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How a Springfield, Missouri chocolate maker serves local and international youth

Askinosie Chocolates are acclaimed in the food world, but their Chocolate University has a bigger mission: to "inspire students to become global citizens understand that businesses can solve world problems."

Shawn Askinosie opened Askinosie Chocolate in 2007 in Springfield, Missouri. After nearly two decades as a criminal defense lawyer, he learned the art of making chocolate. No less than Food & Wine magazine has named these delicious single-origin, bean-to-bar confections among the nation's best. The company pays above-market prices for cacao beans and then gives each farmer 10 percent of net profits from products that incorporate their beans.

But it's local public school students who benefit from the company's Chocolate University (CU), created shortly after the first chocolate bar left the factory. Its mission is "to inspire students to become global citizens and understand that businesses can solve world problems."

Education and hands-on experience are hallmarks of CU, which operates under the nonprofit Askinosie Foundation. Fourth and fifth graders at Boyd Elementary School were the first participants.

student at Chocolate University doing a tasting Chocolate University (CU) is an experiential learning program with a worldwide reach for local students. (Photo: Askinosie Chocolate)

“I bought the building in 2006 and completely renovated it,” Askinosie says. “At that time there were many social services offered on this street and a lot of poverty nearby. The Missouri Hotel shelter is a block away and there were about 80 children spending any given night there with their parents.”

Askinosie knew the power of an adult reaching out to help a child. When he was a young teen, and his father was dying, a teacher named Paul Elmore often wrote supportive notes to him.

As a successful adult Askinosie thought, “Is there a chance that I can be Mr. Elmore for someone else?”

Starting CU at Boyd seemed a natural extension to serving kids in the Missouri Hotel. As Boyd students learn about inventions, they visit the chocolate factory and see how the company transforms cocoa beans into bars.

When Askinosie visits cacao farmers, he sends pictures and stories to the children who also hear, first-hand, about these journeys. CU business lessons include introduction to balance sheets, income statements, and profit-sharing. Each class also visits the factory and makes chocolate treats.

a meeting of Empowered Girls club CU students facilitate discussions with the Empowered Girls club at the school, which is a program funded by CU that aims to increase the retention and graduation rate of female students. (Photo: Askinosie Chocolate)

CU soon expanded to include sixth through eighth graders at Pipkin Middle School, where faculty member Julia Armstrong has provided constant support. After learning about the chocolate-making process, these students are introduced to kids attending Malagos Elementary School in Davao, Philippines (one of the company's cocoa bean sources). As the program begins, Pipkin students exchange letters with Malagos students.

After Pipkin students learned their Filipino friends had no computers or Internet, they raised money with help from CU to help alleviate this problem. As a result, Malagos became the first school in Davao to have a computer and Internet access.

Five years ago, Askinosie Chocolate launched its four-week CU Summer Explorers Program for middle school students. The project-based learning includes making chocolate, six factory visits, and creating a new product concept and marketing plan. They also learn about the lives of cocoa farmers and create personal vision statements.

CU began at Central High School (an International Baccalaureate program) in 2009. Now any student in Green County or Christian County can apply. For accepted students, the immersive education at the factory includes education about chocolate and ethical business practices. During summer break, these students stay in Drury University dorms for a week while taking courses on direct-trade methods, cacao agronomy, Tanzanian culture, Swahili, and more.

Shawn Askinosie (pictured far right) with a group of Chocolate University students. Shawn Askinosie (pictured far right) with a group of Chocolate University students. (Photo: Askinosie Chocolate)

Finally, these students take a 50-hour journey to a Tanzanian farmers' cooperative that supplies Askinosie Chocolate. Accompanied by Askinosie and Drury faculty, the group assists the farming community in meeting important needs like small construction projects. Proceeds from Askinosie Chocolate factory tours fund the $4,000 cost per teen.

