EP 239: The Unexpected Path from Corporate to Becoming a Chocolate Sommelier, with Estelle Tracy
In 2015, Estelle, a French native, resigned from a career in proposal development at an ERP software company to meet the demands of mothering a child with special needs and a new baby. Shortly after, she turned published a food survival guide for French people in the US. Next, she challenged herself to review 37 chocolate bars in honor of her 37th birthday that Halloween.
Estelle is now an award-winning food writer and chocolate sommelier. In this episode, we talk to Estelle about her journey and the creation of 37 Chocolates, a chocolate education company.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today, we welcome Estelle Tracy. In 2015, Estelle, a native of France, resigned from her corporate role to care for her daughter and turn her idea for a food survival guide for French ex-pats into a book. Seven years later, Estelle is an award winning food writer and chocolate sommelier. In this episode, we talked to Estelle about her journey and the foundation of 37 Chocolates, a chocolate education company. And I want to add that our iRelaunch team had the most fabulous session with Estelle, as part of 37 Chocolates, where we did a lot of chocolate tasting, and discovery, and it was delightful and fun, and team-building. So I'm so excited Estelle to be talking with you today, and welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.
Estelle Tracy: Thank you, Carol, I am super excited too, to talk about chocolate.
Carol Fishman Cohen: One of my favorite topics, right? Okay. But before we get can you give us a little more detail about your background and what you did before you stepped away from the corporate world?
Estelle Tracy: Yeah, so yeah, I feel like I've had a bunch of lives crammed into one, which is super fun. As you mentioned, I'm originally from France, and, I studied, I have a master's degree in chemistry, in analytical chemistry. And, I really didn't spend a lot of time working in the chemical industry though.
I met my husband in the US, I found my first job in the US doing business intelligence for a French oil company, in PA, so in the Philadelphia area. I met my, the person who was going to become my husband, is still my husband, at the cafeteria while trying to be a better English speaker. And, but it was very, I know I wasn't very excited about any type of lab work.
And after one year doing further business intelligence for another small company, I actually left the chemical industry altogether to work for an ERP software company for almost 10 years. And what I was doing there is, I used to coordinate / project manage proposals for our higher education clients.
So it was a higher education tech company, and I was specifically hired because I'm fluent in French. And, at the time they were looking for a French speaker to coordinate proposal development for a French Canadian client. And so that is actually an important part of this whole story, because I became very close with our French Canadian account managers in the company, and we've stayed friends to this day and she plays a very big role in my chocolate history. We'll get there at some point, but that's really how I got started. Then, I wasn't just assigned to Canadian clients, but I worked in proposal development for almost a decade. I was part of a wonderful team. I'm still friends with so many of them and, that, yeah, that was really my longest career stretch, consistent, so that was those 10 years. And yeah, and that's the job I left in 2015.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, so that's super interesting. Can you tell us what led you to resign from your role and ultimately take your career break?
Estelle Tracy: Yeah. So there were a combination of several things, and I feel looking back now, I realize like everything collided for me to step away. So first of all, by 2015, when I left, by then I had two daughters. So one who has special needs, my oldest daughter, who was born in 2007.
And then I became a mother of a second child who was born in 2013. And, I had thought that juggling parenting with that job was starting to get really complicated. So I didn't anticipate that this coordination / juggling will be so hard because I felt like, okay, I've done this once, the first time has to be harder.
And I just realized that, okay, I came to the realization, I did not love the job enough, or felt like the job was meaningful enough to justify the toll it was taking on the family. I was also, learning for me is very important and, I had come to a point where I wasn't learning that much anymore.
And another important thing is that the company had been sold. And with that came changing the culture of the company. And I remember coming back from maternity leave and having that realization like this isn't the place I left. And I feel like all of this happened at the same time. I remember working on a project that was really, it was September 2014, I wasn't liking the way it was handled.
And I said in the morning, I said to my husband, I wish I did not have to go to work. And then, I said it in a very calm tone. Cause I'm very fiery, I'm very passionate, very fiery. And that evening, my husband said, you said this, he's very calm,
not like me. And he said, you said that you said this, like you said, you didn't want to go back in such a calm way, it got me thinking. And you don't have to go back. I want you to know that. And I let that sink in, and I said, yeah, but I don't know, I don't want to leave for the sake of leaving, I need to know where I'm going. Until I figure this out, I don't want to leave.
