in my life?” There is just something about being in the service of others, being in that. I love the mutuality of it of being able to partner with others, and yeah, making that change that you want to see.
Well, I also think too that we’re so overwhelmed in our day sometimes that we think if somebody was listening to me, just like you said, they’d think, “Oh, great. Okay, so he’s feeding kids in the Philippines. I can’t feed kids. What am I going to do?”
People view it as a luxury. It isn’t a luxury. This does not have to be some fancy foundation that you start. I’m not talking about joining a board of directors.
What I’m talking about, and this, to me, I think is the crux of the matter: Think about people at work, in your supply chain, in your industry, and think who needs you. Who needs you right now? Or maybe even your neighborhood or in your family. Who needs you to serve them right now? Roll up your sleeves and start doing it without the expectation of anything in return. This mystery will wrap you up.
The joy that comes from this is so true that it will survive the challenges and the fire, if you will, of what business is like. What I mean by that is, this isn’t going to cause your business to fail. But who we are as people in our company, how we treat people, is inseparable from the product that we deliver. In other words, the work that we do in the Philippines or Tanzania or in my own neighborhood or whatever, how we treat people is inseparable from the chocolate that we make.
My point in that is this isn’t going to cause you to fail, but even if your company fails, even if you file bankruptcy, you’re going to have these moments of joy that will survive anything. If the bad thing happens, it’s going to be okay, and I’m going to always have these memories of the experience of being alive at work.
It’s so true, so true. When my wife and I started this entrepreneurial journey, I can remember times where I would just almost have panic attacks just even thinking about if we couldn’t make money, if we didn’t make money, if we were at zeros. We had a season where we were absolutely in all ways at zeros. No money in the bank account, all of that. I can remember on the other side of it, one of the things that hit me was I didn’t die.
Yeah, yeah, exactly.
When I was in the pharmaceutical industry, I would have thought if I ever faced something like that, I would actually physically die. To realize, “Whew, you didn’t die” and we actually, we still laughed, and I still slept. Not great, but still slept! We still had fun with our kids and our kids didn’t really even notice the difference. I realized there was so much freedom being on the other side of that.
Now, it’s great to have money flowing and all of that and I’m not anti-money. It’s that whole thing of being able to say, “Are you in alignment with what you’re put on the planet to do? Are you in the service of others? Are you loving yourself? Are you loving others well?” That can see you through a lot. Those things stay with you no matter what. That can bring you more peace whether you got money coming out your ear holes or whether it’s a little thin. It is an amazingly freeing and powerful thing to walk in that. I love that the book, your life, focuses on that.
I have absolutely loved this conversation, but I’ve gone one question that’s not really about the contents of the book. I don’t know if you get this question a lot, but it’s a question I want to ask for myself. You wrote this with your daughter. Now, being a dad is one of my favorite things on the planet. We have two sons. One of my favorite things is working on projects with my boys.
My question: what was it like to write this with your daughter?
Oh boy. Thank you, thank you for asking that question. Lawren started working for me when we started the company. She was 15 and started writing copy.
Wow! That’s awesome.
Yeah, she’s our Chief Marketing Officer and she lives in Austin, Texas and works for us remotely and has for a long time. We wrote the book in different locations and it took almost three years. I have to say that it’s one of the greatest experiences of my life because of what I was saying earlier. My dad died when I was a teenager, so for me to have this experience and to have it with Lawren, and have her really help me articulate some of these stories and things about our business, and especially about my life and growing up and how that impacted my future, was really cool.
Now, we did in the process, of course, have some days of butting heads.
Yeah, let’s just say some days are easier than others.
Yes. I’m not going to say it was all just flowers and butterflies, but it overall, it was really just a great experience. When I look back at my life, I count it as just a great accomplishment. Not writing the book, but writing it with her. I so appreciate you asking me that question because yeah, as a dad, that’s my most important job and to have that experience was really cool.
That’s awesome. I love it.
Well, it’s a great book. Go grab it guys. Again, it’s Meaningful Work: A Quest To Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul. It has been a success. It continues, I’m sure, will continue to be a success.
Well, Shawn, I’ve absolutely enjoyed this and I look forward to having you back on DREAM THINK DO someday.
Thank you so much, Mitch. It’s been great talking with you. I hope you have a good day.
All right DREAM THINK DO-er, what’d you think? I love Shawn’s story. There’s just so many things that stand out for me. I’d love to hear from you. What’s something that you loved? You can go to mitchmatthews.com/195 and leave a comment.
I know for me, some of the just subtle things, like the prayer of, “Lord, please just give me something else to do,” and then just the trust in that is pretty amazing.
And you know that I’m a huge fan of experimenting, figuring out what it is that you want to do more of, figuring out what that dream job might be for you by starting to experiment. Don’t just quit your job immediately, but to start doing these experiments on the side and see where it takes you. Plus I love the thought of him writing this book with his daughter. How cool is that?
Those are some of the standouts to me. What stood out to you? Hit me up with a comment below.
Speaking of hearing from you, hey, would you do me a favor? If you haven’t done it already, would you leave a review on iTunes or wherever you’re listening. I’m grateful for it. Thanks!
I appreciate you guys sharing these shows and letting your friends and families know about it too because you know that we are all about inspiring people to dream bigger, think better, and do more. Couldn’t do it without you, wouldn’t want to do it without you, and so glad we are in this together.