Leaving Her Footprint On History: Jean Thompson, CEO of Seattle Chocolate

Q: Tell us about your journey to becoming the owner and CEO of Seattle Chocolate!
A:  I was one of a dozen or so investors in the company early in its history in the 1990’s. In 2001 (20 years ago this month!), the Nisqually earthquake destroyed the Seattle Chocolate rented building and I stepped up to finance the retrofit and move to a new building. At that point, I became the majority owner. A year later, when my youngest child, Ellie went off to kindergarten and the company was still struggling to cover payroll, I offered to pitch in with marketing and sales, as a volunteer. Within 6 weeks, the CEO quit and I faced the decision of what to do with the company. By then, I had caught the bug and had some ideas on how to turn things around and decided to dive in headfirst. That was over 18 years ago and often reflect on what a life changing and defining decision that was.
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Q: You have such an awesome job now, but was it always that way? What was your first job?
A: Right from the start it was a great job because chocolate is my favorite food and was easy for me to understand, and the packaging design and flavor innovation were great creative outlets for me. But it also was an incredibly steep learning curve and I made so many costly mistakes for years. It was always (and still is) an amazing learning opportunity for me and because of that, I truly did enjoy it from the very beginning. When I was 16, I worked at Dairy Queen in Old Saybrook CT and was also a lifeguard at the town beach. I loved both of those jobs. I often tell people the owner of that DQ was my best boss ever.
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Q: When you took over Seattle Chocolate in 2002, you introduced the iconic color and playfulness to the brand. What were your thoughts behind doing that?
A: When I took over and looked around at the grocery store shelves, every chocolate was earth tone or brown in color. I assume they worried people wouldn’t know it was chocolate without the color! I thought about the audience of women who shop for other categories, like cosmetics, perfume, clothing, and understood that color and design sell. The bars were a contrast to the rest of the products on the shelf, which made them pop. Not to mention, it was just a lot more fun to mix it up and play with color. We’ve evolved two times since that and now do collaborations with artists for the design of our bars.
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Q: How has being a woman impacted your business ventures, if at all? Positively or negatively. 
A: It’s much easier to own your own company and call the shots than having to jockey for position in the male dominated corporate world. I had episodes where partners, like a bank, treated me with less respect than they would have a man, but the minute I was able to switch banks, I did (it took years, but I never forgot). I also was raised by a confrontational father and am not afraid of giving it back to people when they cross the line. Ultimately, it’s been an advantage for me because my product largely appeals to women and I “get” them better than many male chocolate companies. 
Q: What was your inspiration in creating your second chocolate brand, jcoco? 
A: I wanted a product that was not regionally named, and I wanted to do some things differently, i.e., solid not truffle bars, 1 ounce portion control bars and built-in philanthropic give back (stomping out hunger in the USA). It was easier to do it from scratch than change Seattle Chocolate which was already over 20 years in the market. It’s worked out well because we use both brands to achieve our core purpose of brightening people’s day through chocolate, with very different approaches.
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Q: You are taking steps towards change by donating a percentage of jcoco sales to organizations that fight hunger. Why is this cause so important to you? 
A: I had the realization that chocolate is food and it felt natural to use the popularity of the product to enlist the help of consumers in stomping out hunger. All they had to do was buy the bar and they were helping their neighbors in their time of need. It’s meant a lot to me to do something for the community, in addition to running the company; it’s amazing the power small businesses have to help people.
Q: What are you most proud of doing since taking over as CEO for Seattle Chocolate?
A: I’m very proud that I figured out how to turn this failing company into a self-sustaining, profitable business; there were times that I wasn’t sure it was possible with the high cost of cocoa and labor in the PNW. I’m also incredibly proud of the team of superstars that I have managed to attract and work alongside. That’s where the real joy comes into play.
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Q: What are you dreams/goals for your company in the future?
A: I want people to understand the complexity, nuance and richness of chocolate and not treat it like an inexpensive candy. If we can achieve this as an industry, we will be better able to support the farmers and all the players in the supply chain.
Q: How do you want you "footprint on history" to be remembered?
A: I’d be so proud if people saw me as a strong leader who advocated for others while running a successful company and making a difference in the world. It needs to be all of those things, not any single one alone.
Q: Okay, last question... what is your favorite Seattle Chocolate/jcoco product?
A: This is always changing…but right now, without a doubt, it’s the jcoco 85% Peruvian dark bar – so smooth, creamy and delicious with so little sugar and such an interesting flavor profile.
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Jean is wearing our Ditsy Daisy Mid -Mauve 
Need some chocolate now? Shop Seattle Chocolate here

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