BRAVE CONVERSATIONS WITH SYOVATA EDARI
May 01 2018
The Struggle Behind Her Success: Syovata Edari
Vata Edari is the founder of CocoVaa Chocolatier. Formerly (and occasionally still) a Wisconsin Criminal Defense Lawyer of fifteen years, Vata made the brave decision to take her love of chocolate and flavor-creation and make the leap into entrepreneurship in 2016 – all as a single mother. Her journey wasn’t always so sweet. Shortly after starting Coco Vaa, her worlds collided when she was forced to take on a billion dollar corporate giant over her trademark.
Mary Burke: Vata, as soon as I heard about your story, I realized, “We have got to bring Vata in. We have to have this conversation for others to hear,” because your story is quite extraordinary, and the journey that you’re on has required an incredible amount of courage. Not only to take that first step, but to take on some of the battles that you have taken on. As we’ve talked about before, your journey is just starting.
Vata Edari: That’s right.
Mary Burke: Take me back to the decision to leave your law profession behind and become a chocolatier.
Vata Edari: Well, it’s interesting, because there was not really a definitive point where I said, “I’m going to leave.” In fact, I still practice law. I’m in court tomorrow in Walworth County.
Mary Burke: Entrepreneurs; always wearing multiple hats, right?
Vata Edari: You have to! I think one of the most valuable things that I’ve learned is that the greatest visionaries are interdisciplinary and multidimensional. And in some strange ways, those disciplines are complementary.
There are a few different narratives out there about me. One is “successful lawyer leaves practice to take huge risk and become chocolatier,” but I think what people don’t understand Is that even as a lawyer, it’s a hustle. I’m a criminal lawyer—I’ve got to wait for people to get in trouble, find me, hire me, and then pay me. That last part is sometimes the most difficult.
It’s not easy, even if you’re with a big firm. You have to pull your weight. When we’re trying to pursue things that are meaningful to us, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be a lot of work.
Mary Burke: What was it in your upbringing that gave you the confidence to hustle to get where you wanted to go?
Vata Edari: Surprisingly, I think when you’re a person who is marginalized—those of us that come from groups that have been historically oppressed, women, people of color—we have to go above and beyond in everything we do, just to be recognized as average. It’s really unfair, and some of us go crazy. We suffer from depression, and go through a lot of stuff, but we also become experts because we have to work so hard.
I’ve learned to embrace the struggle as one of my greatest assets. I have a level of fearlessness that some privileged folks probably don’t have. I’ve had to fall and get back up, over and over and over again. There’s not a lot that really scares me at this point. At the same time, I’m also a single mom, so it is scary not knowing what’s going to happen next month, or next year.
I think if you stick with something and persevere, you start seeing the returns. You have to have the resiliency to withstand the really bad times, without collapsing and giving up. Those of us who come from backgrounds like mine, where we haven’t had everything handed to us, we are resilient, and know how to do a lot with a little bit.
I have learned to embrace the struggle as an asset, to appreciate it, and to look back on every trauma I’ve ever suffered and feel almost grateful for it, because without it I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have been able to withstand some of the challenges that have come my way had I not endured those things.
Mary Burke: We have to talk about the challenge that has been reported, because it’s really quite extraordinary: your challenge with Mars chocolate.
Vata Edari: I unfortunately can’t talk about it.
Mary Burke: I could talk a little bit about it, right?
Vata Edari: I can’t tell you that you can.
Mary Burke: Well, what I know is that you started your business, CocoVaa. And to anyone out there, you have got to get on the website and order some of these chocolates, because they’re really quite extraordinary.
Vata Edari: Thank you.
Mary Burke: In the course of starting your company, you researched the trademark and knew what you were getting into. You are a lawyer, after all. At some point, you received correspondence from Mars that basically said you were infringing on a trademark. You didn’t agree, and even though it was Mars, which is a multibillion dollar company and probably has a lot of lawyers that work full-time on protecting their trademarks, you decided you would fight it. And you won.
