Liz Miller of Divine Chocolate: “You can be an introvert AND a phenomenal leader”

You can be an introvert and a phenomenal leader. I used to think it was only the extraverts who could make good leaders; I was mistaken in thinking that the loudest person was the person making the best decisions. On the contrary, as an introvert I have learned to embrace the qualities that help me […]

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You can be an introvert and a phenomenal leader. I used to think it was only the extraverts who could make good leaders; I was mistaken in thinking that the loudest person was the person making the best decisions. On the contrary, as an introvert I have learned to embrace the qualities that help me succeed — thoughtfulness, consideration, empathy — and use those to my advantage and the advantage of my company. It’s possible to thrive exactly as you are, not as you think you ‘need to be.’

I had the pleasure to interview Liz Miller. Liz is the Senior Marketing Manager at Divine Chocolate, a global social enterprise with HQs in Washington, D.C. & London. Liz is also an avid volunteer with the Ellevate Network, an organization whose mission is to help women advance in the workplace, both for themselves and the greater good. She serves on the D.C. Chapter Leadership Team as the Marketing Lead.

Thank you so much for joining us Liz! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

On one extremely hot day in the summer of 2008, you could find me in the Ghanaian village of Adanwomase pressing Adinkra symbols into swatches of fabric using stamps drenched in ink made from berry juices. I was there as part of a college study abroad trip.

Fast forward to 2014, I was in the market for a new job and was reviewing the website of Divine Chocolate which had an opening in its marketing department. I was amazed to learn that these very same Adinkra symbols made up the design on the wrapper of Divine Chocolate bars!

The study abroad trip in Ghana was one of the most incredible opportunities I have experienced in my lifetime; as such, I felt extremely connected to the fact that Divine Chocolate had its roots in Ghana due to the cocoa being sourced from a co-operative there.

Prior to joining Divine in 2014, my career was in the nonprofit sector. However, I was willing to take a leap of faith into the for-profit sector because I am extremely supportive of the business model that focuses on fair trade, women’s empowerment, and social impact. As a graduate of a master’s degree program in international human rights, I believe in the value of contributing my time and energy to a company or organization that shares my value of improving the human condition, and I believe that sustainability in the cocoa industry is a human rights issue.

Sustainability is about ensuring the future of cocoa, and it’s about using environmental resources in a responsible way, but at the root of it all, it’s about ensuring the future of cocoa farmers and their livelihoods. A rights-based approach gives us the best opportunity to create gender equality, promote climate justice, and eliminate poverty worldwide.

Now, nearly five years later into my career at Divine and in the chocolate industry, I couldn’t be more thrilled to have a role that enables me to live out my values (for human rights and sustainable development) while also honing my skills (in marketing & communications). I work with a great team and am delighted to be a part of a business making a positive impact on the world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of my favorite things that we have done at Divine was hosting one of the cocoa farmers who co-owns our company, named Mercy Zaah, from Ghana in DC and in Austin for a multi-event, multi-city ‘farmer visit’ with multiple stakeholders involved. We gave Mercy the opportunity to speak on behalf of the collaborative, share what it’s like to be a chocolate farmer, and to literally ‘have a voice.’

While I have planned many events, this was something totally different in many regards. It was a 10-day event, and I was responsible for coordinating so many people in so many different sectors. For example, one event was a round table about gender equity and women’s empowerment — trying to find the right people to attend and who could facilitate was extremely challenging.

There were so many times during that planning I felt like I had no idea what was doing. And, I remember very clearly that I had to remind myself that it was okay to wing it — part of what helped me get to the point of being okay with it was the fact that it was a project I felt so deeply connected to from a values standpoint. Giving Mercy the opportunity to have the best platform & audience was a mission that meant so much to me. I was willing doing the best possible work I could do to really help her succeed.

It all went well! So many people were inspired by her, and I was grateful to be the behind-the-scenes person to make it all happen, while showing Divine as an authentic, values-driven company.

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?

