Jo Fairley, co-founder of organic chocolate empire Green & Black’s, recently joined Stylist in a live web chat for our Lunchtime Masterclass.
Read the full transcript from the chat - including Jo's fantastic advice on motivating yourself, running a business in the recession and the joys of fairtrade chocolate - in the transcript at the bottom of the page.
Jo left school at 16 with six O Levels and became a secretary, before starting on Woman's World magazine at the age of 19, where she became senior feature writer. She then became the UK's youngest-ever magazine editor, at the age of 23, editing Look Now magazine.
By 29, she'd had enough of working for other people and went freelance. She was working as an environment columnist for The Times in 1991, when she and her entrepreneur husband Craig Sams set out to market the world’s first organic chocolate.
The idea for the company came when Jo, a confirmed chocoholic and "lifelong foodie", tasted a bar of dark 70 percent chocolate made from organic cocoa beans that had been sent to her husband as a sample (he was working as the founder of Whole Earth, the pioneering organic food company, at the time).
Overcome by its unique, intense flavour, she and Craig set out to share the delights of organic chocolate via Green and Black's. They decided on ‘green’ to represent their environmental and social ethos, and ‘black’ to represent their particularly high-quality cocoa beans.
The first product was a bittersweet dark chocolate bar, made from 70% cocoa solids. Maya Gold was added to the range in 1994 - the result of a holiday Jo and Craig went on to Belize, where they met a group of Mayan smallholder farmers who had planted cocoa trees at the request of a large chocolate company which subsequently withdrew from Belize leaving the farmers with no market. They agreed to buy the farmers' cocoa at a fair price and the Maya Gold brand later earned them the UK's first Fairtrade mark for a chocolate product. The fortunes of the Maya Indians in Belize who grow the cocoa have since been transformed, with seven times more village children attending secondary school.
As well as winning a host of awards for entrepreneurial and ethical achievement (including the Ethical Consumer Award, the WorldAware Award for Small Businesses and a string of Soil Association awards), Jo has suffered her fair share of white knuckle moments at the helm of Green & Black’s (now owned by Cadbury's) - such as what happens when the cocoa beans are stuck in a volatile tropical country, with the port blockaded, and a major retailer threatens de-listing unless the consignment is delivered on time?
Situations like these gave Jo an understanding of the determination needed and the risks involved in building a business and exploiting a niche market.
Jo also sits on the panel of Epson’s European Business Council which was set up in 2010 to provide insight, support and inspiration to small businesses. See her revealing her top three tips for setting up a business in our video here. She has also found time to write 14 books, including Sweet Dreams: The Story of Green & Black's; edit her website, beautybible.com, and have a scent blog, thescentcritic.com. And she still writes for magazines, notably as a contributing editor to YOU Magazine, on the Mail on Sunday.
See Jo's answers, advice and recap of her own journey to success in our recent live web chat, below.