Tens of thousands of people across the country love chocolate and can’t imagine a world without it. Kara VanderLeest is one of these people. VanderLeest found a way to use her love of chocolate and food science to create a career. The food science major graduated from the University of Illinois in 2013. She says this program helped her build a strong foundation in food principals that allowed her to open her own chocolate company in Door County, Wisconsin.
After graduation, VanderLeest accepted a job with ADM Cocoa where she worked in the Product Service and Development department as a technologist. She made samples, met with customers and managed product development. When the company split, she moved to Door County, where she started a new job as a kitchen manager at a local candy shop. In this position, she learned how to produce candy on a smaller scale. Experiences from these jobs led VanderLeest to open her own business, DC Chocolate Design, in 2018. DC Chocolate Design’s business is mostly wholesale, with online orders and catering to special events, VanderLeest explains.
"Experiences at the University of Illinois helped me learn how to develop new products and look at food in a more scientific way," she explains. Additionally, attending the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) allowed relationships with professors and peers to prosper and have the small school feel, while still being able to use the big university resources, she shares
Although COVID-19 brought along many challenges for someone running a small business, VanderLeest said it helped DC Chocolate Design grow in many ways. "COVID helped us expand online sales and we were forced to learn more about online marketing and how to use social media to promote our products," VanderLeest says.
She suggests those interested in starting a business should be an expert in their product, know their market and for everything else have a great support team of experts. With the knowledge and experience that she gained from the University of Illinois, VanderLeest was able to create a career that suits her passions.