CEOs / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with James Le Compte, CEO of To’ak Chocolate

James Le Compte is the CEO of luxury chocolate brand To’ak Chocolate, where he is currently running the company from the Ecuador headquarters.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I’ve worked across technology, aviation, international development and finance, and currently I’m enjoying the world of luxury chocolate. I would say that the one common thread throughout my career has been a sense of never ending curiosity.

That curiosity is what drives my entrepreneurial spirit and keeps me engaged at work. My first venture was a business that I co-founded with a school friend during the dotcom boom in 1999.

We started, what grew into one of Sydney’s leading digital agencies Amblique, while finishing school and starting university. Our goal was to help emerging and traditional businesses do business online.

My business partner and I were committed to finishing our undergraduate degrees but we also knew that building a business and pitching our services to established companies was a far more effective way of learning the ropes in business and entrepreneurship.

I chose to move on after a number of years and he continued to grow the company from strength to strength until it was acquired by an ASX listed company several years back.

Following my time in tech I did a short stint on the Qantas Graduate Management program, where I quickly learned that working in a large corporation was not really my thing. The program was a bit of a rollercoaster and was ultimately a rather confidence crushing experience for me personally.

After escaping to volunteer on a remote island in Vanuatu for three months, I chose to build a career in international development.

I enjoyed the next 10 years with the Australian NGO and social enterprise Good Return, where I led the development of the first peer-to-peer lending platform in Australia and later opened and built the organisation’s first regional office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I had the privilege of contributing to projects that positively impacted the lives of thousands of economically disadvantaged families in the Asia Pacific region and lived for different lengths of time in Timor-Leste, Cambodia and China. I thrived on the opportunity to build a team of talented and inspiring people who wanted to make a difference to social justice issues.

After 10 years in international development I was itching to get back into something a little faster paced with the creative freedom of a small business. I’ve been a lifelong fan of dark chocolate and given my wife is from Ecuador we often had the opportunity to visit cacao farms when we would travel to visit her family.

I had decided that my next move would be in cacao or chocolate so I started building a network to identify opportunities. Before making the move I volunteered my time with an inspiring group of chocolate entrepreneurs who founded a luxury chocolate brand called To’ak Chocolate.

They had a bold vision to challenge the way that consumers valued chocolate by elevating it onto the level of the finest wines, and to honour the many thousands of years during which cultures in the Americas considered cacao or chocolate to be sacred and noble.

The team at To’ak were looking for a CEO to build a new commercial strategy. My wife and I loved the people and the company’s vision and it was the perfect excuse to move our family to Ecuador. So we invested and I came on board as a business partner and CEO in 2017.

Since that point we’ve focused on building the product portfolio to achieve a stronger product-market fit, opened up new sales channels and built the foundations of the business for growth. Since moving into the world of chocolate I have also been involved in co-founding Orijin, a platform built for consumer brands that want to offer digital storytelling and product traceability.

The project was launched by industry players in the technology, craft chocolate and specialty coffee space, in order to provide consumers with greater transparency by making data which is collected along the value chain accessible and interactive. The platform also offers smallholder farmers planning tools and data analysis to improve their farming practices. We think it’s the way of the future for conscious consumer brands.

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2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Well recently none of my workdays have been particularly normal due to the unusual circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, which unfortunately has hit Ecuador particularly badly.

As of today I haven’t been into the office for six weeks, during which time I have been working from home.

My new work days normally start with making a healthy breakfast for the family. I prepare a shake which has ground cacao nibs and chia seeds, bananas, strawberries, kefir, milk and a touch of honey.

It’s a tradition that we recently restarted and I find it gives me a boost of clean energy and due to the quality cacao and other ingredients I know I am getting a healthy dose of antioxidants, probiotics and the energy of theobromine.

While I prepare breakfast I usually scan my calendar and the activities I’ve planned for today and the next few days (I like to use Todoist as it has a really clean interface and allows you to organise activities by day of the week and theme).

I naturally tend to jump from one task to the next so I find that I need a bit of structure to prevent myself from getting distracted. I often listen to some easy classical music on my headphones (to help me focus), line up a big glass of water and tackle the tasks I’ve lined up on Todoist.

Later in the afternoon I will make myself a Cacao Latte (using our T.cacao 100% cacao powder and milk, no sugar added). I replaced coffee with 100% cacao about a year ago and haven’t looked back.

