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10 Minutes With the Co-Founder of Green & Black's, Jo Fairley

We caught up with entrepreneur Jo Fairley to talk about the importance of mentors, setting boundaries and switching off on holiday, plus a love of sea swimming.

Organic chocolate Green & Black’s is a household name, co-founded by Jo Fairley 30 years ago with her husband Craig Sams. The brand was sold to Cadbury’s in 2015, but Jo remains involved as a Chocolate Ambassador travelling the world as it continues to grow in the US, Australia and Europe. In 2008, Jo and Craig released their now best-selling book Sweet Dreams: The Story of Green & Black’s, which shares the story of how they built this international award-winning brand fêted both for its quality and for its ethical credentials.

Jo left school at 16 (with six O Levels) and by the age of 23 was the youngest-ever magazine editor in the UK. She now runs Judges Bakery and The Wellington Centre, an 11-room ‘boutique’ wellbeing centre, in her home town of Hastings. She juggles this with her writing career and she is the co-author (with Sarah Stacey) of the bestselling Beauty Bible book series - the most recent being The Green Beauty Bible.

Jo is a ‘matron’ of the Women’s Environmental Network, runs makeover workshops for young women at Centrepoint and sits on the Human Rights Watch Film Festival committee. We caught up with Jo to talk about the importance of mentors, setting boundaries and switching off on holiday, plus a love of sea swimming.

What was your first ever job?

I was a secretary to two crusty old professors in the Geography Department of London University. I thought I would die of boredom typing papers all day on the geomorphology of deserts, and left after three months with the curse of my tutors – ‘You HAVE to stick your first job out for a year, or you’ll never get another job’ – ringing in my ears. I have defied their doom-laden predictions.

When and where did the idea for Green & Black's come about?

As a journalist, I never planned to go into business. I was happy writing about other people doing exciting things. But finding two squares of dark chocolate from a sample bar of the world’s first organic chocolate sitting on my natural food entrepreneur husband Craig Sams’s desk – the most delicious chocolate I’d ever eaten – made me urge him to launch it.

His then-brand Whole Earth was built on the premise of ‘No Added Sugar’, and chocolate has sugar in it, so he turned round and said: ‘If you’re so interested, why don’t you do it?’ It was my £20,000 nest egg from selling my flat that bought the first two tons of chocolate.

What would you say is your biggest career achievement to date?

The way our values have rippled out into the wider organisation, Mondelez, which now owns Green & Black’s. We know that our relationship with our growers and Fairtrade engagement was the inspiration for them to start their own incredible Cocoa Life project in West Africa, with a $400 million investment to help farmers and their families improve their standard of living. I am so proud still to be involved with the company, and in my role as ‘Chocolate Ambassador.’ (There really are worse jobs.)

What is the one thing you would tell your younger self?

Those people who tell you you’ll never amount to anything… ? They’re wrong. It’s not you. It IS them. Oh, and keep the faith: it really is going to be OK.

What is your career plan B?

Fashion designer – SO glad I didn’t go down that route.

How important are mentors when starting up a business and who was yours?

I was lucky enough to have had the support of Anita Roddick, who kept my passion blazing when things got tough. She also, crucially, opened up her Little Black Book of contacts to me, introducing me to the Social Venture Network, an organisation of entrepreneurs who were trying to do good through doing business. Craig and I went to many of their conferences and got to exchange ideas - not just with Anita and Gordon (Roddick), but also Ben and Jerry (yup, THAT Ben & Jerry) and Gary Hirshberg (who went on to sell his organic yoghurt business to Danone), which was incredibly helpful. I now mentor others, and always say to people: don’t be shy to ask for support, because the most successful people do want to pay it forward.

How has the last year in business been for you?

It was also very good for Green & Black’s, as chocolate is a small pleasure that made life feel that bit more worth living at a difficult time, so sales were great. In terms of working from home, Craig and I have done that for decades. I am delighted that so many organisations now realise how productive people can be at home.

What are your passions outside of business?

Swimming for nine out of 12 months a year in the English Channel, which happens to be at the end of our street; gardening; photography; going on courses to learn stuff. I am not someone who can put her feet up, except once a year on a two-and-a-half-week battery-recharge winter sun holiday, when I seem to be able to do that extremely well.

What piece of business advice have you heard that really stuck with you?

'Things only get done if you DO them.’ Sounds so basic, but I am a roller-up of sleeves, and like to write lists and make stuff happen. The point is, we all know people who love to TALK about doing something, but never actually get around to it or are actually too scared to try.

What are the pros and cons of going into business with your spouse?

The pros include absolute mutual trust, shared sense of humour and enjoying the journey together. Cons, potentially: talking about business all our waking hours. So, I realised that I had to set some boundaries. I made a rule that after we’d walked around the neighbourhood each night for a walk, we didn’t discuss business until the next day. Business talk is also banned on holiday. It seems to have worked. This is not just the 30th anniversary of the launch of the world’s first organic chocolate, Green & Black’s, but our 30th wedding anniversary. Looking back, I am still not sure how I managed to pull off both those in one year!

By Judy Cogan