Chocolate as an Agent for Change

Editor note:  This is the first ChangeU blog post, since the initial challenge was issued, that has been written exclusively for ChangeU.  Thanks to Champion of ChangeU Paul Johnson for taking on the challenge!

Chocolate as an Agent for Change

by Paul Johnson

When I was 15 years old, my parents announced that they were going to adopt four kids from Costa Rica.  They later got on a plane and flew to Costa Rica to complete the adoption.  While they were in Costa Rica they waited in line after line and filled out hundreds of documents.  The whole time they were also taking care of the four adoptees.  When my parents returned, our family was suddenly much bigger.  My new brothers and a sister all spoke only Spanish and since I was the only one with any Spanish language, I became the family interpreter.

Those first couple of years were quite the adjustment. But looking back, I can see it started a destiny that has taken about 30 some years to come to fruition.  Because of my family background, I was aware that there is a country called Costa Rica.  I learned that there are kids who have a tougher childhood than I could have imagined.  I learned to cross cultures and some language barriers.  I learned about prejudice and racism.  I got a taste for different foods and an appreciation for travel and adventure.

During my college years, I met my wife Jeanne and began a career as a network engineer.  We were able to purchase a house and have the American Dream.  We loved camping and backpacking.  We traveled whenever we could.  Our dream trip happened in December of 1999.  We packed up all our camping gear and headed for Costa Rica for a three week vacation.

I had heard many stories of my parents’ experience, but now I was going to have my own perspective.  Costa Rica is an amazing place to visit.  There are hundreds of world class beaches.  There are world class rainforests and wild rivers to kayak or raft.  And since the fears of Y2K were reaching their peak at that time, we figured a beach in Costa Rica might be the best place to ride out the end of the world.

After those three weeks and while our plane was taking off for our return to “reality”, I told Jeanne “I think I could live in Costa Rica” and she said she thinks “she could too”!

After four more years of trying for a baby, we decided to leave that in God’s hands and trust His plan for our lives.  We joined a mission program, sold our house and quit our jobs and moved to Costa Rica’s Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo.  We had decided to make our lives be about others and not about our child bearing.

The mission team cast a vision for a youth program that would revolve around a skate park.  After many short term volunteer groups and construction projects, the skate park was built.  Our time with the mission was coming to a close and we started to look ahead for the next phase of our lives.

We had also been the recipients of a great blessing.  Our son Azan was born April 5, 2005!  We gave him that name because it is ancient Hebrew for “look up or listen”.  Azan was proof that God had listened to our prayers!  Since he was born here in Costa Rica, we were able to become permanent residents and no longer had to leave the country every three months.

Since we were no longer on the mission team and didn’t have any jobs, we began to think about how to survive economically in Puerto Viejo.  I had inquired about working for the local internet cafe. But when I found out they only paid two dollars an hour, I figured we should start our own business.

We began to do some business planning but really had no experience running or starting a business.  We eventually decided to meet a need we were feeling while we worked for the mission. There was no coffee shop in Puerto Viejo so we decided a coffee shop would be a good business to run.

Having never managed or owned a coffee shop we looked for some resources at the bookstore.  One of those books happened to be “Coffee Shops for Dummies”.  With our coffee shop bible in hand, we stared Caribeans Coffee.  The book recommends investing first in a small scale coffee roaster.  With the roaster you can produce your own brand of coffee and the aroma of fresh roasted coffee is better than any sign or advertisement. We decided to source green coffee from a cooperative that produced organic and fair trade coffee.  So the farmers were getting a good sale price and we were getting a better purchase price due to reduced transportation costs and an earlier position in the value chain.   Immediately we began to experience success. And more clients desired our coffee every day. And those clients started to hang out in a restaurant which was allowing us to roast in their storeroom.  Eventually we were able to get our own place and we began to make fancier coffee shop drinks.

