Patria-Kaye Aarons | The sweetest spot in Raleigh
I've been away from my beloved Jamaica for more than a month having one of those life-changing experiences. As part of President Obama's Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, 250 entrepreneurs from Latin America and the Caribbean were brought to the US for a near six-week fellowship. We were eight strong from Jamaica.
The objective was to empower young people around the world and ensure, they have the tools, skills, and networks to tackle our shared global challenges.
The fellows were scattered across 21 states in the country and assigned to Raleigh, North Carolina, and were 10 bright, spirited business owners I never knew until now.
There was Freddie from Cuba, who was reconnecting that Caribbean island with the rest of the word through technology. Ana from Panama (she just loved saying that) empowered rural women in her country to make magic, turning what some saw as waste into beautiful handcrafted jewellery. Frissia taught young ladies in Mexico the things you never learn in school. The soft skills and life lessons that prepared you for success.
Valerie from Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) throws on her superhero cape every day and intervenes in the lives of young girls who have been through traumatic situations to help them heal. Daniel wants to ensure that new businesses in Venezuela succeed. He connects entrepreneurs with the tools and resources they need to rebuild themselves and their country.
Jennifer's business warms your heart and body. She works with 200 mothers in Peru to make garments from alpaca and baby alpaca. Cristobal is no ordinary farmer. He makes all natural dairy products in Chile with no sweeteners, additives or preservatives. Karola is making Colombia healthier and more delicious. Her family-owned company distributes all-natural products throughout Colombia.
Luis is a real champion for small Mexican coffee farmers. He arms them with training, but he also has a crazy good farm-to-cup business model that cuts out the middleman; he gives profits right back to those farmers and their communities. (I'm going to convince him to replicate his business in Jamaica).
And I rounded out the 10 with my company, Sweetie.
My work-home for four weeks in Raleigh was to be Escazu - an eight-year-old chocolate factory. Desirous of building out my own factory space one day, this was the perfect place for me to learn up close how a confectionery space runs.
Tucked away in an unlikely residential area, I walked up the brick-paved courtyard to the address I was given. The soft, welcoming chime of the front door ushered me into a space I loved immediately.
The shop had a homely charm. It was furnished with cute tables and chairs perfect for friends to share a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter night or equally as apt for a family to share chocolate ice cream cones on a warm summer day.
Owned by Hal and Danielle, the two can take credit for making the best chocolate I've ever tasted. After eight years of chocolate making, they've perfected the art. Besides, you can taste when a product has love in it. Theirs does.
Every morning I walked in, a welcoming smile was always as close as a piece of chocolate. The pair exposed me to everything they do. Hands on. I sorted coco beans, roasted, ground coco nibs, foiled and wrapped bars, packed boxes - and I loved it.
I walked away at the end of the month with a clear understanding of how I'd lay out my factory the day I owned one and exactly how I'd set up the roles and responsibilities. I also got a great example of the happy culture I'd want to replicate.
(A little known secret). On Thursday mornings, before the doors open to customers at 11 a.m., the staff have a private dance party. At my first Escazu dance party, the DJ (one of the staff members) played an entire set of Bob Marley - my personal welcome to the Escazu family. That was sweet.
I went back to my hotel every day smelling like chocolate. It was a pleasant side effect, and I would regularly catch myself on the bus inhaling deeply against my sweater sleeves.
Raleigh, North Carolina, has its fair share of Jamaicans, and I had occasion to spend my last afternoon with Marcia. A friend of a friend, you'd think we had known each other forever. Marcia clearly migrated with Jamaican sunshine inside her and she made me feel happy and at home. Thank you.
Walking through a mall near our hotel, I somehow managed on not one, but two occasions to see licence plate holders bearing the Jamaican flag. I waved wildly at the unsuspecting owners; one who didn't even see me and the other who tentatively (and totally confused) waved back.
I'm happy to finally be heading back home. I did a lot, but I learnt even more. And so much of what I have learnt, I'm taking back to Jamaica to implement. This trip was bigger than me. It opened my eyes to what can happen when people have a will and work together.
Jamaica, we can do this!