One thing I did — admittedly not that ‘funny’ but still something relatively innocuous — was spending a lot of my time on graphic design for the brand. I am not a trained graphic designer and have never marketed myself as one, but I was so deeply determined to provide Divine with the assets it needed that I tried my hand at it when I was first getting started in the company. I would spend too many hours trying to learn how to use the computer programs. But, I was not that good at it, and it didn’t help that we didn’t have a strong set of brand guidelines at the time (something I’ve since changed!), so I was making them up as I went along.

While I certainly produced things that were passable from a professional standpoint, I didn’t understand that they were so incredibly far off from a cohesive, branded set of assets.

The lesson I learned from this was that it is far better to spend one’s time learning skills that are in line with one’s role or career path than focusing in on a microlevel problem and trying to fix it myself. In this case, it was never my goal to become a professional graphic designer. I should have learned the skill of hiring & directing a designer far sooner and crafting brand guidelines that would have been a more worthwhile tool for the company (which I eventually did!).

Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?

Creating a new business model for a chocolate company with a very bold mission and vision was a leap of faith. Divine had no precedent to follow, and each year has brought new challenges and new uplifting examples of people going beyond what one would expect.

In 20 years, the profile of the chocolate industry has changed. And — we live in a world where we are finally learning that we can no longer take so much for granted. Over two decades working with cocoa farmers in Ghana, Divine has formed close and rewarding relationships, understood profoundly the challenges they face, and done everything in our power to deliver a trading framework which gives the farmers the agency and skills to build their own sustainable future.

Kuapa Kokoo, the cocoa farmers’ co-operative that co-owns Divine and supplies most of its cocoa, has grown to 50 times its original size. Its members have also learned of the real value of their crop once it is made into chocolate. Through owning Divine they have benefited directly from that value and invested in their own farms and communities.

Underlying all the changes that have happened in their lives has been a real sense of empowerment — for men and for women — and hopefully for the next generation who have seen there can be a future in cocoa farming.

Divine continues to prove that it is possible to grow business differently. As a farmer-owned company, our cocoa producers share in our success. In the 20 years since we were first founded, we have delivered over $4 million in support to African farmers over and above the benefits brought by Fairtrade.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?

Margret Fianko lives in Aduyaakrom in the western region of Ghana and has been a member of Kuapa since 2001. She is a mother of three and shares a 7-acre farm with her husband, where most of the land is dedicated to cocoa production. Margret says: “the best thing about being a Kuapa member is that they assist women a lot,” something of which she is taking full advantage.

Margret never went to school, but is now a participant in a Divine-funded numeracy and literacy program managed by Kuapa Kokoo and facilitated by Ghana’s Non Formal Education Division. “Before the course, I couldn’t do anything; I couldn’t read and couldn’t write,” Margret explained. “But now I can recognize letters and read.”

She is also putting her newly learned numeracy skills to good use to record the expenditure and income of the market stall she runs and was proud to report that she now knows how much money she makes and only spends the profit. Margret’s ambition is to one day be elected as a Kuapa recorder — someone responsible for buying cocoa from other Kuapa members — and is making good progress towards learning the skills necessary for this position.

As a member of a Kuapa women’s group, Margret is also part owner of a 1-acre community farm. When her women’s group first formed two years ago, they were encouraged by Kuapa to start an income generating activity. They chose a communal farm where they grow eggplant and okra which is sold in the local market. Being part of a women’s group also means that Margret has received training in the production of liquid soap and screen printing; these serve as other income-generating activities that can supplement the income she achieves from cocoa production.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Putting trade on the agenda and presenting new opportunities to consider what a fair trade deal would look like for countries trading with one another. If we want to build our economy through export, to create jobs and opportunity here, we will need to build trading relationships based on trust and respect. We could start with trading deals with some of the poorest countries in the world to ensure that they have access to our market, delivering the food that we need and enjoy, while earning a decent income for their people.
  2. Continuing to push for change via the Paris Climate Agreement (tying governments to a 2% rise in temperature) and the Sustainable Development Goals (a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity). They both offer a framework for governments and businesses to commit to working together to address the most urgent issues of our times.
  3. Supporting gender equality. We must come together to break down barriers that have traditionally limited or even prohibited women from taking on positions of leadership.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the ability to guide others toward a specific goal or vision using empathy, integrity, creativity, and skill.

