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Courtesy photo/Barb Volney

Venture in chocolate

Profile image for By Karina Ramírez / Staff Writer
By Karina Ramírez / Staff Writer

A new business venture wants to help raise Maya farming families out of poverty by exporting their cacao from south Belize to the United States.

Through a start-up company called Chocolate House LLC, Joel Alexander, a University of North Texas applied anthropology student and a winner of the Murphy Center for Entrepreneurship’s New Venture Creation Contest, is working with the farming families to import and sell their one-of-a-kind natural organic, raw ground cacao from Central America to markets nationwide.

“Help us sell our cacao in the U.S., so [that] our children can go to school,” said Alexander, 66, about the request offered by Mayan farmers five years ago.

Alexander began traveling regularly to Belize and meeting with the farmers who speak English, Spanish and their native Mayan.

Alexander said after staying with the farmers and learning about their environment, each found they could help each other.

He wanted to find a way to help the community in Belize by selling their world-class “hybrid-criollo” cacao beans to chocolate makers, confectioners, coffee houses, natural food stores and convenience outlets. And they wanted to improve their standards of living.

From there, Alexander developed his business plan to start what is known as a for-profit social entrepreneurship.

Now, the farmers sell their cacao beans to wholesalers in Europe. In 2009, Alexander, at their request, not only helped the farmers set their own growers group called BEGAT (Belizean Ecological Growers Association of Toledo) but also agreed through Chocolate House to become their main distributor in the United States.

Additionally, Alexander said part of the plan involved providing a percentage of gross revenues to the farmers by matching funds and providing scholarships for Maya children to go to school.

“We will determine what is fair and adequate, but that is the intention,” he said.

BEGAT is a 50-person organization, which also has its first female leader, Maria Ack.

According to Alexander’s business plan, the goal is to obtain 125 wholesale and 200 web customers during Chocolate House’s first year of business. In order to do so, he needs a capital investment of $50,000 to $100,000.

“That is primarily in inventory,” Alexander said, “The Maya growers don’t finance it so we have to pay for it.”

In 2011, his winning Chocolate House business plan received third place from the University of North Texas New Venture Creation Contest, a student competition that grants start-up funds for new and independent ventures.

Since then Alexander has been working on providing exposure to his plan in hope to get it truly funded and start the business.

“Everyone was surprised that an anthropology student had won the prize that year,” he said.

Dr. Tony Mendes, director of the Murphy Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of North Texas, said he is now seeing more students who want to develop business initiatives that are also socially responsible.

“He has a dual mission and a double bottom line — to create a for-profit business that has the potential to access the finest cacao beans in the world, and also help the Maya people,” Mendes said about Alexander’s business plan.

Mendes said the entries to the venture contest have doubled each year. And the quality of the submitted business plans have greatly improved, he said.

Because of the number of students presenting business plans with social aspects, the Murphy Center created a Social Enterprise Venture Contest last year. This year, there are 27 projects submitted to the contest; of those, nine were selected as finalists with a winner to be selected next month.

In addition to the Murphy Institute’s Venture Creation Contest, Alexander also competed in the 2012 Dell Social Innovation Challenge, where he became a semifinalist.

The Dell Social Innovation Challenge supports and identifies promising young social innovators who dedicate themselves to solving the world’s most pressing problems, its website said. Winners receive not only fund awards but mentoring, workshops and coaching.

Alexander said the Dell contest helped him further develop his business plan and gave his plan more publicity.

“They [the Dell organizers] are asking us to resubmit for 2013,” he said.

The social entrepreneurship innovation in business appears to be growing each year. Instead of companies focusing on the rewards of their financial returns, more want to focus on their social value. According to a 2012 annual report by the B Lab, a nonprofit which certifies “B Corps” or “benefit companies,” there are now more than 500-plus companies across 60 industries dedicated to redefining their measure of success.

“At a time when the American economy is struggling, B Corps is creating high-quality jobs and improving the quality of life in our communities for current and future generations,” officials said in their annual report.

The company also noted in their report that seven states, including California, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Virginia, have signed legislation which now helps create a new type of corporation — the benefit corporation — to help entrepreneurs and investors. The benefit corporation type of company operates the same as a traditional corporation but has higher standards of corporate purpose, accountability and transparency, the report stated.

Alexander said for now, he will continue on enhancing the business concept during the off months of the cacao season. And he will also find ways to get the needed funding for his start-up.

Karina Ramírez can be reached at 940-566-6878. Her email address is


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Chocolate House, LLC

Joel Alexander, founder