Socialpreneur | Maddison Cowan & Semilla
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Ale: People already know me, so I’m not going to bore them with my introduction, but I’d love to hear a little bit about you and Semilla!
Maddison: First and foremost, I was raised on an organic farm in the Pacific Northwest and I am just super passionate about working with the earth and our farmers. I’ve studied permaculture design and herbalism, and my background is in community psychology - so it was a lot of working with the community as well as working with the Earth.
There was a long incubation time when I was figuring out when and how to drop my seed in for creating a business. It just kind of stumbled into my lap as I am really passionate about chocolate, I love cacao, and so I was just naturally bringing back full luggage bags of just cacao. And I would give it away as gifts because it’s something that’s really hard to find, especially in the Pacific Northwest, so I was kind of known as the girl who was always bringing back cacao.
And the seed, or semilla, was planted there as I decided to conglomerate my passions as well as my background. Regenerative agriculture is something I am super passionate about - rather than leave no trace, we ask, how can we optimize our trace that we have on the Earth?
Ale: I love that. Okay, so one thing you mentioned is that you are sourcing your chocolate in a sustainable way and that’s different, obviously, than Hershey’s or other companies are sourcing their chocolate. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Maddison: I’ve done a lot of research and, unfortunately, the deeper you dive in, the more you realize how “dirty” this industry is. 80% of the world's chocolate comes from West Africa. Cacao is not native to Africa, the only reason 80% comes from there is because there are very extreme human rights issues that get overlooked in that area. Child labour, unstable working conditions, long hours, all of the violations you can imagine.
Cacao is something that has been so manipulated and it’s something that, while most people have tried cacao, there is a lack of understanding where it comes from. There is a whole beautiful process to it that's been so manipulated to be this kind of “Factory farming” aspect of creating cacao.
Semilla stands out because we are not only sourcing criollo and native species of cacao, we are also sourcing from farming communities with people who work in harmony with cacao food forests.
Ale: I’m nerding out right now, it’s so shocking to see it because we’re so disconnected from where things come from, it's insane.
Maddison: Not just cacao, but in so many industries, we are lacking where the origin of where our foods, our clothing, our candles, are coming from. And as I mentioned, we go beyond fair trade. Fair trade is good as a sort of overarching organization, it’s a good baseline, but we can go beyond that. We can pay people a thriving rate, not just “Okay what’s minimum wage? Pay them that so we can be Certified Fair Trade.”. No, how can we support people to break that cycle of poverty that they have been pushed into after generations of colonization and abuse of these regions.
I feel that you should support businesses, not just Semilla, but other businesses that are doing their due diligence to really be loud and proud about where their origins are and their business practices and really just being transparent about it all.
Ale: I appreciate that, I feel like, as brands, we need to empower customers more to know what's going on behind the scenes so they can make the right decisions. I agree with you, going beyond the bare minimum is really really important.
So, it sounds like you want to change and disrupt the cacao industry and the way that these chocolate companies are sourcing their product. So I know you are going to launch a couple of products yourself, can you tell me a little bit about the products you’re going to go to market with?
Maddison: The first product that will be coming out in the Fall of 2022, is our 100% natural coco cubes, so think of it as a highly nutritious, 100% pure, hot chocolate. In the afternoon, sometimes we are reaching for the extra energizing pick-me-up, and that's really why I created this product. I always make a cacao in the afternoon, a midday cacao, and it gives me that light and subtle energy buzz. It’s perfect, I add a little bit of cinnamon and honey, blend it up with water, and add four cubes.
It’s not processed whatsoever, and has all naturally-occuring cocoa butters. It's literally just been fermented, roasted lightly, and then grinded and poured into molds and that's it!
Ale: That sounds so nice, I can’t wait to get my hands on some! Okay, the name Semilla, where did that come from? And also this jaguar, I want to know more about this beautiful jaguar.
Maddison: Semilla is the Spanish word for seed, and it came from planting seeds of change and planting seeds of the world we wish to see. When I’m onboarding team members or expressing the culture and vision behind the brand, it’s planting the seed for businesses to do good.
With everything that we do, from sustainable packaging, to interacting with our manufacturers and farmers, to having a low carbon footprint, it’s all coming back to planting seeds of change or wellness. Individual wellness, environmental wellness, community wellness - and just going beyond it all. So, that’s kind of where the name was inspired from, and also coming back to our roots because our products are from Latin America. Many people mispronounce it and call it Sem-ill-a, and it’s not pronounced like that.
Ale: Latin and Mexican words being pronounced in like americanized ways, I think it’s hilarious. But no guys, it’s Seh-mee-yah.