I eventually left, March 7th, 2015 was when I left. I gave the company a month's notice and the reason ultimately I left is that. I had essentially looked under every rock and realized that I was gonna leave that job to go back to another corporate environment. And my husband and I discussed and we're like, okay, we need somebody, we had started having caregivers, we were in a caregiver pickle. That's the best way I can put it. And we thought we need somebody to be with our oldest daughter during the summer, after she goes to summer school and she says, we still need, we need somebody to be with her.
And we thought, okay, so I'm going to leave this company. I'm going to leave that job. And I still don't know what I'm going to do next, at least not very precisely. But we agreed on, you know what, give yourself six months and do whatever. I had a bit of money saved up, but my husband has a full-time job. And we're like, okay. Six months of play is the best way to put it.
Carol Fishman Cohen: It was a sabbatical.
Estelle Tracy: Yeah.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, so, you had the six-month period, and probably for, I don't know if it's the first time in your life, but after a very long period of time, maybe this was one of the first times that you made a decision without having an actual plan, except that it was going to be for six months.
And, we're laughing about, you can do whatever you want. And, you also, you have two kids, you have a child with special needs, and you're really at a crossroads in terms of what exactly you want to do next, except that you don't want to return to a corporate environment.
So can you talk to us a little bit about what unfolded during that six month period, or did nothing really unfold as far as figuring this out and you ended up having a longer period of figuring out? What happened once you were in that, you left and you're in that six month period?
Estelle Tracy: Yeah, so I had a one month plan that's to this day, I'm still working on this one month plan turned into seven years. But yeah, so we're going to take a step back and actually go back to 2004, when I started at the time one of the very first food blogs in French language. And so it was called “le hamburger et le croissant” which translates into hamburger and croissant, and those were there, and there is a reason for that. So my husband is from the US and I'm from France, and I didn't, I wanted to do something fun for our centerpieces. And so we had a plate in the middle of each table with one hamburger and one croissant.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. This is from your own wedding, you've got the name of the food blog.
Estelle Tracy: So that's what we did for our wedding. And, I wanted to start a food blog at least, it turned very quickly into a foot blog, but I wanted to start a blog in French language. That was the beginning of blogs. And the reason was that I was kind of depressed that my English was still not good, not as good as I wanted it to be. And I was starting to lose my French. I was starting to forget about spelling and I thought, oh my gosh, so now I suck at two languages. So isn't that great. So I thought, okay, I need to do something. And so I started this food blog specifically in French language. And, two years into the blog, what happened is that, I was really interested in ingredients in the US and, and the difference with their French counterparts. Because one big shock I had coming to the US is that, we all talk about being in a global world, and globalization and so on and so forth.
And because of that, I expected to find exactly the same food that I had in France, in the US, packaged in a similar way, find the same brand. Because of this, just in my early twenties, what did I know about the world? And I just was, so I felt like I just, nothing prepared me for the shock of grocery shopping in the US.
And, yeah, it's funny, and at the same time, it's really, who thinks about that? We think about our visas and what am I going to find an appointment? And that aspect of things that carry us through daily life, it's something that we don't think about, specifically in the dairy department.
Uh, ailes. In France, baking powder is packaged in small pouches and, in the US it's sold usually in these little cans. And in France yeast is mostly sold fresh. And yeast is sold in these little pouches in the US. So I cannot tell you how many people from France want to make a cake, buy yeast instead of baking powder, and then lament that this is a really bad tasting cake. Oh, why didn't that rise? And so they are so, there's an adjustment. And I have published three blog posts in 20-, in 2006, two blog posts, three blog posts about the difference between a dairy primer, baking aisle primer. And I had compiled them in a 12 page PDF for my blog.
And, that was essentially, I called it the Food Survival Guide for French people in the US, and I just gave it away for free. And this was the time before smartphones, before Kindle, before E readers like, oh, before tablets. For the following nine years, I heard about I reconnected with like childhood friends through this book because the word of mouth was surreal.
And people told me about this book for nine consecutive years. And then told me, you need to add the chapter on meat, and you need to add the chapter on potatoes, and you need to talk. Like people gave me an entire over nine years, they gave me a table of content of what the book should be. And right. Yeah, and it's the dream when you start a business to have so much feedback.
And I never intended for this to bring an income or anything like that. But then what happened is in, two, if I left my job in 2015, 2013-2014, I started knitting. And I saw people. I was very active on Ravelry, which is a social media for knitters and crocheters, and I saw these people making money selling their PDF patterns.