I find it’s the perfect afternoon ‘pick me up’ as it gives sustained energy without the crash associated with coffee. While there are low levels of caffeine in cacao, there are studies that have shown cacao that containing high levels of polyphenols and L-theanine works synergistically with caffeine to enhance our mood and cognition—the perfect afternoon beverage in my opinion!

I should mention that some days I also have the pleasure of visiting the cacao farms where we harvest the cacao and my office always smells of chocolate! We are one of the few craft chocolate brands who actually harvest cacao ourselves and manage every step of the chocolate production within our team.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Working in a small business usually demands flexibility and our team is no different in that sense. The current crisis has necessitated that many people work remotely and thankfully I’ve had plenty of practice.

I actually enjoy playing with software that helps optimise communication and efficiency within a team context, and remote working is a great excuse to leverage the benefits of technology.

I also enjoy the flexibility that owning and operating a small business offers.

In my mind there is a beautiful balance between giving your 100% at work (especially during peak periods) while also having the ability to agree with your business partners (often from one day to the next) that you will be taking a few days or weeks off work to travel or explore something new.

Of course the art is ensuring everyone carves out enough time away from work to recharge themselves and to be with the people outside of work who are important to them.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I think work-life balance is very personal. My life revolves very much around my family and my work. Therefore I find balance in the small and sometimes routine acts of being together with my kids and wife throughout the rhythm of a regular day.

This might be making breakfast and waving my daughter off to school on the bus, spending time playing with my one year old son before driving into the office, or reading a book to the kids at bed time.

I also enjoy my quiet time as I tend to be naturally a bit introverted. Going for a run while listening to a podcast helps me wind down with a moment of solitude and transition from the stress of the office to home life.

Since we live in Ecuador, and we’re not certain for how long, we also try our best to escape the city every other weekend to see some of the amazing nature that Ecuador has to offer with the Amazon jungle, Pacific coast, Andes mountains and the Galapagos islands all within relatively easy reach.

5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

To me a healthy mind and outlook has been my most important ingredient for success.

Like many entrepreneurs I’ve battled at times with depression and therefore I’m quite aware of what triggers to look out for and what works for me in terms of maintaining good mental health (running, eating healthy, regular social contact etc.).

The other part of the equation for me is keeping a positive outlook. I like to think of it has having a “yes” mindset. Running a small business means you are usually facing an uphill battle to survive and grow, so I find it important to remember that many challenges can be overcome with creativity, resourcefulness and simply getting started.

Practically speaking, over the past few years I have also become quite fascinated by the health and functional benefits of several plants, namely cacao and cannabis.

I’ve found learning about the endocannabinoid system, a relatively recent medical discovery, which regulates everything from our mood to pain, quality of sleep and general wellbeing, to be fascinating.

I’ve started to integrate CBD into my life where possible and I enjoy listening podcasts such as Revolution Health Radio by Chris Kresser and Brave New Weed. I credit another entrepreneur with Australian connections, Will Kleidon of Ojai Energetics, with inspiring me to learn more about cannabis and plant-based functional food. He has an inspiring vision for a sustainable future.

6) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

I have to admit that with a young family and a demanding business I read far less than I would like to! Having said that I enjoy books that stimulate my creativity and offer inspiration through characters who defy the odds or achieve greatness.

I enjoy the creativity of Isabel Allende’s writing (Paula is very inspiring) and the epic storytelling of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (The General in His Labyrinth chronicles the incredible life and personality of Simon Bolivar).

I’ve also found books like The Happiness Trap to be good tools for getting myself through tougher periods. These days I do most of my learning via podcasts as I can listen while running or making my way to/from work.

7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

It might sound silly but I focus first on making my bed. I recall watching an inspiring speech by a navy admiral who said:

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter, if you can’t do the little things right you’ll never be able to do the big things right.

It’s a simple but powerful metaphor for each morning. Despite the regular temptation to rush off to the first urgent task on my list (leaving my bed unmade), I force myself to first make my bed and by doing so I start my day intentionally.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

My 97 year old Nana! She looks like she is in her 70s so I’d like to know how she did it.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

I would encourage people not to look at work-life balance as a goal but more as something you can continue to master throughout life.

At least for me, thinking of it as a goal risks portraying it as a task you can check off when in fact it’s something that most of us will find challenging to master but should never stop working on.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.