Pam Williams, Ecole Chocolat
Occupation: Founder and lead educator of Ecole Chocolat Professional School of Chocolate Arts
Location: Vancouver, Canada
Year Founded: 2003
Known For: Creating the first extensive, online courses to learn how to become a bean-to-bar chocolate and/or chocolatier
Other Random Facts: Pam is a former director of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) and helped it grow quite a bit during her tenure. Ecole Chocolat has a pretty distinguished list of graduates, from chocolate makers at Dandelion, Ritual, and Palette de Bine to chocolatiers like EH Chocolatier, Cacao and Cardamom, and the Chocolate Lab.
Megan Giller: What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Pam Williams: A cowboy — note I didn’t say cowgirl. Cowgirls just stood around looking pretty or being rescued. I wanted the freedom to do all the fun stuff cowboys did: ride the range, explore the prairie, wrestle cattle (just kidding), have fun in the saloon, etc.
Megan: Why chocolate?
Pam: We were a chocolate-craving family. My mom didn’t enjoy cooking in general but could always be relied upon to create chocolate cake, brownies, or chocolate chip cookies. My affection for chocolate became a full-blown love affair in the spring of 1981. I’d moved from California to Vancouver, B.C., and I was looking to start a new business. I saw an article in (the now defunct) Gourmet magazine on the founding of Li-Lac Chocolates in New York and a lightbulb went off. Six months later we opened our store Au Chocolat and began selling luxury chocolates.
Megan: Why do you think women are associated so strongly with chocolate?
Pam: Because men have known forever that a gift of chocolate is a surefire way to our hearts. Just kidding…kind of! There was a time in history when chocolate was a luxury item that few could afford. A gift of chocolate was a way to show your affection and devotion to your loved one.
Megan: Do you think of yourself as a Woman (capital “W”) in the chocolate industry? Why or why not? And if yes, what does it mean to be a Woman in chocolate?
Pam: No, I never really thought of my career in the chocolate industry in that way. I started as a chocolatier, and there were a small but equal number of successful women and men to look up to. Just at this last FCIA meeting in San Francisco, I didn’t notice any imbalance in the attendees. It seems as women, we have self-selected the chocolatier business segment more often than the chocolate maker segment, but we are represented in both.
Megan: Why do you think there aren’t as many women making bean-to-bar chocolate as men?
Pam: I’m not sure what the definitive answer is, but I think it’s because a bean-to-bar business:
Is machine driven, and men seem to find machines much more fascinating than women do.
Is higher risk, as you need to invest a lot of financial resources into machines and beans before you have any product to actually market and sell.
May seem less creative and innovative compared to producing beautiful bonbons and confections.
With that said, there are many more women making chocolate now than there were even five years ago, and that has been wonderful to see.
Three businesses from Ecole graduates, all led by women: Mindo (chocolate maker left), Cacao and Cardamom (chocolatier, center), Palette de Bine (chocolate maker, right)
Megan: How do you find inspiration and creativity in your day-to-day work?
Pam: I love what I do, so both inspiration and creativity come easily. When I’m talking to a student or prospective student, I always come up with new ideas. At this stage in my career, seeing our students reach their goals and find success is super inspiring and keeps me going. Also I love social media, as we get see what our students and graduates are up to every day, as well as other chocolatiers and chocolate makers in our fine chocolate industry who are producing creative and innovative products.
Megan: What’s the one thing you wish people knew about chocolate?
Pam: That you get what you pay for. Cheap chocolate is just that, lots of cheap ingredients and very little cocoa. Upgrade your chocolate and your flavor expectations, people!!
Megan: What are you most proud of in your business life?
Pam: This is a toughie, because there have been a handful of “proud” moments over many years. But thinking back, most of them involve building a career or business that isn’t the norm. At one point in my early career in fashion in the ‘70s, I built a women’s swimwear department that grossed the second-largest sales volume in the US. In the ‘80s I opened my luxury chocolate shop in Vancouver when no one understood what fine chocolate was and built a successful business. In the ‘90s, in what many would consider my late career, I went back to school with a bunch of 20-year-old guys to become a multimedia programmer. I saw the Internet as being a game changer for business, and I wanted to know how it ticked.
Finally, in 2003 I created Ecole Chocolat. I saw a need for professional chocolate training — more than you could learn in a two- or three-day technique class — geared toward people who are interested in starting a chocolate business. It means so much to me to have been part of so many people’s journeys to a business or a vocation that they love. Many women have told us that they wouldn’t have thought about starting their own business prior to taking one of our programs.
Megan: What would you tell yourself 10 or 20 years ago that you wish you knew then?
Pam: Keep showing up (I guess now we call it being present), work hard and don’t sweat the small stuff, as life just gets better and better the more you learn and experience. Embrace change, as it’s the spice of life.
Megan: Name a woman, past or present, whom you admire.
Pam: Oh so many — but I think my top pick is always Julia Child, with whom I had the pleasure of sipping a cocktail or two with in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Watching her work her quiet magic on people was inspiring. She went her own way to build a successful career and lifestyle, all the while encouraging, educating, and sometimes haranguing us into appreciating good food that is well made. She kept showing up by doing something she loved, way into her 90s. I hope to be so lucky.
Know a woman in chocolate you’d like to nominate to be part of my Q&A series? Have a question you’d like to ask as part of my Q&A series? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!