I was in my Airbnb in Bethlehem, Palestine, in the West Bank. I had just woken up and was looking out the window into the city, a mixture of olive green and cream stone, rain pouring down. I could smell the smoke from the cigarette my host had lit for breakfast as I put on my jacket, readying myself for the day. I looked down at my phone briefly to check the news and I read the headline, “Mysterious Chinese Virus Kills Many in Wuhan.” I remember thinking back to the book World War Z and thought, “So this is how the Zombie Apocalypse will start after all.” When I got home a few weeks later, it would seem I wasn’t far off.
If I could use one word to describe graduating into a pandemic with a Master’s in Business, it would be “discouraging.” I was frantically applying for jobs, networking into opportunities only to be turned away as hiring freezes were happening left and right. I wasn’t the only one in a tough position, in fact many had and still have it much worse, but I did feel alone. With my savings depleting, and the overwhelming reality of student debt closing in, I may have preferred zombies honestly. I hit a point where I decided, if I can’t find a job, this is a wonderful time to make one.
I had been drinking cacao brew for years and had always made my own concoctions, and I was annoyed that there was nothing on the market that blended cacao with delicious spices and teas and other beneficial superfoods. Functional beverages are often either green/black tea or coffee based, all of which I didn’t consume. I wasn’t a caffeine drinker, nor many in my network. I wanted an alternative, a cacao based brewable functional beverage.
I remembered a contact I made in Phoenix during an internship opportunity at Thunderbird who ran a sourcing company for cacao and coffee, and I gave him a call. I roped a chocolate connoisseur friend of mine in as well and we pulled the trigger and started a business!
The most widely used drug in the world is caffeine and it unfortunately can have a lot of drawbacks on health with the current high levels of consumption. You see, our bodies produce adenosine, a neurotransmitter that connects with adenosine receptors. Adenosine signals tiredness and fatigue so that we will naturally tire throughout the day in order to sleep and rest at night. Caffeine blocks these receptors for about five or so hours so you don’t feel any tiredness coming on, thus the energy boost. Unfortunately when caffeine wears off, adenosine floods the receptors, thus the crash. So naturally, you reach for another coffee or energy drink to get a boost again. Too much caffeine too frequently causes your brain to create more receptors, thus creating the need for more caffeine in order to get another boost. And so, drinking too much caffeine can affect your body’s natural processes and interrupt important sleep time, as well as creating a dependency on the drug.
For this reason many are beginning to look for caffeine alternatives to give them energy without the spikes and crashes. Cacao is packed with theobromine, a cousin of caffeine, however it provides a more sustainable and gentle energy. It doesn’t block as many adenosine receptors, allowing you to still build up adenosine, just more slowly. It also has twice the half-life as caffeine. This makes it a great way to start the day, or get an afternoon boost without messing up sleep or natural processes. There are no spikes or crashes.
Along with containing various nootropics, cannabinoids, and neurotransmitters that are known to naturally enhance mood, cacao is also one of the most antioxidant rich foods, more than coffee, tea, or berries.
We create recipes that will be delicious, yet combine cacao with other herbs and teas that are functional to consumers’ health.
We source our beans from a small family farm in Ecuador. We pay about above Fair Trade standards to ensure truly fair wages and payment to our partner farmers. We plan to invest in training and research in new optimized farming methods that are better for farmers and the Earth, such as restorative farming practices.
We are also looking into farm visit tours, bringing groups to countries of various cacao origins to meet farmers, learn first hand about cacao and the people who grow it, as well as host adventures in-country. This brings more wealth to communities and encourages responsible tourism as well as cultural understanding and agricultural appreciation. We want people to be closer to their food.
We are transitioning to sustainable practices as we can afford them. For example we now use compostable mailers which are made of corn and will decompose in around a year in a landfill, and in a few months in a composting bin. We are planning accordingly to afford compostable and biodegradable packaging and labeling. Our product itself can be composted after being brewed as well! The idea is to become a part of the circular economy as we grow.
Our biggest challenges are filling the gaps of our skill sets like design and branding, as well as understanding and narrowing down our customer base. We are constantly talking to our biggest customers to know who they are, and how to find more people like them. We are currently seeking mentors who can help guide us with food and beverage industry knowledge and experience.
As a company we also feel it is our responsibility to contribute to do our part to help communities. As we grow and have financial capital we will be contributing a portion of profits to fund leadership treks hosted by my nonprofit Raksha Ascent for underprivileged young women in Nepal. These treks provide a physically challenging adventure to build confidence and resilience, as well as daily successive trainings in personal and professional development to help the young women prepare for their careers and adult life.
A lot of what I have laid out is part of a vision, things we plan to do. That has been such an important part of building the business, having goals you care about and strive for. It isn’t simply to make a bunch of money, but to build something. Something that will leave a good mark on the world.
The process has been a rollercoaster, as I am sure any entrepreneur could relate to. Being an entrepreneur feels like taking your weaknesses and strengths and amplifying them for everyone to see, a very vulnerable place. There are days of high highs, where I am so excited and so sure, and so confident that we will be wildly successful! The ideas flow and we are all so pumped at the endless possibilities! There are also days of low lows, where I have no idea what I am doing and I can’t seem to find confidence in myself as a business owner. I sometimes am filled with such doubt. The uncertainty of being financially stable, having what I need, and the success of the business can drown you. Over time, you get used to the waves and learn to swim through the storms, even just to tread water, as well as enjoy the times of stillness and excitement. You become a firefighter, and you learn to take problems as they come, and address them accordingly. You get to meet a lot of people, and have a lot of wonderful conversations with other entrepreneurs and swim in the constant flowing of new ideas everywhere. It becomes hard NOT to latch onto every one of them and give it a go!
People say entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, and in my opinion that is a ridiculous statement. We are ever-changing and curious as humans. Entrepreneurship is for anyone who wants to walk the wild road of curiosity and hard work. If you are thinking of starting a business, I can honestly say there is really only ONE piece of advice I have heard from every entrepreneur I’ve ever met. It can be summed up in the words of my favorite entrepreneur and leader Jaqueline Novogratz, founder of ACUMEN,
“Just start, and let the work teach you.”
Téo Cacao Blends is growing slowly, and we are very excited for the impact we will make to enrich the lives and health of our consumers. We are excited to be continually learning.
We are also excited to empower amazing young women in Nepal, and work with such talented farmers from so many beautiful countries.
At the end of the day business is really only about one thing.
It is about people.
Jesse Breffle ‘19
Co-Founder of Téo Cacao Blends