One of those drinks is called a mocaccino (one of my favorites since I discovered coffee in college).  The drink starts with a very good espresso shot, steamed milk and some type of chocolate or cocoa.  We had the best coffee, fairly sourced, organic and fresh roasted, so squirting Hershey’s syrup in there was not an option.  We needed equally good chocolate, fairly sourced, organic and freshly roasted.

I had discovered the area around Puerto Viejo had a history of cacao production. But in the 80’s cacao was largely abandoned due to a fungal blight called monilia.  Cacao is the main ingredient in chocolate (well not in the chocolate I grew up with…the main ingredients there were sugar and fat).  Maybe we could make our own chocolate from the locally produced cacao.

A Google search revealed several important things to me.  One is that chocolate is made from roasted cacao beans and sugar.  If I could roast the beans in my coffee roaster, I would be halfway there!  Another important thing was that there was and still is a movement in the United States of artisan or “bean to bar” chocolate.  If they could do it, so could I!

We began to purchase small amounts of cacao from the local indigenous people (Bri Bri) and started making various products with their cacao.  Eventually we were successfully making an 80% dark chocolate bar with the same name, Caribeans.

Now after eight years we have become the area’s first “farm to bar” chocolate maker and we sell chocolate faster than we can make it.  We have been able to create a whole new market for locally grown cacao and are seeing what I call the “Napa Valley Effect” in our little Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo.

My wife and I along with two local cacao experts and four chocolate makers and many cacao farmers are transforming the region.  Our mission is to model a new way of making chocolate and farming cacao that generates a better chocolate and a more sustainable economic living for cacao farmers in our region and around the world.

In future ChangeU blog posts, I will write about chocolate history, geopolitical issues facing cacao producers, sustainability (both ecological and economic), creating change at every level of the chocolate bar, cultural revelations, and about being a “gringo” living in Costa Rica.  I hope to inspire you to create change in your sphere of influence and to find and keep what we call “pura vida” in Costa Rica.

Paul Johnson and his wife, Jeanne, are the founders and co-owners of Caribeans, the coolest and best coffee and chocolate shop on at least the Caribbean coast (probably the world) and certainly in the heart of Change University.  They have not only restarted the cacao industry in a region where many thought it had been lost forever, they are also changing the lives of indigineous farmers and their families.  And that has changed the entire region for the better.  Paul and Jeanne (and don’t forget Azan) are certainly Champions of ChangeU!  We cannot wait for you to hear more from Paul.  And we strongly suggest that you start making plans to visit Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, and take the Caribeans Chocolate Tour.  You will never forget the tour – especially the tasting experience on the tasting platform while looking out over the cacao forest at the waves breaking in the Caribbean.






When a Dreamer Becomes a Doer

A “doer” takes dreaming to the next level.    Champion of ChangeU Tamra Ryan is one of those doers.  In this blog post, previously published on the website of Women’s Bean Project, Tamra shows what it takes to do more than just dream.  She shows us that being a doer is what is needed to change the lives of those most in need of doers.


My Dream for the Future of Women’s Bean Project
by Tamra Ryan

What did you dream of when you were 25? What did you imagine for your life? What were the possibilities of your future? At 25 we all dreamed of the promise of our futures. Most of us had no idea how things would turn out. I know none of the women who come to the Women’s Bean Project dreamed of addiction or incarceration for themselves. They didn’t dream of losing their children or being rejected by one employer after another because of their backgrounds.

When the women who come to the Bean Project were 25, they believed their futures were bright and full of opportunity. Then, something happened to pull them away from their dreams.

Twenty five years ago Women’s Bean Project was founded on a dream, a vision for the future. And in many ways we have fulfilled that vision. We have helped hundreds of women in our community create new lives for themselves and their families.

But even as we get better at what we do, there is still a sense of urgency because there are so many more women who need our help. Just as we all had dreams for our futures when we were 25, I have a dream for the future of the Bean Project.

