Coucou Chocolate Aficionados,
As promised, we are bringing you an exciting look behind the scenes of Askanya Chocolates. There’s no better place to start than at the very beginning of my story.
Explore our fun Q&A to look back at my fun childhood growing up in Haiti.
Co-Founder | Askanya Chocolates
Q&A with Corinne, Co-Founder of Askanya Chocolates
Haiti is an enchanting island in the Caribbean. What was it like for you growing up there?
I had an amazing upbringing in Haiti. I grew up with my mom’s side of the family in Port-au-Prince. In the family home lived my maternal grandparents. my mother and two of my mother's siblings (the grown-ups). We were three kids: myself, my younger brother and my cousin (who was only six months younger than me) - she and I shared a bedroom until I left home for college. We had a large garden and pets. We also had the housekeeping staff (cook, cleaners / gardener).
Did you explore much of the island as a kid?
During the summer, we would go to the countryside with our maternal grandparents. They were from Ouanaminthe in the North-East, and we would drive from Port-au-Prince. On the way (it took more than 8 hours to get there), my grandparents would definitely highlight the different cities and sights we were passing:
- the beaches in the Côte des Arcadins
- the rice fields in the Artibonite department
- Gonaives - the Independence city
We would definitely stop in Cap Haitian to greet my great aunt (my grandpa's sister), before heading onto the last trek to Ouanaminthe.
There, we would go to the river, go to the binational market between Haiti and DR (Ouanaminthe is a border town), go get helados (ice cream) in Dajabon, play dominos in the evening and definitely attend the Aug 15th (fête patronale) events.
What was going to school like in Haiti?
We went to Catholic school - my cousin and I went to an all girls school and my brother went to the local all boys school. We had Sunday Mass and Sunday School at Church. First Holy Communion was a big deal in our community.
Once the lessons were taught and our homework was done, my cousin and I played Barbies. During the weekends and summers, we played lago (Haitian hide and seek), jump rode and ran around with the dog.
We had a lot of energy and rode our bicycles in the courtyard. Not to mention we watched plenty of TV (three kids and one TV – you can only imagine). I loved reading too, especially books from the ‘Martine’, ‘Comtesse de Ségur’ and ‘le Club des Cinq’ collections.
When we were younger, my grandpa would drop us off to school and my uncle would pick us up; at some point, we also had a driver. But, when we became teenagers, my cousin and I convinced my mom to give us a transportation allowance to take public transportation to school. Instead, we decided to walk to school (or rides with friends) and use the money to go to the movies on weekends at Imperial in Delmas.
How did you spend your teenage years? You three must have had a lot of adventures together.
Our parents were kinda of strict. As a teenager, I had to get permission to go out. My mom, aunt and grandma all had to say yes – all three of them – or else I wasn’t allowed to go out.
I was responsible for handling my grandma. My cousin was responsible for convincing my aunt. And, my brother would deal with my mom. So we each had to divide and conquer to convince them.
We were strategic too – we knew we wouldn't get permission to go out all of the time. So, we were willing to get a “no” for unimportant parties in order to secure more important ones like: close friends' birthday parties, Mardi Gras costume parties and end-of-year graduations parties.
Because I was a ‘good kid’, as I mostly got As (ended up skipping 5th and 8th grade), my strategy was to ask for permission when I brought in the report card. I would say “I want to go out and I’m taking my brother and my cousin with me.” That would generally work, so, yes, if you get the grades you can go out.
Growing up in Haiti,"play dates" were quite rare, but we had study dates. We would go study at a girlfriends’ house or they would come study at our home.
So, did you only visit the Haitian countryside during summer?
We had another aunt (my cousin's mom) who lives in the US. The deal she had with my mom was that the three kids would spend the school year in Haiti. Then in the summer, after our countryside visit with our grandparents, my mom would ship the 3 of us to my aunt who would be responsible for us.
We stopped those countryside visits as teens because they weren’t that fun anymore. My US-based aunt would travel with us during the summer vacation.