Oh. And, there are some superstars on the website. And I thought, if they can sell like a three page instruction for five, or seven dollars, what I can sell, a book, right? Nobody is ripping them off, or if they are not enough to the point of hurting their income. I said, I'm going to do this e-book about my food survival guide. And so using purely my Microsoft word skills and no cover page whatsoever, I put together, I think it was a 48 page PDF. So back to 2015, I decided, what all these people for all these years have given me a table of content of what this book should be. If I'm going to do this thing, it may as well be now.
A lot of the content I had developed bit by bit on my blog. So the first draft of the book was, essentially 80% of it was done on my blog. So what I did is I took it, edited it, added to it, came up with like a coherent table of contents. And I put it all on Microsoft Word. And so,April 7th, 2015, I put it, put it up for sale.
And I made my first sale of the book that day of somebody from my audience and all that. And it was interesting because I thought, okay, maybe I'm just gonna take it easy for the following five months, but I just was like, I know the value of this book has, and I have to keep pushing this. I need to promote this. And so I got into Facebook groups, and got back into the French community, and then more word of mouth, like good PR. And, but still that wasn't, that promotion work wasn't a full-time job. This was just something to do over the long-term.
And we were talking about my Canadian account manager friend a little bit ago. What happened is at the time she and her best friend turned 50 on the same day. They were born in the same hospital on the same day, and their moms are like best friends. And they decided they would run 50 K in honor of their combined 50th birthday.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow.
Estelle Tracy: Yeah, and she was not really a runner before. Yeah, so I, and so she's a, she lives, her name is Nicole and she lives in New Brunswick, and she FaceTimed me at the end. By then I had left the corporate job, she was still there. And she was like, she was beaming. And he looked so accomplished and I kept thinking, oh my gosh, wouldn't that be amazing if that's how I felt for my own birthday. So long story short here, let's just say she inspired me to sample and review 37 chocolate bars in honor of my 37th birthday, which happens to fall on Halloween.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh, perfect timing.
Estelle Tracy: Exactly. And so that's, of course being, I've always loved food. I had a food blog. I, and why did I pick chocolate specifically? It’s because we have a coffee shop. So I live in a small town outside of Philadelphia and we have this really nice coffee shop, and I saw a whole shelf of chocolate bars that look different from the grocery store. There was always a name of a country that usually, I could on place on the map, and the price tag was not the same as the grocery store. It was a lot more, like, it was to like at least 2, 3, 2 or three times more. And I thought, okay, if I ate my way through all of this, I would find out what the significance of this country is and the pricing is. And that's where, combining my friend's experience, like her personal challenge with what I was seeing at the coffee shop, I merged those two and that became 37 Chocolates challenge.
So that's what tied me over the following five and the little more months, that's what, I was busy. And when my oldest daughter was at summer school, I would go, so I would have my chocolate that would film like YouTube videos in her bedroom. And, it was just like a couple of hours, but it was something creative.
And it was so nice to not have pressure of money at that time. It's just I'm going to play with this, I'm going to just experiment and explore. And for me, the success will be to just bring the project to completion, actually eating, finishing those videos and put a bow on it, and that would be enough for me. And that's really where, how my chocolate journey started.
Carol Fishman Cohen: What a great journey and a great story. Thank you so much for walking us through that because for so many of us who are relaunching into an entrepreneurial venture, the question always comes up about. How did you do it? And how did it start? And, sometimes we hear that people started really intentionally with a business plan and a strategy. And other times we hear that it was really this organic process of this happened and that happened. And, and then ultimately I put it together. And I just love hearing when all of those pieces come together. And also the name of the company, 37 Chocolates, now we know why it's called that. So that's terrific. So when the company was 37 Chocolates, what was the business that you were actually doing?
Estelle Tracy: Ah, the business part that was a little tricky to come up with. At first I, 2015 after the challenge ended, I had built a nice reader base for my book in French, and I discovered so many amazing chocolate bars produced in Oregon or Indiana or places like that. And I thought, okay, I always figured that because I had built a trust with the French readership that they would follow me on the chocolate journey too.
And I remember buying very soon after my birthday, my first chocolate inventory and my thought was like, I'm just going to sell this chocolate to the French people living in the US. I forgot exactly how many bars I bought, but let me just say, I sold two chocolate bars to French people. And, and I thought, oh, there's this funny sound on Tik TOK, like, I saw it going differently in my head. Yeah. I saw it going very right. So I'm like, okay. And so I have this chocolate inventory and what am I going to do with this? And, I more or less invited myself to a pop-up sale at a local winery. I just, it wasn't a question. I said, I'm going to be there and that's, I have inventory to sell. And, and then realized that, okay, people need to sample the chocolate before they buy it. It's just very difficult to sell this product online. And, yeah, I needed to be able to tell the story of the chocolate to really guide people and let them sample. and I was able to move that inventory a little. And, but then again, I was like, I just was, I wasn't pressured financially.
