Shawn Askinosie is the founder and CEO of Askinosie Chocolate, author of the business book, Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul. Their chocolate is world-renowned, award winning and Forbes recently named them as “One of the 25 Best Small Companies In America”. You can connect with Shawn on his official blog here.
You can listen to the conversation on iTunes, Acast and other podcasting apps. What follows here are excerpts from our conversation with Shawn, edited for length and clarity.
Agnes Uhereczky: Hi Shawn. Before we get going, may I ask you to tell listeners a little bit about yourself, your drive and passion?
Shawn Askinosie: Thank you for having me here. I was a criminal defence lawyer here in the United States for about 20 years. I specialized in really serious felony cases, where people could either receive life in prison or the death penalty. I was a defence lawyer. I loved that work and loved the courtroom. I did that work for 20 years until I stopped loving it. I think many of your listeners could relate to that experience. You are in a job, you feel that this is your calling, you believe that it is work, and then one day something either happens or you begin to fell a drudgery. For me, it was almost a feeling in my body that was telling me that I needed to move on, that my work was finished here and I needed to find another passion and inspiration. That was the real challenge for me and it was a 5-year path of real struggle to get to my next passion, my next inspiration which is now chocolate.
Agnes Uhereczky: You have captured this story in beautiful detail in the book. It is indeed heartfelt and authentic. One of the aspects that were rather surprising for me reading the book, is that you spent a considerable amount of time with Trappist monks. You retreated regularly in a monastery where you lived and took an active part in the community. Did this spiritual support had a big part to play in you taking this decision?
Shwan Askinosie: The Assumption Abbey which you correctly pointed out is a Trappist monastery in Missouri surrounded by 3000 acres of national forest. Yes, I have been going there now for 18 years. I would say that in many ways the abbey was a central point in my spiritual life and spiritual development as an adult. It gave me a compass over these years of how I can develop a greater union with God resting in God’s presence as I believe contemplation really is; these are contemplative monks. My spiritual director who is an 86 years old Catholic priest that I write about in the book has been a monk since 1952. He has really helped me in many of these paths along the way. One thing that really is important to consider here is when we are struggling with our current job and we think we might be receiving messages that we are called to change direction, to move someplace else, we have to really have a deep sense of discernment about whether or not this is a momentarily kind of challenge to our spirit. And do we need to really emphasize the virtue of stability?
Stability is one of the hallmarks of monastic life. And not just Catholic monasticism but in all monastic tradition stability is very important. What that means is what you would think it means. When we are tempted by the things that often appear in our peripheral vision we get tempted to move to those things. They are attractive and new. But, stability sais: no, I will practice this discipline of staying put of surviving the challenges. I think it is very important especially in the age of technology where we are faced with what seems like a plethora of opportunities. They are all available for us on the internet in the form of the Google search box. So, this paradox of choice is ever present with us. It is really important to say to ourselves and find trusted advisors who can help us decide in the spirit of wisdom: do we stay and practice stability or do we go. For me, it was going. It was part of a spiritual path that continues to this day.
Agnes Uhereczky: What really spoke to me from your book was the notion of looking inside. I also believe that this might be an art or notion that we are forgetting.
Shawn Askinosie: I think you are so right. I tell people: you are not going to find the answer to your question in my book. I hope my publisher doesn’t hear this podcast because I know this might not sell books. Now I wouldn’t mind if people would read a few sentences and paragraphs and see some inspirations and then would put the book down, and take action.
Who we are and how we treat people is inseparable from our business.
For example, I read a lot of books on meditation, but it doesn’t make me a better meditator. We have so many books and so much information available to us, but as you said the practice of looking inside the practice of really searching within our spirit and hopefully discovering, as Thomas Merton said our True Selves. The discovery of our true selves, our true soles for what God created to be, is not found in a book or on the internet. It is found inside, us. That, as you say, is a practice that slowly slipping away oddly enough with the more information and technology and availability of what seem to be answers. But the answers are within us.
Now, of course, books and podcasts and these things can trigger us. They can point us in that direction, but they can’t take us there. I believe that we are in this age in which we really need to double down on seeking out wise masters, elders, teachers and trying to put some of these things to actual daily practice. That is a challenge.
