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Chocolate as a changemaker

Alumna combines her passion for education with marketing acumen to make life-changing connections

Melissa Gelner (BSBA ’97) spent time this summer reading R.J. Palacio’s novel Wonder with her 9-year-old daughter. A passage in the book struck her as especially poignant: “The things we do are like monuments that people build to honour heroes after they’ve died … Only instead of being made out of stone, they’re made out of the memories people have of you. That’s why your deeds are like your monuments.”

As chief kinship officer of Askinosie Chocolate, a producer of craft bean-to-bar confections based in Springfield, Mo., Gelner hopes to build her own monuments through the work she does to support the company’s mission.

The company’s founder, Shawn Askinosie, left a job as a successful criminal defense attorney in search of a career through which he could make a difference and affect change. He turned to chocolate, a trade known for underpaying the farmers who grow and harvest cocoa beans. Social responsibility is woven into every aspect of Askinosie Chocolate, which appealed to Gelner’s desire to engage in meaningful work.

She focuses her efforts on developing the concept of kinship, whether with customers, partners, the farmers who supply the cacao beans or the communities Askinosie serves. “What I do at Askinosie is about building the other person up — trying to be empathetic and understand common ground between two people or organizations while working on being a good partner.”

If Gelner’s job title, the company’s mission and endless access to decadent chocolate confections sound like an idyllic combination, it’s not far off. She says, “Askinosie is a fun company with a lot of personality that’s doing a lot of really great things. I feel lucky to be part of it.”

“More than a transactional business model”

Gelner works closely with the communities and farmers who reside in the countries of origin that supply Askinosie’s cocoa beans, which currently include Ecuador, the Philippines and Tanzania. “The farmers are friends of the factory, and we know them personally,” Gelner shares. “We have dinner at their houses and spend quality time with them to learn who they are. It’s more than a transactional business model — it builds deeper relationships, they work hard to get us their best cocoa beans and we in turn can make better chocolate.”

Along with paying above-market rates for its ingredients, the company’s business model also includes a profit-sharing agreement with its farmers, who choose how best to use the resources within their communities. “We learn from the farmers as they decide how to invest in their business and community,” Gelner explained. “Whether it’s an unmet need in health care or early childhood, or programs to help orphans and widows, we empower them by providing connection to models and tools they can use to bring those plans to life and accountability to achieve their own vision.”

Gelner (center) and Askinosie founder Shawn Askinosie present a certificate to the first school in Tanzania to host the Enlightened Boys program.

Education is a personal passion of Gelner’s and also central to Askinosie’s mission. The company’s experiential international business immersion program, Chocolate University, gives Missouri students the opportunity to learn how businesses can solve world problems. Education initiatives also extend overseas to Tanzania, with company-sponsored programs called Empowered Girls and Enlightened Boys that incorporate curriculum covering topics from personal hygiene to business principles. “We work with the students to help them see their individual worth and ensure that they are inspired to do their best,” said Gelner.

“It’s not about the chocolate, it’s about the chocolate”

The full-time staff of 16 also serve as volunteers for the programs; and Gelner says that as a result, employees find more fulfillment in their work. “It just becomes part of everything we do.” She adds that chocolate is the tie that binds everything together. “We have a saying at Askinosie: ‘It’s not about the chocolate, it’s about the chocolate.’ Chocolate is why all of the great work we are doing is possible and also what connects us to these villages and to the farmers. We believe those connections make better chocolate.”

Gelner says her career path in marketing was solidified at TU in the late Professor James Cagley’s classes. She double-majored in marketing and organizational management, which she felt would serve her well no matter what type of company she joined. She met her husband, Brian (BSBA ’95), at TU, and they moved back to his hometown of Springfield following her graduation. Gelner went to work for advertising agency Noble and Associates, where she specialized in food marketing. She left the agency for a role in marketing at Tyson Foods and spent 13 years there before taking a break from work to stay home with her young children. She reentered the job market as a part-time consultant and took on Askinosie as a client. Eventually she was asked to join the company.

“After working in a large corporate environment then in a small privately held business, the difference is significant,” said Gelner. “It feels good to make a difference at work. I appreciate the opportunity to work for a company that allows me to focus time on these good deeds.”