As we enter September, a month to celebrate fantastic female George Brown College alumni entrepreneurs, we are so proud to be spotlighting the incredibly talented artisan chocolatier Quest Atkinson, founder and creator of COCO XO Chocolate. Quest has given herself the title of “Messy Chocolatier” but her creations are really works of art. We recently caught up with Quest, so that she could share some insights from her entrepreneurial journey so far.
Introdution and vision
As far as I can remember, I have always had an inclination towards chocolate. Being caught countless times over the years sneaking chocolate away and giggling, I decided to finally do something useful with my undying obsession and study this decadent “food of the gods”. After being face deep for two years in the Professional Chocolatier Certificate Program at George Brown here in Toronto, I now happily call myself an alum.
Like a proud mama bear, I get intense enjoyment in preparing tasty treats for others to savour. I often have drooly dreams of making unique confections that will make people feel special. In fact, most of the products seen on the www.cocoxo.ca website are the result of happy collaborations with regular people that resulted in custom orders.
As someone who’s had a lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression, I know all-too-well how impactful the small things can be. “Because of the small joys my treats would bring to others, I found myself with a new life purpose awakening in me.” I started this business with the hopes to bring happy moments to those across the full spectrum of “sadness is my life story” to “gulp … I can’t go outside!” to “I feel meh” to “I’m walking on sunshine” and everything in between. Why? Well, simply because everyone deserves to feel loved.
What’s your academic background?
I hold a Bachelor of Commerce, specializing in IT Management from Ryerson University, a Master of Information, specializing in Information Architecture and Design from the University of Toronto and a Professional Chocolatier Certificate from George Brown College.
What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
I’ve had entrepreneurial inclinations for most of my young adult life, but had never really thought about starting my own business until a few years ago. I suppose it might be because I had yet to truly discover my purpose, you know, the calling that I was meant to step into.
With every job I worked, though I might have quite enjoyed it, I felt my creativity immensely restricted and many of my audacious, unrefined ideas weren’t embraced. Yes, believe it or not, even when I was working as a designer. You see, I realized that as long as you’re working for someone else, you’ll be confined to their vision and the boundaries that come along with it. I personally felt that working for someone else oftentimes left something to be desired and started developing a strong yearning to spread my wings.
So a few things collided before I was able to put on my business owner ‘hat’. After many years of a sort of self-discovery, I finally started having a better grasp of what my purpose was. In the middle of my Professional Chocolatier Certificate program, the office job I was doing was coming to an end and in a short time, I’d be without anything to invest my time, energy, and skills towards. It was at this time, my husband kindly nudged me to take the plunge and start my own chocolate business.
While I may have started a business a lot later in life than the average person, I believe the timing is perfect. I was able to start a business already being comfortable in my identity and having had a chance to develop my business, strategy, creative, and communication skills.
What is the purpose of your business?
I’ve had a lifelong struggle with deep depression and debilitating anxiety – something that I’ve been challenged by on an almost daily basis. In spite of all the negative internal dialogue that was going on within me, I was able to be open enough to recognize that whenever I’d make chocolate or pastries for others, it’d bring them genuine joy. Upon seeing this, I found a new purpose begin to awaken within me.
I started my business in 2018 with the sincere hope to use it as a platform to encourage and love on others who might also be struggling. Everything I do at COCO XO is intentional; my aim is to make those on the receiving end of my chocolate feel so loved and valued.
A large part of my time is spent writing hand-written notes of encouragement and connecting with others to cheer them on. In fact, every one of my products (yes even the huge corporate orders) comes with one of these notes. My unofficial tagline is “because everyone deserves to feel loved” – so you could say that the chocolate is secondary to what my business is really about.
What successes have you enjoyed so far with building your company?
I’m sure most would consider having our chocolate featured on Breakfast Television in our first year of operation a definite sign of success. And while I am very grateful for that kind of exposure, there are other, more subtle things that let me know I’m crushing it.
For example, every time I finish a 10kg bag of chocolate I celebrate because it means that I’ve been honoured with the opportunity to continue fulfilling my purpose in making fun and sassy chocolates for others. Besides those bags are 1/3 my height so that is indeed quite a bit of chocolate to work through and sometimes we go through a few bags a week *gasp*.
It’s also worth mentioning that every time I’m able to ‘convert’ an ardent chocolate hater with one of my confections, it gets added to my mental list of wins. There are a few of our items that are known to get people to change their minds about chocolate and I’m just so grateful I get to witness the transformation.
But most of all, nothing excites me more than hearing how we’re having a positive impact on people’s lives. Like when people reach out on social media to tell us that the note they received was exactly what they needed to hear at that moment. And the story of the girl who sent me a picture of her fridge filled with our love notes and who explained she left them there so that she could look at it every morning to feel encouraged – this will forever keep me misty-eyed in humility and gratitude. The fact that what I do blesses others will always count as my greatest success.
What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
EMBODY YOUR WHY. You might have heard it said before, but it’s worth mentioning again, “People don’t buy your product, they buy your story.” Knowing your ‘why’ and ensuring your business is aligned with it is the best possible thing you can do for your business. It keeps you anchored and helps you to remain true to the people you’re serving.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH A TRIBE. Not long ago, I posted some encouragement to other entrepreneurs on social media. With a few years of entrepreneurship under my cape now, I’ve begun to realize that the advice for business owners is plenty, but rarely will people talk about what is really lasting. You can have no shortage of capital, skill, technology, creativity, equipment, human resources, but if you haven’t surrounded yourself with a tribe you won’t last the distance. Your tribe is the person/people who believe in you, pull out the gold in you, call you out on your mistakes with love, and who cheer you on from behind regardless.
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Entrepreneurs, surround yourself with good people … . You know, the kind that see what you have to offer and nudge you along. The kind that know how to call you out on your foolishness. The kind that know the right thing to say that’ll make you giggle uncontrollably even in the face of incredible pain and worry. The kind that allow you to be unique, raw, beautiful, passionate, and ugly all at once. The kind that make you feel nothing can change what they think of you – and my, how amazing they do think you really are! . Those starting their own business are often in pursuit of capital to kickstart what they’re working on or even funding to help make it all grow. Whether it's funding, equipment, or other resources we’re always chasing … minds always going. No amount of capital, equipment, space, staff, opportunity can replace or even give to you the safety and refreshment that your tribe can. . Today, I wanted to honour the person who’s been my safe space for as long as I can remember. He’s the reason I even started this business. Always willing to leave work just to give me a hug when I’m struggling with depression – to him, everything else can wait. He takes to washing the dishes and making dinner without any questions when he gets home, even though I might have spent the entire day doing nothing. He doesn’t forgive, he simply chooses not to get offended. My forever cheerleader who took me as is with all the frills and flaws. . We were best friends first before anything. I’m so proud of this incredible foundation we’ve built. 4 years strong and God willing many, many more to come . ? Photo Cred @copperredphotography isn't she so amazing!
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