You continue to use your original name, and I think it’s just remarkable. Not whether you were right or wrong, or whether they were, but that you had the courage and the fortitude and the resilience to go head-to-head with them.
Vata Edari: I can’t comment at all, but what I can say is about what I’ve learned through moving from selling a service to selling a good; it’s a whole separate skillset. It’s a different world completely, moving from criminal defense to becoming a chocolatier. And not just a chocolatier, but actually selling something.
I’ve been through so many battles in my life. In fact, I’ve recently extricated myself out of an abusive relationship. I learned a huge lesson about standing my ground. People who push you around typically don’t know how to fight, because they’re used to getting their way. When they enter the ring with you, they are at a disadvantage.
I had an employment battle in Kansas where I was terminated for insubordination with a three-year battle with a really bad boss. I could have left, and my colleagues said, “Vata, you have to go. This is really stressing you out. There are other opportunities out there.”
I said, “No, because my integrity is on the line.” I knew I was going to lose, and I did, because the judge that presided over the case happened to be one of the people that hired my boss. Everything was stacked against me, but I had to go through it. It felt like a test to my integrity. As a lawyer, I just felt, “Why should I run? I’m not wrong.”
I analyzed why I would be afraid to stand up and fight. What is the source of that fear? What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’m not going to die. I’m not going to jail. I won’t have to pay somebody a whole bunch of money. Thus, what do I have to lose by fighting and standing up for myself?
Mary Burke: I love that attitude. No matter who you are, we encounter fear, or that fight-or-flight instinct. Yet, the other option is pausing and thinking through the situation. “Why do I feel this way? What’s the conscious reality of this?”
Vata Edari: Right. Why are we scared?
Mary Burke: Usually it’s not that bad. I think there’s a lot to the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Vata Edari: That’s right. Exactly.
Mary Burke: It makes me think of David and Goliath. Those who have been in the arena, and have fought, and have had to scrap it out come with skills, but also a mindset. It can serve you well, but it takes a lot of courage to make that first step.
Vata Edari: Right. It’s emotionally exhausting. Life is already hard, right? It’s hard to get up every day and go do your thing and figure out how you’re going to pay your bills and take care of your kids. Then, to have this extra crap on top of that—you just don’t need it. But if you don’t learn to engage strategically…. Situations like this will always be there, and the more you get ahead, the more you encounter them.
That’s the great benefit about growing older. You have a history of having survived, and you’re like, “Okay, it’s really not that bad. I’ll be okay.” For me, starting a chocolate company after being a trial lawyer has been a whirlwind. It’s taken off a lot faster than I expected.
I’ve had to build a team of people around me. I’ve also had to build a forcefield around me to block out the negativity. Even that which comes from a good place. I was just talking to my mom the other day and she said “How are you going to do this?” She’s scared for me, and doesn’t want to be supporting me in my 50’s. It makes sense, but you’ve got to have this bubble around yourself to insulate yourself from the doubters, because we already doubt ourselves. We need to encourage each other.
Mary Burke: We being women? Definitely.
Vata Edari: Women, yes. We doubt ourselves more than others, and when you’re trying to be a boss, it’s interesting. I had a popup shop at a gallery the other day, and was speaking to the proprietor, who was wonderful. She’s told me it was her baby, this gallery. It was beautiful.
She’s an artist herself, and she said if her husband is there, people will come in and they want to talk to him. Even if he tells them, “No, you have to talk to Theresa because she’s the owner,” they still want to talk to him. We had this great conversation about the things that people tell us, or the assumptions that people make without knowing anything about us.
Mary Burke: We all do it. A lot of it is unconscious bias.
Vata Edari: That’s right.
Mary Burke: We make decisions about people based on their height, the color of their hair, and the car they drive. That’s what I learned in running for governor: I actually have no control over what people think or say about me. But I have 100 percent control over how I let it affect me. A lot of people’s biases, I find, aren’t intentional.
