Ryan Cheney is the current Founder and Executive Chair of Raaka, an unroasted dark chocolate company that focuses on the trade transparency of their cacao sourcing. Ryan graduated in 2004 from Penn with a degree in Digital Media Design (DMD), then went on to work jobs in teaching, software, and graphics before going on a trip to Thailand where he encountered chocolate-making. He is now transitioning to getting a Masters in Social Work in hopes of becoming a therapist!
Can you tell me more about your Penn experience? After you graduated from Penn, how did you decide on what to do next?
So I started at Penn in pre-med because helping people was really important to me as a kid, and that focus runs as a spine throughout my whole story. But after two years, I honestly didn’t think it was a good fit for me at Penn. My work was sort of slow, and I hit this wall sophomore year where I got two Cs and I got completely overwhelmed thinking about how much time I had put into this major. So I switched into DMD because I’ve always loved math and art. I loved the program because it combined left and right brain — and I could take art classes!
When I graduated, the strongest pull for me was still toward helping people — I wanted my work to help make the world a better place. I was still curious about animation and art, but people were most important to me. I applied to the Peace Corps and ended up teaching English in India for two and half months, then taught at an educational nonprofit in California in an economically strained area. It had mixed results. I think I was super ambitious, and really wanted to apply my degree in the most meaningful way. I felt like some of the kids I was teaching were really engaged while others didn't really want to be there, which was tough.
So then I moved on to more animation and computer programming jobs in the Bay Area. I worked at a small animation studio that doesn’t exist anymore, and also a boutique shop under PhDs at UC Berkeley. I worked a year at each of those jobs and essentially had the same challenge at both: the work itself was interesting, but I felt less connected to the company’s ability to have impact. I felt like I was realizing someone else’s ambitions, not my own.
So then what led you to leave software jobs and venture into the world of chocolate production?
The wild kink in my story is that I met this romantic partner who was a big world traveler, and I totally reset everything and left my computer science job to go live in Thailand for 9 months. I was totally in a different pond and it was transformative as I began to have more conversations about emotions, body awareness, relationships, and trust. I was doing a lot of meditation and yoga to get a better sense of my different body states. At the yoga school, someone was funding their travels by making and selling these raw chocolate aphrodisiac truffles! I was learning about myself on different levels, and I felt like the chocolates were a nice vehicle for that for other people. So when I came back to the States, I basically wanted to Xerox my experience and make it available so that more people could have awesome experiences. So that was the start of Raaka.
It was definitely hard leaving my job as I felt a sense of loyalty to it. I knew the company, I knew the founder, and the CEO wrote me an impassioned email saying, “you can’t screw around with your life, you only have one!” He thought I was being immature, but in retrospect I think I was answering not only a love impulse, but also a growth impulse. What was fueling that love was a calling to understand other parts of myself that I admired in my partner. Traveling was one of the richest periods of my life. It allowed me to increase my appetite for risk as I didn’t have a job at home tying me down. If I hadn’t traveled, Raaka wouldn’t exist today.
Starting a food business is extremely risky and money-intensive, so how did you decide to commit to it immediately after coming home?
I totally hear you. I was really sensitive to the fact that there's real capital investment needed to start a business, so it would have been a lot easier to take a different route of going smart and starting with a stable paycheck.
I got really lucky and met two mentors in New York — each vastly different. The first one, Bob Dunn, had an amazing career where he used his law degree to be a presidential aide to Jimmy Carter, started the first global corporate responsibility tracks at Levi’s, led the Business for Social Responsibility, and now leads an international nonprofit called the Synergos Institute. The second, Leo Kayser III, was a conservative libertarian who didn’t line up with our social mission at all but helped a ton with things like sales, margins, operations, and later helped us set up convertible notes for our financing rounds.
I put $10k of my own savings into it, which is everything for me but nothing to a manufacturing company like that, so without meeting these mentors who helped fund me and watch me grow, we wouldn’t have had a shot.
How was the experience really building the business from scratch? Did you make the chocolate by hand in the beginning?
Absolutely. We started out on a really small scale. Early on, there were just a couple of enthusiasts who set up websites on how to hack making bean-to-bar chocolate. From there we started buying five to ten pound bags of cocoa beans from different fair-trade origins, testing out flavor profiles. We did everything from cranking the cylinders that break the shells to then blowing the shell pieces off with hairdryers. Everything was in our tiny Brooklyn apartment and we were always covered in shell dust.
Raaka has a really important mission of transparent fair trade. How as a leader do you balance the tension between profits and having a social cause? (Raaka has beautiful profiles of all their producer partners!)
Oftentimes, the cheapest ingredient is not the most ethically sourced ingredient. At the same time, I think it’s really a communication challenge. There’s a lot of people who care increasingly about having lower waste and ethical consumption. One of the things I’ve learned starting a consumer brand is that what you really want is durability. You want a customer that is going to stick with you and has a really deep emotional connection with the brand. If you do a good job telling your story and following your real passion, you’re going to find a group of people who resonate with that same passion.
The most important question for me day in and day as I run things is “do I feel like I’m doing well enough here?” I love chocolate, but I don’t live for chocolate. Business is also interesting, but I don’t live for business. My question was kind of from the perspective of death, where if I looked back on my life, do I feel like this was the right way of spending my time that felt true to me?
What are your next plans regarding Raaka?
There were so many challenges where I wanted things to change faster, wanted to pay off a factory team earlier, or wanted to hire a full-time social responsibility employee but didn’t have the budget for it. Eventually, after 11 years of working as CEO, what has pulled me to step down was a combination of curiosity elsewhere in psychology and behavioral biology, and feeling like I might shine in a different role helping more people outside of Raaka.
For next steps, I’ve realized that the moments when I feel the most alive and curious are when people bring up the most challenging part of their lives to me. When someone is working on themselves and encounter something that’s personally challenging that they don’t know how to solve, that’s a rich space where I find fulfillment. I’m really interested in how people work, how they make decisions in challenging places, and how being supportive and loving in that space can be very transformative for people. So, I started thinking and doing research about being a psychotherapist, but it’s early on — what it means to be a therapist is still scary to me.
After talking to my own therapist about the most efficient way to get there, he suggested getting a Masters in Social Work. I applied to some places thinking that’s what felt good, and got into UT Austin’s program where my wife also teaches art. I’m stoked to potentially work with homeless populations, to work in hospitals, with mental health, and learn more also about the science behind it regarding neuroscience and endocrinology.
Do you have advice for current Penn students?
It feels like self trust is a really important piece. Most Penn students really are going to be okay; they’ve already been screened for capacities highly regarded in the workplace, so I don’t think money will be a real problem for most Penn grads. This allows for more freedom to take risks and also be honest about what feels most important to you. It’s a combination of curiosity and meaning to find the path right for you. It’s okay to mess up! But it’s hard for me to give advice because I’m conscious of how different everyone’s lives are, so there are people who are too risky, but generally I see more people who don’t try the things they’re interested in.
Author’s Note: Raaka has a factory in New York where they host bean-to-bar chocolate making classes, tours, and tastings! Currently closed due to COVID.