Visiting Ghana was more than a mission trip for Karen Blackwell. It became a personal part of her journey to connect with her ancestral roots and become an entrepreneur.
For Karen Blackwell, change is nothing new. Originally from Chicago, she moved an estimated 18 times as a child, constantly finding herself getting adjusted to new situations. Little did she know, change wouldn’t just pertain to her personal life, but her professional as well.
Karen considered going to med school, but started her career as a Laboratory Technician straight out of college, then moved into sales, got her Masters of Business Administration (MBA), and eventually became a director. But throughout her career, she felt like something was missing. Especially coming out of grad school, she felt her MBA pushed an entrepreneurial spirit inside her.
“I started thinking about how can I be an entrepreneur? What does that look like?” Karen said. “Being a sales rep gave me the opportunity to run my own business to some degree. I worked from home, managed my own bills, expense reports, called my own clients. I was managing my own book of business. Once I had that freedom, it was hard to go back to working in an office.”
After getting her MBA, Karen represented her company to interview candidates at the National Black MBA Association. During a conference, the Black MBA Association announced they were doing a business mission trip to Ghana. Karen knew immediately that this was a trip she could not miss.
Change is Ghana come
That trip to Ghana changed Karen’s life—and her career path. The Ghana she saw on her trip was thriving, and it was on this trip where the idea for her company, Kanda Chocolates, was born. She recalls:
We had a beautiful time there. When would you ever get to go to the embassy and the president of Ghana’s house, and have all these other cultural experiences? During the trip is when I tasted chocolate and was like, “Whoa, this is what chocolate should taste like. There’s nothing in this chocolate, but chocolate.” I learned that chocolate has 600 tasting notes—creamy, nutty, floral, etc.—and Ghanaian cocoa beans are known for being creamier and more fruit forward.
As a lover of beauty products, Karen originally thought she might make a business out of cocoa butter or shea butter. But after six months of thinking about Ghanaian chocolate, she started to question if her path could be in the chocolate industry. She started asking questions and talking to buyers, but quickly felt impostor syndrome.
“I was like ‘I can’t do chocolate because of the big brands, that would be crazy,’” Karen says. “But [I was told] ‘you’re not crazy, we can’t keep chocolate on the shelf. There’s always room for someone else.’ It was one of those lessons I learned early: There could be 50 brands of something, but it’s how you market it—and what your story is—that makes it a little bit different, that people might connect with.”
Karen already felt connected to Ghana, not only because of her trip there, but also because she has ancestral roots in Ghana. She just had to find a way to tell her personal story while making Ghana a partner to her business.
In 2018, Karen founded Kanda Chocolates, a black-owned, woman-owned small business that sells gourmet chocolate grown, processed, and packaged in Ghana. She named Kanda Chocolates in honor of her grandmother Alma, a business-savvy single mother who purchased her own home in Louisiana at the age of 20. “Kanda” stands for Karen and Alma (“K-and-A”). She also partners with a Ghanaian company to make the chocolate with fair trade cocoa, which ensures farmers are paid fair wages. Once the company became profitable, she started to give 10% of the proceeds to charitable organizations.
Flipping perspectives to ecommerce
Like many businesses, Karen still had to find her place in the market. After launching Kanda Chocolates, she was working to get her chocolate into stores and making deals for how much chocolate stores were buying, but the costs were piling up.
“You come out with this product, how the product actually gets on the shelf, all the people who are involved in the process take a piece of your margin,” she says. “You’ve got to pay a wholesaler, give discounts to the store, pay the store. There’s third party logistics, I have to pay to ship my product. All these peoples were taking pieces of my product as I started to grow. It was a learning experience.”
There’s always room for someone else...There could be 50 brands of something, but it’s how you market it—and what your story is—that makes it a little bit different, that people might connect with.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she started to stress—how was she going to sell all these products? The biggest thing that helped her survive? Flipping the perspective she had to be in stores at all. Karen leaned into ecommerce, and started selling in Amazon’s store.
“What I love about Amazon, is for someone going into business it’s a good place to skip all the [middlemen in the business] environment. The only business I’m working with is Amazon,” Karen says. “It’s a great place to start.”
Her business also pivoted in other ways. She leaned into customer-friendly products like gift boxes, and found a business in partnerships and virtual tastings. She recalls:
I was doing events and holiday parties, and I was doing it all virtually, waking up at all times in the morning. I was doing events for UCLA, for smaller companies on the east coast, but it was getting my word out. One group would lead to another, or I would go to a sorority meeting—I am a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.—and I’d say to a member, “I have my own chocolate company,” and the member would say, “I work at UCLA.” Then UCLA would invite me to host a chocolate tasting event. Partnerships helped my company survive and thrive.
Karen was also invited to join Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator while it was a pilot program. When asked to join, she was prepared with her minority-owned business certification, and she credits her preparation with opening many doors for Kanda Chocolates. “My Black Business Accelerator Account Manager helped me to think strategically—even though I have an MBA, even though I taught marketing classes, even though I was coming out of corporate America. There are things they showed me that positioned my business for success.”
6 tips for entrepreneurs from Karen Blackwell
Since launching Kanda Chocolates, Karen has learned a lot about small business, and selling in Amazon’s store. Here are her takeaways for aspiring entrepreneurs and Amazon sellers.
1. Keep your job as a “side” hustle
When Karen left her company, she used savings to fund Kanda. “I bought in small amounts and really minimized costs. I did not pay for advertising for a whole year because I didn’t have the budget. I was putting the money into the product. When I would make a profit, I would put it back into the business,” Karen says. In hindsight, she would have stayed in the corporate world longer. “The best hustle is to have the job and start the business, and use your job to fund the business. That is the best-case scenario. I had money to start my business.”
2. Find a networking group
“I think it’s important to be part of a networking group, and being a part of Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator has been invaluable to me,” Karen says. “When I started selling in Amazon’s store, there were other sellers who were further along than I was, and they were helpful to me. So after I began selling with Amazon—and participating on a panel at Amazon Accelerate—I had sellers reaching out to me. I had some really great conversations with sellers because we need to talk to each other, just so we know what’s normal, and not to give up.”
3. Don’t compare
Every business has their own story, so you can never compare. “When you’ve seen one business, you have no idea what they have. You don’t know if they won the lottery. You just don’t know.”
4. Think strategically
When Karen started working and selling with Amazon, as the sole business owner of Kanda she suddenly had to work with someone else, talk to them about her business, and start thinking strategically about how to get the most out of working with Amazon. “They brought strategic thinking, ways to position my products, ways to change listings, use variations, things like that—all the things that made my business position for success,” Karen says. When her Amazon business partner said they were going to run a campaign, she knew that sales could increase and had to prepare accordingly with in-stock product, and getting her product detail pages ready.
5. Take time to learn
“There is a strategy to working with Amazon and to selling in Amazon’s store,” Karen says. “Amazon is doing everything they can to get you the material, but you have to get through it. That includes attending Amazon Accelerate, listening to all the [Seller University] videos. If you’re going to sell in Amazon’s store and be like, ‘Oh, it didn’t work for me in the first one or two months,’ then you haven’t given it a chance.”
6. Entrepreneurship is a lattice
“My advice to fellow small business owners is, your journey isn’t a ladder. It’s a lattice. You’re going to go left and you’re going to go up. You may go down, you may go right, then you may go up three rungs. It’s going to be a journey, and it’s going to be unique to you.”