Vata Edari: That’s right.
Mary Burke: Can you tell us about how you have decided who you are going to be as it pertains to chocolates?
Vata Edari: It is my fantasy world. It’s my business, but it’s been my refuge also. I’m fascinated by the science of it. I also decided to travel and enter competitions, and just go all-in. That’s my nature anyway. I took a master chocolatier course in France, at l’Hermitage at Valrhona, took another one in Italy last year, and then stopped in Switzerland.
I set out to master this. This was before anybody really knew what I was doing or knew how serious I was with it. I tried not to put it out there too much. In fact, when I built my kitchen, I didn’t tell anybody I was building it out.
Mary Burke: Why not?
Vata Edari: I knew people would tell me, “Are you crazy? Why are you dumping all this money into this place?” I kept it under wraps for a while, and then one day, all of a sudden, I had this really beautiful fabulous little kitchen. When I went to France, I would put things on Facebook, so that people would live through this experience with me. It started gaining momentum.
By traveling and really mastering the art of chocolate, it was my way of owning my narrative, and creating this new path. It’s something we don’t think about, because we are groomed to work for somebody else. We’re groomed to do things for others, especially as women.
I’m 47 now. You can be in your mid 40s or early 50s and just change what you’re doing, and do something totally different. You can start a new career. It felt like, “Whoa. That’s not in the rule book.” It’s been amusing. It’s been really inspiring, and what’s been beautiful for me to watch is that it’s been like this fantasy world, but to the public, the brand means so much more.
There are days when I feel like it is so expensive to run this business; it’s a lot cheaper to run a law practice, as a sole practitioner. But now I’m so in, and because I’ve seen what it means to everybody else, I feel almost a social responsibility to keep going with it, and create jobs with it.
The idea of taking control of our narrative is so foreign to us. Somebody else has been writing the script since day one, and we’ve been following it. But this is what I love. I love chocolate. But it is kind of seen as a rebellion, because it’s breaking a barrier of other people’s narratives, of what I’m supposed to be doing as a single mom with a law degree. It’s breaking the narrative of, “I should just work until I retire and pay off my student loans, and blah, blah, blah.”
Mary Burke: And sometimes it’s the people closest to you who are the strongest doubters, trying to look out for your best interests. I sense from a lot of women that I talk to that those voices are very difficult to ignore. You know they love you, so how do you have those conversations?
Vata Edari: Many times I just don’t. Now that I’ve received a lot of press around my chocolate company, my family likes it more. But it’s still scary, because you do need family. Sometimes I’ve still got to ask my mom for help. You need the support morally, and sometimes financially. It build your strength to know you’ve got people behind you.
My kids are very involved in my company, and that’s tough sometimes. My daughter works without pay a lot. She’s going off to college this year. She thinks I want her to stay in Madison to work at the chocolate factory, but I’m like, “No.” It’s funny, because I’m with them a lot more than I ever was when I was practicing full-time.
When I look at the demands of both lives, full-time lawyering or full-time chocolatiering, I see that running the chocolate business involves my family. We’re working together, and thus around each other all the time. My son is at the shop while I’m making chocolate. We were there until 1:00am the other night, trying to build up inventory again. I have a little cot with an electric blanket, and I put it on my son, and he took a nap. It felt like, “Oh, this is so burdensome and hard,” but it includes them in a way I would never be able to do otherwise.
Mary Burke: When I visited, your daughter was there, and she seemed highly engaged and happy. She was making a beautiful sign that I thought was great. Growing up, my dream was to be a businessperson like my dad. He was an entrepreneur, and I remember going to the warehouse with him. It made a big impression on me, so that’s an education and time that’s invaluable.
Vata Edari: That’s right. Of course, they probably don’t appreciate it now.
Mary Burke: No, they don’t.
Vata Edari: But when they’re our age they will, right?