Maddison: The jaguar came from the Maya legend. In the legend, jaguars are called Ballam, which means “Creature of the night” and it’s highly revered in the Maya culture. Jaguars are seen to be lurking and intermingling through the cacao trees at night, which protects them from many other species. Maya farmers started to revere the jaguars as the guardians of cacao. So that’s really where our imagery is coming from because our roots are in cacao.
While we may offer other products down the line, stay tuned, our roots will always be in cacao and we really want to pay reverence to where our origins are coming from.
I don’t want to be another white woman saying “here are my products from an indigenous culture”. No, I’ve had to rewrite that to say: how can I amplify the voices and the cultures, and really appreciate these cultures and share their stories?
Ale: What was it about the Maya culture and cacao, why was it so revered? Can you tell me a little about the ceremonial aspect of cacao?
Maddison: Cacao was revered higher than gold in the Maya culture and it was given to those in royalty as well as warriors heading off to battle. It has energizing properties, but it was used to energize the physical and spiritual being. Cacao has this really beautiful heart-opening effect and it almost brings this sort of euphoric interconnectedness not only with yourself, and a higher being (whatever power you believe in), but also with nature.
It just really connects you and grounds you in the environment and taps into your heart space and it’s still held to this day by indigenous leaders. So, we have to do our due diligence and ensure we are appreciating cultures and not appropriating cultures.
I come from Native American roots, I am half Native American, I know I don’t look like it. My folks on my mothers side are from a Cherokee background. They were raised to almost white-ify their cultural background so we don’t really speak languages within our family, we are just American citizens.
My grandparents walked the Trail of Tears from Oklahoma to Washington State - they survived it, and were then integrated within society to be seen as United States citizens. That was the way to survive during that time, so that's another reason why it’s so important for me to really empower indigenous peoples, it comes from my background.
Ale: It's really interesting that you say “I don’t look Native American, but I am!”. I’m sure you’ve said that in the past to people and they’ve said “you don’t look like it.”. I am speaking out of experience. I tell people I am Hispanic and Latin, I think I look Mexi-Rican, but some people are like “Really? You just don’t look like it.”.
No, we shouldn't need to be justifying ourselves and why we don’t look a certain way. People think we’re supposed to look a certain way, but there's lots of people out there that look different. That makes me sad that you feel that you need to justify why you're interested in this and why you're the person bringing the culture of these chocolates to North America, when you're a “white woman” as you said, there is so much more to you than that. People need to, sorry this sounds so bad, but drop their shit a little bit.
Maddison: It definitely comes from that colonizer mindset and how am I supposed to look, you know? I am multicultural, which is most of the world these days.
Ale: What has been the most challenging part of creating and launching Semilla and what advice do you have for other people starting their entrepreneurial journey?
Maddison: The trickiest part was using sustainable packaging that has a low enough minimum order quantity (MOQ) for a startup brand to order. Most of these sustainable packaging suppliers require 10,000 - 20,000 units and I’ve been bootstrapping everything personally. I’ve been investing into it, so I don’t have the capital at the moment to invest into 20,000 units of packaging when I am launching one product.
We are open to North American suppliers and that’s it, because it can be cheaper to go overseas, but at what cost? I will not do something if it is not aligned with our ethics.
My advice for people starting their entrepreneurial journey is to make sure you love what you’re doing, because you will be doing it for many hours and if you don’t love it, it will show. You really have to be a self-starter as well, I could lay in bed all day if I wanted to, nobody is going to tell me what to do, but then nothing will get done. You either have to learn how to be a self-starter or already be one.
Knowing your working style and what hours fit you best as well as making sure you have that window of time where you won’t be distracted from work. When you’re starting the organization, you're putting a lot of energy into it, so if you don't love what you’re doing it's going to be challenging. I love the mission and what we’re creating, and that fuels me more than anything!
Ale: What’s next for you and Semilla?
Maddison: Our launch will be happening in fall of 2022, and that is the first product launch we will have direct to consumers. That will be through our e-commerce platform as well as potentially other platforms, but that is still to be determined. With that mentioned, that will be our 100% pure cacao line of products that are ready to drink and enjoy - just add water! Or you can be like me and just eat them! And that will be what's next on the plate for us.
Maddison Cowan is an impact-driven entrepreneur living between Seattle and Central America since 2017 while building Semilla Social Purpose Co. Semilla is on a mission to go beyond fair trade and redefine sustainability with bioavailable and delicious superfood products that directly combat deforestation and support farming communities within Central America. Semilla's first product launch, 100% natural cocoa cubes will be in Autumn 2022 - learn more here
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