  • To be a leader means truly understanding what the individuals involved care about and are motivated by, which takes an enormous amount of empathy.
  • To be a leader also means making decisions, but those choices must be rooted in a framework of integrity.
  • To be a leader means going beyond a ‘norm’, inspiring innovative thought in others, and breaking down barriers to ensure people can get to the best solution.
  • To be a leader also requires a set of tactical skills — these can be specific to an industry, but most often they’re interpersonal skills. A leader doesn’t need to know how to do everything (that’s what the team is for!), but she needs to know how to make it all come together in a feasible way that fulfills the vision.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Find a workplace that supports your growth. In a prior job, I worked with someone who was threatened by my drive, initiative, and talent. As such, he did everything he could to minimize my contributions and make me feel less than valued. In my current role, I have a supervisor who encourages me to challenge the status quo and become better as well as a team that supports my ambitions and wants to see me succeed. It’s important to have a job that fits, but the environment needs to fit as well.
  2. You can be an introvert and a phenomenal leader. I used to think it was only the extraverts who could make good leaders; I was mistaken in thinking that the loudest person was the person making the best decisions. On the contrary, as an introvert I have learned to embrace the qualities that help me succeed — thoughtfulness, consideration, empathy — and use those to my advantage and the advantage of my company. It’s possible to thrive exactly as you are, not as you think you ‘need to be.’
  3. Building trust with others is an extremely valuable skill that will help you go far. While I can understand the sense for young professionals to ‘job hop’ and find what interests them the most across fields and sectors (I did that!), something that can be lost in the process of moving along too soon is the opportunity to build trust within a team and within a company. When trust is established, people are willing to work with you in new ways, help you grow, and your potential for future success (and however that is defined for any one individual is different) can only grow.
  4. Find your own leadership style. One thing that’s been important to me as I’ve grown in my role is how I lead others. When I think about women’s empowerment and elevating women’s voices, I’m a huge advocate, but I haven’t been a fan of the way the media plays up the terms ‘Boss Babe’ or ‘I’m the Boss’ to ‘empower’ women. My approach to building a team is not to be the boss, but to act in a role where I remove barriers for my team and help them succeed. I want to help my team members become the best versions of themselves that they can be. (See my point about empathy in leadership!)
  5. Find a good role model or mentor. It’s important to find the role models that embody the traits you’d like to have. I’ve been lucky to have women in my own family that are community leaders & public speakers that I find really inspiring. When I need to understand ‘how do I say this?’ or ‘how do I ask for a raise,’ they can give me great advice. If you can find someone to connect with in your field or industry, find those resources, but also be sure to look in new fields/positions so you can have that added perspective. (I highly recommend looking into the Ellevate Network as a resource; I volunteer on the leadership team for the DC Chapter, and there are chapters across the country and globe. Everyone at Ellevate is truly committed to supporting other women, and I see it in action every time I attend an event.)

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. 🙂

I would love to inspire the co-operative movement or a movement that focuses on employee/producer-owned companies. The traditional systems of power within capitalism are fueling inequality in so many destructive ways around the world. So many more people would be better off if they had a meaningful say in the work they do and the benefits they can access.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ll put that one simply: Be kind to others. It’s not as much a life lesson as a way of life. Our day-to-day actions and the ways we treat people matter enormously. When we think of the impact we can have in the world, those daily choices add up significantly. It doesn’t mean you can’t be upset or get angry with others — but in those negative emotions, it’s still possible to express them in respectful ways that are rooted in problem-solving.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle Obama. I just finished reading her book Becoming, and I loved her story. I find her ambition and genuine curiosity about the world so inspiring. The way she’s dealt with challenge and intense scrutiny is also incredible. And, she lives nearby, so it would be fun to meet up at a mutual favorite DC spot!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @izabemiller & LinkedIn:

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