“We want to decouple this idea of provider and recipient because that tends to separate us,” Askinosie says. “We believe our chocolate tastes better because the quality of the product is directly related to who we are as individuals, and collectively as an organization."

"We want to establish that we are shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends and partners around the world. We're establishing 'kinship.'"

This message has lasting impact. “We've had students change their course of study after this trip, and one of our scholarship students got a full ride to Yale,” Askinosie says. “I have a student from 2016 who is in Tanzania right now, staying with our field representative and working with our Empowered Girls and Enlightened Boys Programs through a Vanderbilt University fellowship.”

After her CU experience, one young lady wrote to Askinosie saying, “I realized that I need Tanzania more than Tanzania needs me.'” And a participant in the first high school class of Chocolate University, St. Louis lawyer Taylor Curtis, has started a CU alumni program to help fund one annual $4,000 scholarship.

Community development in Tanzania and the Philippines is another aspect of CU initiatives. They include a school lunch program, funded by sales of Askinosie Tableya hot chocolate. In its tenth year, the program expanded to include a third school. It also operates in Tanzania — where there was a much greater problem of malnutrition — initially serving 1,000 students per day.

group of students learns to make truffles Making truffles at Chocolate University. (Photo: Askinosie Chocolate)

Pipkin students have helped maintain CU Foundation's Sustainable Lunch Program at Malagos, too. First, Askinosie Chocolate purchases Tableya (a traditional Filipino hot cocoa) created by the PTA in Malagos. It then sells Tableya and returns 100 percent of profits to the PTA. This allows the students and PTA to source local food, which is used in lunches for the 800 Malagos students. Thus far, more than 240,000 school lunches have been served through this program.

CU high school students also assist with initiatives related to Mwaya Secondary School, which Askinosie Chocolate has worked with since 2010. Projects have included the Sustainable Lunch Program. It starts with premium Kyela rice harvested by the Mwaya PTA per the Davao model. Begun in 2013, the program has supplied more than 96,000 lunches, with assistance from Convoy of Hope.

During one trip, CU high school students installed a generator to power laptops and projectors provided by CU, which offer access to a free Khan Academy video-learning program. As a result, the Tanzanian government has pledged to supply the school with electricity. A generous CU donation also funded the school’s first computer teacher.

middle school student does a chocolate tasting Five years ago, Askinosie Chocolate launched its four-week CU Summer Explorers Program for middle school students. (Photo: Askinosie Chocolate)

Previous CU educational efforts here included purchase of Mwaya's first textbooks and a deep water well for the village of 2,000 residents. CU students also facilitate discussions with the Empowered Girls club: a CU program designed to increase retention and graduation rates among female students.

Since its inception, CU has worked with 1,250 elementary and middle school students. Ninety-four high school and college students have been involved in international business immersion cocoa buying trips to Tanzania. In Tanzania, 4,177 children have experienced the Empowered Girls program and 1,088 have experienced the Enlightened Boys program. In addition, 253 preschoolers have been served via Day Camp, with 300 additional preschoolers slated to participate, beginning in January 2020.

“The vision behind Chocolate University is to make a bar of chocolate more than something to be savored,” Askinosie says. “Chocolate University helps bring the world to local students, who in turn bring inspiration and possibilities to the world."

headshot of writer Lisa Waterman Gray

Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer and photographer in Overland Park, Kan. and the Kansas City metropolitan area. Her byline has appeared in Chow Town/the Kansas City Star, Dreamscapes Travel and Lifestyle Magazine (Canadian), five AAA magazines, Midwest Living, Missouri Life, KANSAS!, Feast Magazine, and others. Lisa’s online stories have also posted at CivilEats.com, FoodTank.com, USAToday.com/10Best, OffbeatTravel.com, BusandMotorcoachNews.com, and WanderWithWonder.com. She is also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul, Messages from Heaven and Other Miracles (January 2019) and author of the 400-page statewide travel book, An Explorer’s Guide: Kansas (June 2011, The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton & Company).

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