The right person is 30 times better than the wrong person. Sometimes the smartest, best educated person is not right for the job and you have to recognize that early and act swiftly at replacing them. I’ve learned this the hard way, and it can be brutal.
Asa part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean Thompson, the Owner & CEO of Seattle Chocolate.
Jean Thompson is the CEO and owner of Seattle Chocolate and jcoco. A longtime fan and investor in the company during her previous life as an executive at Microsoft, Jean acquired Seattle Chocolate after the devastating Nisqually Earthquake destroyed the company’s factory in 2001. With no prior C-suite experience, Jean boldly stepped in as CEO and rebuilt the business from the ground up. Since the beginning of her tenure, Jean has believed in supporting — and being supported by — the Pacific Northwest community. Whether collaborating with talented regional artists, prototyping new eco-friendly packaging, or sourcing ingredients from her favorite local businesses, Jean is a civic-minded and dynamic leader.
In recent years, Jean has also refreshed Seattle Chocolate’s packaging to be more colorful, sophisticated, and appealing to women. She observed that the industry was largely positioning chocolate as a romantic gift for men to buy for their wives or girlfriends — she flipped the outdated model on its head and began celebrating chocolate as a delicious, antioxidant-rich treat that women purchase for themselves, usually to share with friends, colleagues, and loved ones.
As CEO, Jean oversees the brand direction for both Seattle Chocolate and sister brand jcoco, and continues to inspire her team to push boundaries. When she’s not indulging in the latest seasonal bar or truffle, Jean enjoys staying active with a workout class or a therapeutic ride on her Peloton bike, and gathering around the dinner table with family and friends. She also sits on the board of a local, women-owned catering company, Gourmondo, as well as the Cancer Pathways organization.
On the mission to educate people about the craft and care that goes into making artisanal chocolate, as well as the responsibility that successful companies have to give back, Jean has built Seattle Chocolate into a household name with national clout.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thanks so much for having me!
To be honest — I never set out to run a chocolate company. I was a longtime fan of Seattle Chocolate, and while I was working at Microsoft, an earthquake struck Seattle and destroyed the factory. I watched as something that I was rooting for essentially fell apart, physically and financially, and I saw an opportunity to get involved. At that point I signed on as one of the company’s lead investors but wasn’t really involved at the office or with the team.
By the time I ended up financing the company’s move to another facility, I was a stay-at-home mom cheering on Seattle Chocolate from the sidelines. That all changed a year later, when the company was still unable to cover payroll, and I joined full time as a member of the Sales and Marketing team. 6 weeks into my new role, as I was just starting to get my bearings, our CEO stepped down. As the primary stakeholder in the company, I had to make a decision: hire a new CEO or step into the role myself. I chose the latter and have been at this post for about 20 years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
This is a tough one! Every day is a challenge and is exciting. What I learned very early on is that no two days are the same, which leads to a lot of interesting happenings! If I have to choose though…in the early 2010’s I decided that we could be reaching a more epicurean audience with our chocolate.
I tapped my R&D, sales, and marketing teams and we started experimenting with different bean blends, flavor profiles, and packaging. It was a lot of work, but we birthed jcoco, Seattle Chocolate’s unapologetically bold sister brand, in 2012. The brand has allowed us to offer a sense of discovery to our customers with flavors like: Quinoa Sesame Agave, Fig and Pistachio, and more.
We also launched our giving campaign with jcoco — for every 3oz of jcoco chocolate sold, Seattle Chocolate Company donates one serving of fresh food to those in need. This was incredibly exciting, and I’m proud that we’ve donated over 4 million servings since launch!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a new face in the C-Suite, you’re constantly making mistakes and, thankfully, learning from them. For instance, I closed a deal with a national retailer, but thought what they were charging for freighting was outrageous.
I figured I could do it cheaper, so I bought two semi’s … and immediately realized that this was a much bigger undertaking than I’d anticipated. I had to admit that I couldn’t do it better, and I sold the trucks for pennies on the dollar two years later. You can’t do everything, and you have to remember that no one expects you to!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are woman-owned and women-led. In an industry dominated by men and male craft chocolate entrepreneurs, I really think our unique voice comes through in the product.
When I first signed on, I noticed that the industry was marketing chocolate as a gift that men may give to women. I looked around and none of my friends or I were getting their chocolate that way. We were buying it for ourselves and sharing it with each other. Although men eat chocolate as much as women do, I’d argue that chocolate isn’t as much of a passion for them.
