As a student, Ben Conard ’16 had a vision to produce fair trade chocolate snacks. Geneseo’s VentureWorks program helped him launch a successful, award-winning business.
Ben Conard ’16 says he has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, but it was the VentureWorks program at Geneseo that gave him the experience and training to launch his business, Five North Chocolate.
“As a longtime fair trade advocate and health-conscious consumer, I knew the world of snacks and guilty chocolate could use an upgrade,” said Conard. “So I wanted to create a product that I, too, would buy.”
Today, Conard sells his fair-trade certified chocolate snacks online and at specialty retail shops throughout the country. He pairs vegan dark chocolate with superfoods like goji berries and almonds, and packages the bite-sized pieces in convenient pouches. His vision is to provide customers with chocolate snacks made with wholesome ingredients that are sourced from sustainable partnerships with farmers from Africa and South America. He has traveled to Ecuador to visit fair trade cacao farmers and learn more about the supply chain.
The concept for Five North Chocolate was developed in VentureWorks’ commercial ideation course.
“Students have to discover and validate what problem their product solves and, in some cases, what desire their product fulfills,” said Conard. “We’re a chocolate company. Part of what we do is fulfill a desire for people who crave great chocolate, but we also help solve the problems cacao farmers face, like low wages and child labor, with sustainable supply chains through fair trade certification.”
Conard is hopeful with changes that come with fair trade goods and production. Fair Trade USA cites changes in in cocoa farming communities that businesses, including Five North, source from in the Ivory Coast, especially involving education. The organization says farmers are electing to spend their fair trade premiums on building schools and student lunch programs, boosting primary school education levels.
Conard began producing his snacking chocolate in a commercial kitchen for 12 months and has since outgrown the facility. He now partners with a Long Island manufacturer to expand production and increase capacity.
As a student, Conard helped fund his business project as the Edward J. Pettinella ’73 Ambassador in Business award through the Center for Integrative Learning, and a Geneseo Foundation award that included funds to attend and present at the annual Clinton Global Initiative University meeting in San Francisco in 2016. The Clinton gathering brings together more than 1,000 student leaders who network and foster solutions to current global challenges each year. There, Conard was a semifinalist for the Resolution Project’s Social Venture Challenge.
“The Clinton Global Initiative University was incredibly energizing,” said Conard. “It’s a magnet for young change-makers. There were a few days of intensive workshops with social entrepreneurs and students from around the world and high profile speakers, including former President Bill Clinton and Kate Brandt, the sustainability lead for Google.”
Conard still works closely with the Clinton Foundation as an Alumni Ambassador and was recently invited to speak on a panel at their headquarters in New York City about philanthropy and fundraising.
Conard places great value on his experience as a student in the VentureWorks program.
“We had explored every moving part of our small start-up in such a short amount of time. By the end, we had an investor pitch and 50-page business plan and it was really validating for us as entrepreneurs,” said Conard. “Leaving the program with a solid plan and then graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration made me realize it was time for the rubber to hit the road.”