Mary Burke: Yeah. When you look back, what would you tell your younger self?
Vata Edari: I wouldn’t change anything, which is tough to say, because I’ve been through a lot of trauma and a lot of hardship. But I wouldn’t be here right now if I hadn’t gone through those things. I would tell my younger self not to be so scared, to know that you’re going to land on your feet, and you’re going to be okay. But you’ve got to be strong. Had I known that, I could have avoided some unnecessary pitfalls, and made better choices.
Everybody asks me, “Why would you become a chocolatier?” I wanted to figure out the answer to that question. How do I answer this and stay true to myself? What’s an authentic, real answer? But looking back, there is no answer. It’s just what I’m doing, and it’s, to me, a natural progression.
I use both my talents in both professions. I gift chocolate to lawyers, and I need a law degree to run my chocolate company. They are strangely complementary. At the beginning of this year, I had an epiphany where I felt really grateful for every experience I’ve ever had, bad and good, and just figured, “You know what? I had to go through all of that to get here. I had to go through it.”
I like where I’m at right now. I’m tired, don’t get me wrong—I don’t have this glamorous chocolatier life. But this is my third baby, this chocolate company. I’ve committed to it, and I’m all in. I think it’s important to be in touch with your character traits and know if you are the kind of person that jumps ship when things get tough.
When I started this, my first piece of equipment was a little box with light bulbs in it. It’s a chocolate melter; it’s a $500 piece of equipment that costs $15 to make, but it’s indispensable to a small chocolatier.
Even at that point, I knew that I would get cold feet and want to jump ship, so I put systems in place to make sure I wouldn’t do that. It was another big move when I built the kitchen. That was one of the reasons I didn’t tell anybody. I knew that I was vulnerable and really susceptible to those voices of doubt, because I had my own doubt. I’m a single parent with two kids and have a solo law practice! So I just did it quickly and quietly. Then, I posted it on Facebook and said, “Look at my kitchen, everybody!”
You’ve got to know yourself, and ask, “Is this what I really want to do?” Then, you have to figure out a way to structure it in such a way that you accomplish it, and don’t back out.
Mary Burke: Did you talk to other entrepreneurs before doing this?
Vata Edari: I did. I sought out chocolatiers in particular to see if it were even a viable thing. I talked to several folks in town, and I also traveled to Vegas. I also found mentors in the chocolate industry. I have a mentor in Colorado; he’s a Belgian master chocolatier.
Mary Burke: Was it difficult to find mentors?
Vata Edari: Honestly, it wasn’t. I think when you put a call out there, the world opens up. That’s the other valuable lesson I learned: once you start letting go of the self-doubt we impose on ourselves to hold us back, a whole universe opens up.
Mary Burke: Did you ask for help?
Vata Edari: I just sent an email. I was looking for an inexpensive source for couverture chocolate, which is what we use. I was on a blog called The Chocolate Life and found a distributor. From there, it just started building momentum. I have a mentor from Belgium, and he connected me with all these other people. The world of chocolate is very open; it’s a very male-dominated world still on the international scale. But they’re very open, and if you reach out and ask questions, they’ll respond. You just have to have the boldness to do so.
Reaching out to people for help was the most important things I did. One of the first pieces of advice I got was to start investing in equipment first. Then, when I went to France, that was the “make it or break it” moment. It was a very intensive course, and you’re on your feet for 12-hour days.
After that, and after touring the chocolatiers in Paris, I just decided: “This is it. This is what I want to do. I want to be like these guys when I grow up. I want to take that to Madison.”
I think a lot of times it’s hard for us to ask for help when we have an idea, because we assume people are going to think we’re stupid for wanting to do it. “Why would you want to be a chocolatier as a lawyer? That doesn’t make sense. You’re going to just put all this money into this thing, it’s not going to happen, and you’re going to be embarrassed.”