Women have an emotional relationship with chocolate; they love to talk about it, share it with each other, cheer themselves or friends up with it, and they buy it regularly for themselves. Of course, we cater to everyone, but we’re looking to fill this gap in the market.
Also — so many of the entrepreneurs that I engage with say that they are frustrated by the millennial’s on their teams. Our millennial’s are my rocket fuel — I need them to stay on top of digital trends, social media, etc.. They’re essential. Know that wasn’t exactly what the question was, but I think this mentality and our goal of giving everyone on our team a voice creates a lot of synergy and good work at Seattle Chocolate.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! We’re ramping up to launch jcoco’s new dark and milk chocolate caramels filled with global flavors like spiced chai, blood orange espresso, and passion fruit ginger. We’re also working on an exciting campaign tied to the centennial of the 19th amendment. More to come on this!
We love to collaborate with local artists, organizations, and purveyors, and every time that we are developing something, a new opportunity arises to work with a like minded person or brand and to champion them. With every product launch, our giving mission, community partnerships, and national ones are shared with our audience and new customers — it’s wonderful.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
My advice would be to foster community and support each other every chance you get. Know that I already mentioned them but I have a group of millennial’s in my office, and they treat each other differently than the typical group of women from my generation did. They build each other up, they compliment each other’s ideas and they genuinely take pride and joy in each other’s victories. My advice would be to keep on keeping on! There are many seats at the table and room for all of us. We don’t need to compete. Work together to raise the profile and success of the entire group.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I firmly believe in leading by example and fostering an open environment where co-workers feel empowered to speak up for themselves. I aim to provide space and outlets for my team to express ideas, work through challenges, and to celebrate successes. This is sometimes a challenge with a big team, but it is important! People feeling heard is essential for team synergy and growth.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Ironically, the woman who has done the most mentoring for me used to work for me at both Microsoft and Seattle Chocolate: Kirsty Ellison. She believed in me and pushed me to be more visible in the industry, the consumer and everywhere outside the company. She didn’t sugar coat things, and she gently gave feedback when she thought I was in the wrong. She pointed out things that she thought were going off track as soon as she sensed them, and showed me what being a true team player looked like. It’s been such a privilege to work with her in both of these stages of my career!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Know I’ve talked about jcoco’s giving mission already, but that really has been such an important project for my team and me. Our partnerships with Northwest Harvest, The Food Bank of SF + Marin, and The Food Bank for NYC are incredibly valued at Seattle Chocolate Company, and we’re so thankful for their ongoing support.
On another note, I sit on a few different national and international confections boards. I’m one of the only women on these boards, which is still hard to believe, and I hope that having a seat at these tables is giving a voice to other female CEO’s and industry leaders.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The right person is 30 times better than the wrong person. Sometimes the smartest, best educated person is not right for the job and you have to recognize that early and act swiftly at replacing them. I’ve learned this the hard way, and it can be brutal.
- Never grow for the sake of growing — Every time a deal comes my way, I’m not afraid to say that it’s not right for our brand. I don’t partner with people who will not get our product and our brand messaging. It has to be a great fit. I’m not afraid to say no to an opportunity that’s not right for us.
- Sometimes a spreadsheet is no match for intuition and creativity. The book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell really empowered me to believe in my choices!
- If you don’t ask for something, you’ll never get it! This has been key in any and all promotions, partnership…everything!
- There are many seats at the table and room for all of us. We don’t need to compete or tear each other down to succeed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As a business owner, even small decisions can positively benefit the environment. In 2019 we decided to convert our entire twist-wrapped truffle line to a compostable material and we vow to swap all of our truffle wrapping by 2020. While small, reducing our carbon footprint is something that we’re very focused on right now. Waste is a global problem, and we want to do our part. I’m sure I have others, but this is what currently comes to mind!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This isn’t a quote necessarily, but I loved and often refer back to the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinkingby Malcolm Gladwell. It’s all about trusting your instincts, and knowing that if you trust your gut, you’ll always do the right thing. Sometimes you have to ignore the data and go with what you think and feel! An important reminder not just for business owners, but for all of us. Also, don’t be afraid to make a decision. We all make mistakes, but it’s better to fail and learn from it, than to miss an opportunity all together.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Malcolm Gladwell — I obviously love his work!