  • I dream of a day when we don’t have to turn away any woman who comes to us asking for a chance to change her life.
  • I imagine a time when Women’s Bean Project struggles to find enough applicants to fill all of our open positions.
  • I dream of finding Bean Project products in thousands of stores across the country–the tangible evidence of the women whose lives have been changed. At 25 it is good to remember why we exist.
  • Women’s Bean Project believes in the power of work.
  • We believe that having a job helps a woman create hope, improves her self-esteem and makes her believe she is worthy of a better life.
  • We believe that work is fundamental for women, their families and our community.

We believe in the power of work to restore the dreams that have been lost. Women’s Bean Project creates employment for women because through employment we are able to change lives. The most fundamental way out of poverty is reliable work for adequate pay.

But what I’m talking about isn’t just jobs. It’s about all of the other things that come from gainful employment:

  • Increased pride and confidence
  • The ability to set and work toward goals
  • The opportunity to provide financial and emotional support to one’s family.

A job just isn’t a job.

  • It is hope.
  • It is a symbol of worth.
  • It is the promise of a future. Employment at Women’s Bean Project brings back that spark, that smile, that time of promise. That’s why we exist. Employment changes lives.

I am confident that, after all we have learned in the past 25 years, and with your help, we are positioned to remain an essential part of the community. The demand we see is daunting, but I remain hopeful. When a woman improves her life it affects us all. Her success is our collective success.

  • We have employed over 700 hundred women, each with an average of three children. This is thousands of lives that have been changed.
  • We have decreased time in prison. Employment related programs such as Women’s Bean Project have been shown to have the greatest effect on reducing returns to prison. The number one indicator of re-arrest is being unemployed in the year prior to the arrest.
  • We have stimulated the economy. According to the Social Enterprise Alliance, based on research conducted by economists, the economic stimulus of a job created by social enterprises such as Women’s Bean Project is over $80,000 per year. For the 60 women employed at the Bean Project each year, this equates to about $4.8 million in economic stimulus. As we move into the next 25 years, our focus at Women’s Bean Project will be:
  • To ensure every woman who wants to change her life can.
  • To ensure our community is full of self-sufficient mothers so that children don’t grow up to repeat the cycle.
  • To ensure that we reduce the need for public assistance.
    When I look to the future, I ask, what would it take to accomplish these goals?

Our products are the tangible proof of our cause, but product sales only cover 70% of the cost of employing the women in our program. That’s because there are so many other needs, in addition to job readiness skills, that a woman must have met before she can truly work toward self-sufficiency.

  • She must have stable housing and quality childcare for her kids.
  • She must have the ability to set and work toward goals, organize her and her family’s life and budget to cover her basic household expenses.
  • Most important, she must have the confidence to believe she is worthy of a better life.These are the intangibles Women’s Bean Project provides. They cost money to support, but their value in a woman’s life is immeasurable.

The Bean Project teaches women with little or no computer skills the basics they need to function in the job market. We teach them the importance of coming to work every day, on time and we help them learn to take direction, manage conflict and pay attention to detail.

We teach the skills so women can earn a living for themselves and their families. We have the answer to breaking the cycle of poverty and chronic unemployment and we are only limited by our resources.

Let’s ensure that the dreams of the women we serve can be rediscovered and realized. I invite you to join us in helping women create brighter futures for themselves, their families and our community.

Tamra Ryan is the visionary leader, spokesperson and CEO of Women’s Bean Project based in Denver, Colorado. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the Judith M. Kaufmann award for Civic Entrepreneurship and Regis University’s Social Entrepreneurship Award. Tamra has also been recognized as an Outstanding Alumnus of the Colorado Leadership Alliance (2006) and as one of the “up-and-coming most influential women in Colorado” by the Denver Post (2012).  Tamra is the author of award-winning The Third Law which explores what is required for chronically unemployed and impoverished women to create new lives for themselves. Please read more about Champion of ChangeU Tamra Ryan, as well as Women’s Bean Project, at .  You will find Tamra’s TEDxMile High talk under the Videos tab on the main ChangeU menu.