I’m a stubborn person, which is good for being in business. You have to be. You have to have a lot of fortitude, and you’ve got to stay healthy. That’s always tough when you’re sleep deprived. I’ve got character traits that make me a good businesswoman. It’s just stubbornness, and part of that is from being kicked around a lot.
Mary Burke: You said you wouldn’t change anything. Thinking back to that point when you started out, are there any things that you might have done differently? What would you say to other entrepreneurs? At some point, there is going to be a young person who reaches out to you and asks for mentoring.
Vata Edari: There are small things and there are big things. There are definitely things in my business where I’m like, “Oh man, I should have invested in more of these molds so I could do more than one of them right now.” But I would say the same message to all women thinking about starting a business, and that is just to have faith in yourself.
I think if I had more faith in myself earlier on, I may have started this a year earlier. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In fact, I may have done this instead of going to law school. When we look at doing something we love, we don’t think we can’t do it as a business or a way of life. We’re taught that we have to go to school, get a job, work for somebody else, build up our retirement, and just work, work, work until we retire. That’s what we’re trained to do.
When I went to law school, that’s what I was thinking. If I had the kind of moxie that I have now, maybe I would have been a chocolatier 15 or 20 years ago.
Mary Burke: Hey, better late than never, right?
Vata Edari: That’s true. My advice would be that you’ve got to overcome your fear. Think about the story that you want being told about you to yourself. Don’t worry about what other people’s stories would be, and what other people think. What’s your story? What life do you want to live? What’s your vision for yourself? Then, make it happen. I’m not saying anybody can do it. You can’t just leave your job and pursue your passion. That’s not what it’s about. It’s not fun or easy. It’s hard. It’s harder than working for somebody else.
Mary Burke: Oh yeah. Definitely.
Vata Edari: But it satisfies you on such a deeper level, that if you can do it, and you can make a break from this conventional model, it’s just so…. I don’t know. It connects you with people on such a deeper, more meaningful level.
I love what I’m doing now. Feeding people is such a primal thing. I love it, and it’s a way to transcend a lot of barriers. Like my saffron truffle—there are a lot of people who’ve never heard of it. They’ve never tasted it. I grew up eating it because my stepdad is from Iran, and it’s a way for me to educate people about something that they wouldn’t otherwise know anything about. I love the connections that I’m building by being a confectioner.
Mary Burke: Last question. What’s next? What’s that dream? What is the story that you’re writing for yourself?
Vata Edari: It’s funny you ask, because that dream is going to have to happen this year. This is my “go big or go home” year. I have to get employees, get a larger space, and scale up this year. My lease is up in September, so my vision is to have a shop, like one of the shops I went to in Paris. To make this a reality, I would have a production site. I would create jobs for people who also love chocolate, be able to pay a team a wage that they can truly live from and help grow this dream with me.
It’s very alluring. I like the personal connections, being in the shop, and producing. I want to scale up, but I can’t imagine growing it to where I’m just overseeing it all. My vision for myself is to always be involved in my production line, creating new things, and training people.
I love teaching about chocolate. Chocolate is a huge industry. It’s like a 20-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and the fine chocolate segment is the smallest, but the fastest growing. People are more educated about what we consume, and people are willing to pay more for high-quality food and eat less. We’re learning the joy of moderation, finally, in this country. When I was little I would sit down and eat a whole Charleston Chew, and get it for a quarter.
That’s losing its appeal, even to children. I think it’s really good. It’s a progressive shift in how we think about food and what we put in our bodies, and how we connect with artisans who are making the things that we put in our bodies. That’s my vision, to create this chocolate queendom that’s not too big, so I can keep the integrity of my product intact.
Mary Burke: Well, I’d suggest that everyone go to your website. What’s the website?
Vata Edari: It’s www.CocoVaa.com.
Mary Burke: Even your boxes are just beautiful. They’re works of art, and the chocolate is even better. Vata, thanks so much for being with us today and we wish you the best on your journey.
Vata Edari: Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure.