For the second installment of our Summer Spotlight Series, we sat down with Thereasa Black, founder and CEO of Bon Appesweet, a vegan artisanal chocolate bar brand that uses dates as sweeteners and has zero added sugars and zero sugar alcohols.
Thereasa walked us through her incredible story – from her start as a Naval Officer to the eventual founding of Bon Appesweet – and all the ups and downs she’s faced along the way.
The interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Trackmind: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Thereasa Black: I would want Jean Grey’s powers [from X men] so that I could move stuff with my mind. That would be so fun.
Trackmind: If you could have dinner with anybody, alive or dead, who would it be?
Thereasa Black: “Michelle Obama. I read her book and honestly I feel that the struggles and everything that she’s gone through, I can completely relate to…well not all of them…but a lot of them.”
Trackmind: So I know you are a Naval Officer, went to law school at George Washington University, graduated and are licensed and now you’re the founder and CEO of Bon Appesweet. Can you walk me through that timeline and the transition between everything?
Thereasa Black: Yeah, so I used to drive an aircraft carrier out of Japan, and I applied to law school while I was out there. As an officer, you have to request to get out of the military and so I ended up getting my paperwork to get out and I went to law school [at George Washington University]. As soon as I graduated from law school, I took the bar exam and the following Monday, I got a call from the Navy reserves, and they told me I was getting deployed for a year. And so that’s how it all ended up working out. At that time, my daughter was one and a half. And then I deployed six months later. So right before her second birthday. And it was during that time that I was just, honestly, I cried every day. I’m not going to lie. I cried every single day and I knew I could never deploy again.
Before I deployed, I had only given my daughter really healthy foods. And when I deployed, my family was just like, “Oh, finally. You can be a real kid. And here’s your candy and your treats.” And so she fell in love with that type of food. And so when I got back home, I was like, “You’re not eating this anymore.” And so I created these healthier desserts so that she could still eat the food that she loved, but with the ingredients that I loved. So that’s how this whole business actually began. It was me saying “I can’t deploy again. I can’t return home and work 80 hour weeks as an attorney. So I’m going to do my own thing.”
Trackmind: That is such an incredible story. And that’s why we wanted to reach out to you and do this interview because it’s inspiring to other founders, to other mothers, to other women. I’m curious what your experience has been like as a female founder. And if you feel like you have been treated differently, or if it’s worked to your advantage or disadvantage.
Thereasa Black: It’s interesting. I don’t know. It’s complicated, right? Because you don’t really know how your gender has impacted… Like when you’re trying to raise money or when you’re trying to talk to grocers or buyers, stuff like that. You don’t really know unless someone directly tells you. I know that being a Black woman founder is difficult when raising money because a lot of times investors look at you and they’re just like, “We can’t see ourselves.”
A lot of times investors say, “I can see myself in this person, so I’m going to invest in them because that was me.” Right? But when you’re a Black woman and they’re a White male, they’re never going to see themselves in you. And so they’re never going to have that nostalgic feeling when they’re just like, “I want to give to you because you remind me of myself when I was your age.” So you never really have that opportunity or that situation. Honestly, I’ve never sat across the table from a Black female investor and got to pitch my brand.
Trackmind: Well, it’s incredible that you’re forging the way and maybe one day a young founder will be sitting across from you pitching their company. So what was the biggest roadblock that you faced starting Bon Appesweet? Or a challenge that you’re facing now?
Thereasa Black: I think that my biggest challenge so far has always been just that nobody will take a chance in our products. When you have a brand new food product, and it’s something that’s different than everybody else is selling, people have to try it. Before I pivoted to Bon Appesweet, I started a gelato company. During COVID we couldn’t give out samples due to health concerns, so I had to convince people to spend all this money on something they couldn’t try. Our products are expensive because we use super high end ingredients. And so you have to convince people it’s going to be worth it. And so you have to just figure out how to be the best salesperson in the world. Because our pints of gelato were $14 a pint.
But I just worked at it, you know what I mean? I remember at one point, I was working full time in addition to starting my gelato company. I would get off of work on Friday, be up all night, making the gelato for the farmer’s market, and go to the farmer’s market until they closed at 12:30pm. Then I would pack up, drive straight to a winery [where I sold gelato], and set up at the winery. And then at the end of the night, close up, wash all the dishes. By the time I would get to sleep, it would be one o’clock in the morning. Then I’d wake up at four o’clock the next morning to do the same thing again. And then when Monday came, then it was time to go back to my full time job. That was my life for a while because I wanted to make my business work.
Trackmind: What was the light at the end of the tunnel during this time?
Thereasa Black: That I was home with [my daughter] Bella. Knowing that I wouldn’t have to get deployed again.
Trackmind: Thank you for sharing that story with me. Because I think a lot of people see the success of a brand or what’s on social media or their website. And they don’t see the sweat you’re putting into it, the manpower or woman power that goes into making a business successful.
Thereasa Black: Yeah, you don’t ever see it. And everybody always thinks, this person had such good luck. Or this person had so many breaks. There are still people that tell me that. One person said, “Oh, you’re pretty. That’s the reason you’ve gotten what you got.” And I was just like, “Oh, okay. It has nothing to do with all the ridiculous hours I’ve worked?” Or when [some people] say, “Oh, you’re Black, so you get breaks.” I’m just like, “What?”
Trackmind: Oh my god.
Thereasa Black: Yeah. I hear it all. And people say it to me all the time. And for them, it’s okay. It’s okay in their minds. It’s an okay comment to make, and it’s something that they actually believe. And so it’s always… I don’t know. It’s just, it’s interesting when it happens. Sometimes I just let it slide. And other times, I’m just like, “Okay, well, do you think that this was because I’m Black?” You start going into all the stuff that you’ve done, and ask them if being Black had anything to do [with it]. You know what I mean?
Trackmind: Those people are ignorant. Not only have you built this incredible brand, but you were a Naval Officer, you graduated from law school and you’re a mother. It’s incredible what you’ve accomplished. What has been the most rewarding success you’ve had unrelated to your professional life?
Thereasa Black: The most rewarding success that I’ve had? I think just generally, honestly, the way that [my daughter] Isabella has developed. When I deployed, I really thought that she was going to have a lot of serious problems because of having the only person in her life abandon her. She literally thought I moved into another house by myself and just left her.
That type of abandonment, that’s deep, and that’s big, especially at such a young age. And so the fact that she’s been able to overcome that and not just overcome it, but she’s so good in school and she already has that mindset of “I can do anything…” If you ask her “What are you going to be when you grow up?” she’ll go, “Whatever I want.”
Trackmind: That is incredible. Do you have any advice for founders that are either trying to get their companies off the ground or have a dream to start a company?
Thereasa Black: Entrepreneurship is a challenge and it’s difficult, and it’s a lot of work. But if you have prepared and you believe in what you’re doing, and you’ve done the research, then just work on it and don’t just give up because someone tells you that you can’t do it or because somebody else failed.
And honestly, if you’re at a point where you’re just like, “Oh man, I don’t think this is going to work,” then pivot.
You don’t have to just keep doing something because you started doing it one way. I started making gelatos. I thought it was going to be a really good opportunity. And honestly it tasted really good. And it was growing pretty well, but you can’t ship ice cream cheap. And so it cost me a hundred dollars to ship gelato to one person. And UPS isn’t guaranteeing their delivery times. So if they don’t deliver it on time, that’s $200 I’m out of now because I had to ship it to the customer twice. And so at some point I just said “this is not going to work. I’m going to pivot.”
You have to be fluid. You have to be able to say, “Okay, this isn’t working. Let me try something else.”
Trackmind: I love that message of pivoting and adapting when things aren’t working.
Thereasa Black: Yeah exactly. I ran my gelato company from 2019 to 2021, and then I pivoted to chocolate. And in those two years I was doing gelato I only got into one grocery store. I pivoted to chocolate in 2021 and by the end of September of this year, we’ll be in over two hundred stores. And so it’s just obvious I needed to pivot. If I had stuck my feet in the ground, where would I be? Maybe at two stores?
Trackmind: That’s awesome. Okay, what’s next for Bon Appesweet?
Thereasa Black: Right now, honestly, I’m trying to control the growth. I’m trying to slow it down a little bit. I have too many grocery stores asking me to come into their stores. You don’t want to put your product into a grocery store and then only have one or two customers try it. Because then you get cut out of the grocery store. You need people to try it. That means you need to go out to the stores and offer samples. You need to be working for the people who you’re selling to. You can’t just leave them high and dry. And so I don’t want to get too many stores too quickly because I won’t be able to support them. And so what I’m trying to do is just pump the brakes a little bit. For now, we’re going to focus on the stores that we’re in right now. Because they deserve that attention.