I always knew I wanted a career in chocolate.
My father and I shared a common love for chocolate and sweets. We’d have weekly chocolate tastings, every Saturday after lunch. Through those tasting rituals, I developed a love for the tasting experience and for the power that chocolate can have in bringing people together.
I was born and raised in Rabat, Morocco (Northern Africa), and was lucky enough to obtain higher education in Boston.
After college, I immersed myself in the cocoa and chocolate industry which would set the stage for my founder journey. I built a network, gained knowledge and experience in the matter, and slowly built a business plan along the way, filling the gaps that I saw were lacking in the industry.
I attended every single networking event for women entrepreneurs and chocolatiers I could find, set up google alerts to be up to date with all industry news, and played around with chocolate tempering and making in my NYC kitchen. Weekends were spent researching, visiting chocolate factories and shops around the city, and crafting my business model.
Then COVID hit.
I was sent back to Morocco, not knowing when I would be back and that I was about to start ZORA – a profit-for-purpose specialty chocolate company, focused on transparent supply chain practices inextricably linked to West African origins.
I was stuck on a different continent with no visibility on the global health crisis, no funding, no product, and no manufacturing partner.
So, I focused on three elements to get the ball rolling:
There's no one size fits all roadmap to entrepreneurship, and for minority founders, the traditional route for starting a business may not be it; but if you believe so deeply in your mission and you are determined to see it through, there is always a way to make it happen, you might just have to get more creative.
This was the first order of business. It was all about having a game plan. Basically, figuring out how to make West African chocolate that was traceably & transparently sourced and getting a product out on the market, on shelves, and online.
I decided to put together an advisory board of three members who would contribute a great deal of insight, share experiences, open their network, and act as a guiding force. These board members started out as mentors, whom I met along the way, who were interested in supporting me, my mission, and believed in my abilities as an entrepreneur and in the impact that ZORA had the potential to have. My advisory board is made up of four members today, from different backgrounds, industries, and sectors. We schedule calls on a monthly to bi-monthly basis, to cover updates and action items. They create an element of consistency and accountability, which was and continues to be extremely valuable, especially for a solo founder like myself.
I needed a strong manufacturing partner, in order to make the chocolate, from bean-to-bar. I made an excel spreadsheet with every bean-to-bar chocolate maker I could think of, and started reaching out. Given the uncertainty that we were facing globally, I suggested a partnership with anyone who had excess capacity to make more chocolate.
I began having conversations with many and advanced negotiations with a few, all of which eventually fell through.
I was determined to find the right partner.
Eventually, I came across ‘the one’. A team of incredibly talented chocolate makers, who genuinely cared about supporting our mission, and believed in a long-term partnership with ZORA.
Every investor and VC I met with who loved the concept, all told me that it was way too early to invest. I needed to show product-market fit: that my product and idea were viable and scalable.
I bootstrapped my business by working a full-time job in Morocco as the Marketing Manager for an Asset Management Company, and with a 6-hour time difference with Eastern Standard Time, I could work at night. I made branded sweatshirts and t-shirts and sold them at the local concept store in Rabat, where the proceeds of those sweatshirts were poured back into capital for ZORA. Eventually, what really moved the needle was setting up a crowdfunding campaign, on ifundwomen and using this as an initial opportunity to show proof of concept and obtain the necessary funding for a minimum viable product.
The road may seem terrifying, filled with pitfalls and dangers. I am not here to tell you that it is not the case or to allay your fears. But, I am here to tell you that once you are able to comprehend that these ‘dangers’ are not to be feared but expected, you have made the first step in the right direction. Trust that hardships and pain are only there to allow for growth, and will lead you to one day, achieve greatness, and inspire those around you.
I write this in the hopes of inspiring anyone who understands repression, no matter your race, religion, economic background, it is your core that changes your life. Your thoughts, your intentions, your heart. Be mindful of your abilities to succeed by your own hands and accept the responsibility for your future, open doors for yourself, as do the many female, LGBTQ+, BIPOC, owned businesses.
Because of my strong determination and belief in ZORA's mission, I hustled in more ways than I ever imagined before, and I know that sharing my story will inspire women who are in the very midst of starting a company to keep going, and ones who are thinking about it to take the leap.