Agnes Uhereczky: When people have really come to terms and say they really need a change, then what is your advise according to your experience, what would be the path for them to do and take?
Shawn Askinosie: In my book, I write about this path of change and path of discovery that I took. So I am not suggesting that this is a prescription and somehow the solution. It is only one person’s story. But I wrote it in a way through which I hope other people can see themselves. Of course, not everybody will be a criminal defence lawyer then decide to become a chocolate maker, but the hope is that the book was written in a way that other people can find some kinship to the story. So I suggest that people, first of all, stop Googling the answers in terms of what they should do next.
Then there is this practical sense of what is the intersection of my skillset and talent. Where the world meets with my passion. We just write this out, we start making lists. This is the real challenge. I ask people to examine their own broken hearts, otherwise known as sorrow. I believe that the answers to our future, to our calling, to our vocation can found within the depth of our broken heart. I ask people to go on a discovery, and a path to see where that leads them, where is it where their own hearts are broken. It is within that broken heart then people can find joy. I quote poet and philosopher Khalil Gebran in the book who famously said that our greatest joy in life is our sorrow unmasked. So I ask people to examine their sorrow. I ask them to explore that and sit with it and not push it under the rug. Where would that lead us? I hope that it would lead us to the place of service. And I believe that when we combine the exploration of our broken hearts with service to those who need us, or as Joseph Campbell said, joyfully participating in the sorrows of the world. If we can do that then we are going to find ourselves. We are going to discover our true selves. Gandi said that if you want to find yourself lose yourself in the service of others. Christ said something similar. I believe this to be the truth. This path is one way that we can find relief, we can find joy, discovery, and we find it within our work.
Agnes Uhereczky: I see this philosophy resonate with entrepreneurship and being an entrepreneur. There is a spiritual reflection in entrepreneurship. What do you think about this?
Shawn Askinosie: I agree with you. The practice of entrepreneurship is a very spiritual endeavour. I think that entrepreneurs, or those who are entrepreneurs at heart, which include a lot of people, have a special almost affinity for facing, confronting and discovering what lies beyond the pain and suffering of our own lives. One really important facade of this is that we not only recognize the pain in our lives but we are willing to roll up our sleeves and be present with those around us who are also suffering in pain. There is a very powerful experience in our own discovery when we are willing to be present with those around us who are also suffering and in pain. I believe that in many ways this is our purpose here on Earth. It is part of as Jean Vanier says “Becoming Human”. When we recognise this calling and respond to it, then we find joy within ourselves that we have never experienced before. This is not our destination either, this is our practice. It is something we repeat over and over again.
Agnes Uhereczky: How do you run your company at Askinosie Chocolate? What are the values and the ways you have been able to translate this also to your business?
Shawn Askinosie: The overarching vocation for us is to make the best tasting direct trade chocolate in the world that we can possibly make. We source our cocoa beans from very small groups of farmers in Tanzania, Amazon, Ecuador, and the Philippines. Two of the four farmer groups are lead by women. Supporting women entrepreneurs is really important for us. That vocation of making the best tasting chocolate is supported by two other vocations within the company, and those are working directly with farmers around the world and engaging with students within our community, here in Springfield Missouri. Our programme called Chocolate University. So those students can understand that business can be a solution for social problems in the world and that there is a world beyond their city.
What is also important in our business is that we don’t separate this notion of service or compassion in one department, and the profit-making part of the company in another department. There is no corporate social responsibility department in my company, and I firmly believe that one of the things that we will experience in the next 10-15 years is the diffusion of CSR departments throughout the entire organisations of companies, small and large. The reason I think so is part of the notion of we are experiencing a revolution of capitalism. It is forced upon us because as owners and entrepreneurs we recognize around the world that employees according to the surveys are not engaged in work. So what is going to happen? Our product and services will suffer. Our economy is going to suffer. The world will suffer. What will come from that is what we are seeing actually now when people trying to focus on something other than top line sale. What I believe and what will help be a catalyst is the disbursement of charitable giving and philanthropy throughout the entire organisation. So this is not this sort of dualistic notion of charity over here and profit-making over there.