My kid, my youngest, was still pretty young. I knew I, I like in my head, I'm like, let's try to figure something out by the time she hits kindergarten. So at the time she must have been two, two and a half and I'm like, okay, I still don't know what this is going to look like, but I know I have to persevere, that is my only, that was my only conviction.
And what happened is, I connected with a photographer on Instagram who introduced me to a local, super local journalist. And, he, he's, he was, I guess it was like a slow news day or news cycle, but bottom line, because I had started the 37chocolates.com as a blog a month earlier, he put me on the cover of the newspaper for Valentine's day. So yeah, and I was on the cover of newspaper and the headline was Blood Red by Thousands, and that was the headline, and with my photo, I'm like, okay, great. I went to the local library with my youngest daughter, and the librarian came and said, are you the chocolate lady?
And I said, yeah. Oh, I was wondering if you would be willing to host a tasting at the library. Oh, okay. In my head I thought, okay. There's just I didn't think about money or compensation, that librarian left and this, the person who covered for her started talking about compensation. I'm like, what, I'm going to make money?
And I was just so shocked, just, I've hosted, tasting at the library several times. And at some point, one of the librarians said, your fee is too modest. You might want to ramp it up. But, having learned those lessons from the French blog, I thought I'm going to, no matter what, pretend it's already a business, like act like this is a business, like approach it and carry myself, this is my business. And also, don't try to push it if the market isn’t ready. And so essentially I think the way we can summarize this is that I could see, I wanted to stay in chocolate, but I could see the market was not ready. And still, I just did the minimum to keep engaged while keeping the pulse on, on market.
And during that time, I learned things, I learned skills. And so, in part into freelance writing for instance, I developed almost 200 product descriptions for a French company. They wanted both in French or English, and that I was paid for it, but it effectively became my chocolate education. Because I ate so much chocolate, researched the heck out of so many companies. And to this day, I feel like I researched some of these companies so much, I feel that people know me. Because I feel like I was so intimate with them. So it was just like, it was a lot of learning. And there at times, my income certainly from all these ventures was very minimal. It was certainly not enough to support a family.
It was, I joked saying, I could pay the electricity bill. That's really the way I would put it, but I knew that I was in it for the long game. And, there was a lot of figuring out. Another thing that I ended up figuring out during that time, and that lasted, like the cycles were so long. Because of the library, because of the, one of my lectures at the library, actually one day, a month after one of these tastings, I got a message from one of the most prestigious golf clubs in the country, which happens to be local to Philadelphia. And the club manager said, our executive chef had the pleasure of attending one of your chocolate lectures and he wants to know if you could do something here for our members.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow.
Estelle Tracy: And that was, that opened, for me that unlocked the door. It took such a long time to figure out the format. We ended up doing a wine and chocolate pairing. They became a client and having such a prestigious client means that it's very easy for me to then pitch the other clubs, because it is just such a big name in its field.
And, for a couple of years, I ended up actually being known for wine and chocolate pairing events, between the clubs between the local wineries. I had enough to keep going. And I would say 2019 is really when I thought, okay, this is real. So just, so it took four years for me to be like, okay, this is gonna work.
I have something that is working. And that model was wine and chocolate pairing events, wineries and private clubs. That's the path I was on, and people did come to those events. And, yeah, so it did take a while. There was a lot of very long-term thinking, lots of patience.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And as we're wrapping up, can you tell us, just bring us to where you are today, and also that was 2019, and then all of a sudden COVID hit and we weren't doing in-person events. And how did that impact your business?
Estelle Tracy: Yeah, I was, as I said, a trajectory and I was all excited and March, 2020 happens, and our record is $0, 37 Chocolates has a $0 month in March. And what happened is that one could call it a career mini break, because now I had two kids to help with remote schooling. At the end of May, I had my first zoom tasting, a ticketed event to see is this something that could work? And it did. And people came and people from all over the country started coming.
So again, through word of mouth, my former editor at Edible Philly Magazine ended up being one of my biggest champions. She, I designed my first event around her needs, because she was the first to say, you know what, I'm interested in this. She gave me a shout out on her podcast and I was busy that summer.