She took us to Bush Garden and Disney in Florida, to Los Angeles and to see the snow, one winter. My cousin and I even got to visit Paris and Nice in France for our 16th birthday. I got the travel bug from her.
We would also take advantage of our summer travel to do our yearly shopping...
When we went on vacation to the US, my mom would give us $100 USD each. She would tell us to buy everything we needed for the entire year. This meant we had to get everything from back-to-school shoes to outfits for any parties.
We had to buy it all.
So, we made sure that when we shopped we budgeted in advance. My cousin and I would plan together. “Okay, we’re going to that birthday party, this Christmas party, and the school trip to the beach."
We made sure we had outfits for the whole year because when the time would come, my mom would not buy it. And I promise you, she did not buy one thing for us during the school year. My mom would tell us “I already gave you $100 USD and you were supposed to budget your money for the year with it.”
You went to study Engineering at age 16. Did anyone in your family inspire you?
Well, my grandpa was a civil engineer and my grandma was a school teacher. My mom was a doctor, my dad was a doctor, my uncle was a civil engineer, while my aunt who lived with us was a project manager.My aunt who lived close by was a certified translator and her husband was a university professor. So yes, early on, it was clear that I would go to university too. It was a given. Although I was not interested in medicine (despite both parents being amazing doctors), I knew I would study something.
I also knew that I somehow would need to give back. The members of my family in addition to their careers (engineer, doctor, translator) were all teaching, at the High School or University level. This was their way of giving back. Their way of passing their knowledge to the next generation. So using your education to give back was an important life value for me.
I wanted to do something in science or math, so I studied to be an engineer. Being an engineer, I figure, would help pursue a career where I could make a difference.
Surrounded by all of these inspirational role models, you must have learned some great life lessons. Does anything come to mind?
As a doctor, my mom was stationed in another town called Jacmel in South-East Haiti in the late 1990s. So, every Monday morning she would get the bus at 4am to go and see her patients.
One time I asked her, “Gee, why do you get up so early for the 4 AM bus to go all the way to Jacmel?” She replied “Well, I leave home early to get to the hospital in Jacmel at 7 AM. The farmers have been walking since Sunday, after church, to come to the hospital – I can't fail them.” That stuck in my mind early on. That I couldn't fail the less privileged.
So, is that where your passion to create a company in Haiti started?
You could say the initial idea was there. I didn’t know at the time that it would become the Askanya Chocolates we have today. Especially, if I am totally honest with you, I was not a chocolate lover growing up.
But one thing I know – I wasn’t interested in starting up a charity because growing up I’d seen a lot of the charities working in Haiti. Back then, I thought about it. I felt like most countries didn’t depend on charity, you know, to make the country get better. They depend on jobs, people who are engineers and architects. I wanted to empower people to be able to make a living
You mentioned that you saw a lot of charities working in Haiti. What did you see, if any, of the social issues on the island?
We were in the Haitian ‘middle class’ I would say if you had to define it. We went to a good school (one of the top 5 in the country) and we traveled once a year to the US to places like Miami, New York City and even Paris. We had food, pets we loved so, yeah we were living an amazing life in Haiti.
Although we were privileged we were aware of some of the poverty around us. home, we provided the cook with extra money to help pay for her grand-son tuition. If the housekeeper had a medical emergency, we would take them to our own doctor. They couldn’t afford medical treatment otherwise.
Is this where your passion to create jobs comes from?
Yes, I thought “I will create jobs, come and work for me, get paid decently. I didn't want to pay your kids school fees but give you a job where you could earn your own money and pay the school fees yourself”.
This is how I wanted to give back as a grown up, not like the NGOs I saw distributing rice. In school, we learned that this was in fact harming the Haitian economy. The homegrown Haitian rice became too expensive compared to the imported rice. I wanted to change the narrative and have high quality products made in Haiti. Let’s have more Haitian exports and less imported goods for a change! And by creating jobs, people can become independent and have more power over their own lives and financial decisions.
Stay tuned for more entertaining blogs. And, well, since you’re already here, you might as well stay for the chocolate. You know, you’re a chocolate lover and do-gooder too!
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