Sometimes it takes an earthquake to shake things up – literally.
The beloved Seattle Chocolate Company’s production facility found itself in ruins following the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake. The company was already struggling financially, and would require not only a new headquarters, but a new leadership team and vision as well.
Enter Jean Thompson, a longtime investor and chocolate lover who saw an opportunity revamp the struggling brand that she loved. She helped purchase the company’s new facility, thus becoming a co-owner of the company.
At the time, Jean was 41 years old, the mom of two young children and a former Microsoft employee who specialized in communications and marketing. But in 2002, with no C-suite experience, she stepped into the role of CEO, just as her daughter, Ellie was heading off to kindergarten.
“It ended up being the steepest learning curve of my life,” Jean, now 63, told Know Your Value. I tripped and fell down a lot of times, but I kept getting back up.”
Today, Jean – alongside her 26-year-old daughter Ellie Thompson who is her brand manager – are in charge of one of the most popular chocolate companies in the Pacific Northwest. This year, the company is on track to produce and sell 1.3 million pounds of chocolate.
Jean and Ellie are also proving you can do well, while also doing good: Seattle Chocolate Company donates 10 percent of its net profits to Girls Inc., a non-profit aiming to inspire and embolden young girls through mentorships and educational programs. Jean also founded jcoco in 2012 under the Seattle Chocolate umbrella, which focuses on using some of its profits to feed hungry families. The company has donated nearly 4 million meals to families across the U.S.
“I wanted to add a philanthropic mission to the company,” said Jean. “It gives our consumers the opportunity to make a difference in the world just by buying our chocolate.”
Jean also approached the brand’s marketing in a new way. “I started looking at what industries – specifically industries that were geared towards women, like cosmetics and fashion – were doing with their marketing. I noticed they used a ton of color. And I like color,” said Jean. “So we started changing the packaging to be more colorful and eye-popping. Now, each flavor has its own color and unique packaging.”
Prior to Jean’s leadership, the company primarily marketed towards men giving chocolate to women as gifts. Jean wanted to flip that narrative. Instead of neutral colors, Jean added bright colors and patterns to their packaging. Jean marketed the chocolate similarly to how cosmetics were marketed, fun, colorful, and directed towards women.
Jean now leads a team of 75 employees, 80 percent of whom are women. That, of course, includes her daughter, Ellie.
“I always joke that I've been working at the company since I was 5 years old,” said Ellie. “Growing up, I would come into the office and have a little desk next to my mom's. I’ve always been a big Seattle Chocolate girly.”
Both Ellie and Jean said their intergenerational partnership has helped the company thrive.
“[Our age difference is] a huge asset to the company,” said Ellie. “My mom has decades of work experience, a deep understanding of the industry and knows what it takes to run a profitable business. And while I'm pretty green, I spend a lot of my life living online, so
I have a deep understanding of what's trending on social media with food, artists and packaging. With her experience and my cultural awareness, it makes for a product that's really relatable for women across generations,” said Ellie.
And while working with family can be challenging, Jean and Ellie are self-described “verbal ladies” who pride themselves on their communication and honesty with each other.
“I think the most valuable person at my company is the person who will see my blind spots, push back on me and disagree – and that’s Ellie,” said Jean. “But Ellie is also one of the only ones to compliment me and tell me when I do well in a meeting. You don’t get that often as the CEO.”
Jean also gave her best advice to other women who are considering making a career pivot. “Be confident, comfortable and follow your heart,” she said. “Don't be afraid to admit when you don't know something or when you need help. We're always growing and changing. You just have to buckle down, ask lots of questions and eat lots of chocolate.”