BREAKING BARRIERS: INTERVIEW WITH ANDAL BALU, COCOATOWN
You have been in the industry for many years and currently serve on FCIA’s board of directors. Why do you think there is a lack of diversity in the fine chocolate industry and what can be done to remedy this?
- Affordability – FCIA events always happen in New York or San Francisco. These are expensive cities to find accommodation in addition to the airfare. Lot of minorities are also struggling economically and for a small business and mostly one person operation, cost prohibitive to attend or join FCIA.
- No clear message from FCIA that minorities are welcome – The chocolate industry by and large in USA and Europe appears to be monocultural. Minorities feel that there is no-one like them and they feel intimidated.
- Role models in FCIA - Limited minority representation as speakers or as members. Minorities do not see minority leaders and experts represented in FCIA events, webinars, or seminars.
Actions for FCIA:
- FCIA should also live stream in-person events on Facebook or any other online platform. Or even creating a simple recording of the events and making it available on FCIA website will help minorities and economically challenged chocolate-makers.
- Cultural education
- On the FCIA website, include a message that FCIA wants to be a diversified association and does not discriminate based on race, religion, ethnicity, or economic status.
- Invite more minorities to participate in the webinars.
- Ask for suggestions from participants about any meal restrictions.
Can you share with us the action plan developed by the task force?
- Mentoring program (including access to capital)
- Increase exposure and visibility of minority owned business (articles, webinars, share the mic)
- Develop targeted message and outreach
- Establish country contacts/encourage trade missions
- Improve cultural sensitivity at trade shows and during networking opportunities
CocoaTown designs, develops, manufactures, distributes/sells and services specialty machines for small-batch craft chocolate businesses. What do you believe had been your key to success in growing your business, and what advice would you give to other minority businesses in terms of scaling their businesses?
I have been fortunate to grow up different. I always did the things that were not the norm for that time. So when I started the business selling specialty equipment in 1992, I could take the criticism in stride. I was not intimidated by the comments that I will not be successful in the equipment business as a woman. The norm of that period was software business. Also I have a Masters degree in Botany and was working as a Scientist for Indian Council for Agricultural Research (a prestigious job) before moving to the USA after my marriage. I never had formal business training. But due to the support of our employees, customers, vendors, friends, industry peers, mentors, and organizations like SBDC, we have grown to what we are today. I am very grateful for all of them and all the others who have helped us directly or indirectly.
Here are the things I attribute to my success:
- Do not follow all the advice you receive: though I am listing some points below that helped me to succeed, find your own sweet spot. You cannot listen to all the advice and try to follow everything. Follow your heart and passion. Do the right, ethical, legal things. Always discern the advice that fits your specific business.
- Family support: My husband gave financial, technical, and moral support to start and grow the business.
- Innovation: We believe in innovation and that is the reason our parent company is called Inno Concepts. We innovate new machines and accessories constantly and we have patents for our machines.
- Pivot when needed: When the recession hit in 2008, we were able to pivot into making machines for the chocolate industry. Before that we were selling equipment made by other companies that were modified for our requirement based on our customer’s needs.
- Be an extrovert: Since we created this niche market, I felt comfortable working with the majority. I did not feel threatened or intimidated. I had hurdles in communication and body language but I learned to be comfortable with myself.
- Grow slowly but steadily: Always start small and grow. Do not put the cart before the horse.
- ROI: Look for ROI on your investment whether it is time, money, or energy.
- Positive attitude: I always see glass as half full than the other way around. Our thoughts are fulfilled by the universe. So it is better to think positive. Don’t worry unnecessarily. We have a saying in our language: "One who plants, waters it." It means we have been created for a purpose and the Almighty will take care of you. There may be hurdles but they too will pass with time.
- Be grateful: I thank all those who are helping me and even those who criticize me. We need positive feedback but also sometimes criticism to prove our worth.
- Willingness to learn: I am still a student in life. I learn a lot from our customers, and anybody and everybody I interact with. As business owners, we have to be ready to learn whatever it takes to be successful.
Addendum: Enjoy what you do and money follows you. Start the business to fulfill a need for your customers. Do not start the business just to make money. Improve your communication skills. Do the right thing. Do not hesitate to interact with people who do not look like you. Hard work and learning the new skills, customer service, accounting, and technical details of the product or service all help us to be successful.
Source: finechocolateindustry.org | FCIA - Breaking Barriers: Interview With Andal Balu, CocoaTown page.