And, and then I started having corporate events and working with event agents, and then things really took off. December, 2020, I was like, oh my gosh, I could not have imagined this to work out like that. And I feel I just, I was so grateful for, what I'm grateful for this new iteration of 37 Chocolates, which is really online chocolate tastings, just like you and your team have attended, where I shipped the chocolate to attendees all over the US but now all over the world, and we gather on zoom. I feel like this is really, this is so aligned with what I want to do, which is to really explain, really explain to people where this is where chocolate comes from, because we don't know where chocolate comes from. And I'm trying to condense all these years of experience, including the 37 Chocolates experience in a 60 minute format. And, I've learned so much over the past seven years. And my goal through these events is, as much as I love to, like chocolate right, comes from and look at this amazing flavors, chocolate is not just this one flavor, and also I've learned a lot about the science of, you know what I like a lot on the zoom format is being able to say, this is why you taste this. This is, you are a supertaster, this is why you're not gonna like this. This is, there's nothing wrong with you, it's not it's not you. And so I just, it's just so nice to bring that experience to I hope make people feel better about themselves, using chocolate as a vessel. But,
Carol Fishman Cohen: So one question, do you think your chemistry background was coming into play there when you decipher all of the different flavors and influences?
Estelle Tracy: I do. I do feel that's a great question. And it is where I feel the chemistry background, like I'm, I just, I love science. I love that I studied science. I think it's just such a good foundation for living life. And I had left a little bit that, that background behind and where I feel, where I feel it informs my job today is, it's the rigor and the discipline. And what I mean by that is that, there are a lot of, this is an example, people would say that the flavor of cacao is really impacted by the trees that grow in the farms. And it's a beautiful tale. And, I will go into the rabbit hole of researching the science and see if there is science published, if there is like a scientific paper.
And I cannot in good conscience, say presented as a truth, if I don't have science to back this up. I take that role very seriously. I was once reading these research papers in different, in different environments, but I feel we have, I know that this is very important to me and having that standard that, what can I back up with science, it's that rigorous. I think that I would be very careful to stick with what I know. And if I don't know where there's no science, I would present it as such. But I have found that there's a lot of people with a chemistry background in chocolate.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Interesting. Yeah. So there's some sort of connection there. So it's sort of like the connection between music and math, there's a connection there. And this connection is, I'm not surprised to hear that there are people in chocolate who have a chemistry background, because I don't know, you could think about how meaningful that base of knowledge would be.
Thank you so much for talking to us about the evolution of your book and business. It was really fascinating. And I want to know if we can close by asking you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something we've already talked about today?
Estelle Tracy: I guess now that I've been in it for seven years, like it's, that I've left my former job for seven years and I've, I've done the career break and I have a business that seems sustainable. I look back now and my kids are older. As you relaunch, I think we have to keep in mind that we set an example for our children or the youth around us, but also, our peers. And that, nothing is as strong, I think, as leading by example. And to have my youngest child now is eight, and to see her pride of her trying to draw art for my business, to see her wanting to be part of it and being proud of me, for me it's just, it just brings it full circle, and it's not an easy road for sure.
But at the same time, this is for me again, it was always obvious it would be, I would be in it for the long-term and I knew that this will be important for the kids or my friends. And, but I didn't understand, I didn't appreciate it until now how important that example would be and to not discount our example can really lead the way and pave the way for other people around us.
And, that can be a source of courage for us. I don't know if it's so much a piece of advice as encouragement, that this is so much bigger than you. And what you do is going to really, don't discount the fact that your example will have a ripple effect on your community. And, I think that's important.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. That's great, I think it is advice and I think it's also a reminder and, it's really important for our relauncher audience, because we are relaunching in all different ways. And we are an example in all the different ways that we relaunch. It's a really important point. I totally agree.
Estelle, can you tell our audience how they can find out more about 37 Chocolates?
Estelle Tracy: Yeah, so my website is 37chocolates.com. So 37, the number, and then chocolates, plural.com. And, I'm active also on LinkedIn. You can look me up at Estelle Tracy on LinkedIn and Facebook, 37 Chocolates, Instagram @37chocolates as well.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Perfect. Thank you, Estelle. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Estelle Tracy: Thank you, Carol.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to iRelaunch.com.
And if you liked this podcast, be sure to rate it on Apple podcasts and your favorite podcast platform, and be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media. Thanks for joining us.