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Small business spotlight: Erin Kanno Uehara

Making and selling unique chocolate creations seems like the absolute dream job for many, but for UH Mānoa College of Education and Shidler College of Business alumna Erin Kanno Uehara, it was her true calling. After earning her Bachelor of Education in 2006, her Master of Business Administration in 2013, and years working a full-time job, Erin made a true leap of faith into becoming a small business owner by opening Choco le‘a, a gourmet chocolate company located in the heart of Mānoa Valley.

Erin knew she always wanted to help make this world a better place by connecting with people and investing in relationships. There is no doubt she has done just that, as Choco le‘a has integrated itself masterfully into Hawai‘i’s local business community with its mission of “bringing peace to our world, one chocolate at a time.”

In one of our sweetest small business spotlights yet, we asked Erin a few questions about her small business story, how her UH education has helped her along the way and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Choco le‘a.

What inspired you to start your own business?

God. That’s the truth plain and simple. I was happily working another full time job and accidentally met a long lost family member through chocolates. I wanted to get to know this family and build the relationship, and so did that through learning how to make chocolates with my Uncle Colins and Aunty Joan in their home. Over time, God put it in my heart that this was what he wanted me to do full time and to take the leap of faith to leave my successful position, pour my entire savings into Choco le‘a, and open a retail shop. Something I knew nothing about. I never dreamt of being a business owner or that chocolates would be my career, but I did know that I wanted to be obedient and follow the plans God had for my life (well honestly, I had some doubts and resistance at first). Since then, it has been the most challenging and yet rewarding experience. 

My faith in God and love for people, are the inspiration that led me to Choco le‘a.

What do you love most about your work?

There are a lot of things I love about my work! From the opportunity to empower others, encourage them to develop their strengths, and see the fulfillment of the big vision as we work together, to sharing great quality products made here in the islands for friends to enjoy and use to connect and celebrate special moments with others, to being an ambassador for small local businesses, working moms, and others taking steps in faith. But what I think I love the most, is my ability to connect with many different people, because many different people love chocolates! This work has become my platform to share my faith and the lessons I’ve been learning, the opportunity now, and our hope for our future.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of starting your own business? 

The most rewarding aspect of starting my own business is that I feel like I am LIVING every day and not just going to a job. I’ve been able to witness a vision come to life again and again. I am aligned with my God-given purpose, in an opportunity to work in my areas of strength and empower others to work in theirs. Together we’ve been able to learn and grow professionally and personally, and when we do, so does the business and everyone else we are connected to. 

The most challenging?

The most challenging aspect of starting AND maintaining my own business are the costs. The costs of doing business in Hawai‘i is very high as our costs of living here are high and finding the supplies we need are also minimal or need to be imported. And in our industry of artisan chocolate craftsmanship, our profit margins are small. There is a lot of hard work, time, and money required to continually operate. 

How has your UH education helped you in your career?

My bachelor’s degree in education has helped me tremendously in understanding how everyone learns differently, and how creative and patient I must be to help everyone to be successful. Not only for my team, but I have to educate our customers about our products, our company values, mission, story, how to order, etc. And because we are always innovating, we need to always be communicating with them however they can best receive the right information. There’s also a lot of collaborating with other partners, suppliers, other small businesses, non-profit organizations, and government. Learning how to work with very different people who have different backgrounds, personalities, and learning styles is the same thing that educators need to do with their students. And just like how we learned to teach our kids in schools, I find that these practices also apply to adults in businesses. We want to first be a positive example in showing others how to do something, then help them by doing it together with them, then watching them and letting go so that they can thrive on their own. 

Going through the Masters in Business Administration program taught me what my personal strengths and weaknesses are in business and that I needed to work together with others to get it all done. I learned how enjoyable it was when I worked in my area of strength and how I could contribute greatly. I learned humility when I worked in my area of weakness and how I needed to ask for help, rely on others, and acknowledge them for their contribution. I believe I received my MBA because of a lot of teamwork and so understood that for Choco le‘a to succeed, I also needed to create a diverse, reliable, and persistent team to work with.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your day-to-day operations?

When COVID-19 hit, we immediately lost and have still not re-gained about 70% of our business. We lost all wholesale accounts (eg: Moana Surfrider Hotel, The Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons etc), all large company corporate orders, catering, tasting, and pop-up events, export business to Japan, in-house chocolate making workshops, and retail sales from tourists and retail sales from locals taking our Hawai‘i exclusive omiyage on their travels. With the government shut down, we then lost the remaining 30% of our retail business from our walk-ins to the shop. With $0 income, we then began downsizing to cut costs and moved out of our second commercial kitchen and moved everything we could back into our tiny original kitchen adjacent to the shop. Since then, we have not yet opened our shop, but slowly started offering retail sales to locals through online pre-orders and curbside pick up once a week. This new way of getting our chocolates to our friends, changed our day to day operations and they continue to change as needed as we adjust to the changes around us.

All in all, we are much smaller and simpler, but still sweet and satisfying.

University of Hawai‘i Alumni