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Maui girl finds ‘sweet’ career path at home

By Staff | Aug 20, 2021

Ashley Cooper serves as sales and marketing manager at Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate in Lahaina.

LAHAINA — For young fourth-generation Maui resident Ashley Cooper, a successful career was never going to be enough — it had to be pono as well.

Returning from college on the Mainland, Cooper found herself challenged to determine what type of career path she could take that would benefit her professional growth without any conflict of interest. Could she really find the ideal that her favorite professor had described: “that businesses should truly enrich a community?”

Today, Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate’s sales and marketing manager has indeed found that ideal in her enviable job description of “marketing locally made chocolate and community giving.” But just a few years ago, the path was still unknown.

Bright and dedicated, Cooper graduated from Seabury Hall in 2012 as student body president, varsity volleyball captain and member of the Cum Laude Society. She went on to Chapman University in Southern California and earned a degree in Strategic and Corporate Communication, with minors in both Advertising and Graphic Design.

Her work in illustration, information design and layout design always reflected the colors and textures of her island home.

Although the outline of her career was still hazy, she knew it would take shape on Maui.

Here in the long-ago sugarcane fields, Ashley’s maternal great-grandfather worked as a luna. In the cool breezeways of Wailuku Elementary School, her grandmother served as a teacher. Over on Hawaii Island, her grandfather grew up working his family’s coffee farm in Kona. He left for the Mainland for college to become a lawyer, was stationed to serve in the Army in Japan, and then married Ashley’s grandmother and moved to Maui. He became Second Circuit Court Judge Richard R. Komo.

Ashley’s mother was brought up in Wailuku, while her father grew up in a military family on Oahu.

During her own childhood in Haiku and Kula, Cooper developed deep values of caring for the island’s future and looking out for the health of our environment and resources.

Playing volleyball from a young age taught her important skills in communication and teamwork. As she began searching for a career, she kept her professor’s words in mind: “it is always possible to build a thriving and successful business without ever compromising your personal values.”

Enter Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate.

While Cooper had been away at college, entrepreneur Dr. Gunars Valkirs had begun planting cacao trees on former sugarcane land leased from Kamehameha Schools in Lahaina.

The cacao farm was thriving by the time Cooper returned, and Valkirs soon completed work on Hawaii’s largest chocolate factory, which was completely solar-powered and backed by a “Chocolate Kuleana” — a promise to give back 100 percent of net profits to Maui nonprofit organizations.

Cooper was hired by Valkirs as part of the sales and marketing team in 2019.

“Working at Ku’ia during the pandemic was like I was personally taking part in my professor’s type of business model,” she said. “While our brand’s mission has always been focused on the community through Chocolate Kuleana, it meant much more to shift our response during a time where our business itself was in crisis.

“Rather than sticking our head down and just pushing through to save our business, we actively constructed new ways to be able to financially assist our community while we were hemorrhaging money ourselves. Not a single person on our team gave it a second thought. We all just knew it was what Maui needed, and that this company was founded to serve a community that is larger than ourselves.”

With that focus, MKEC began to send out free chocolate to people who were serving in hospitals, working in non-profits or just had been isolated and needed a reason to smile.

The team innovated new ways to raise money for Maui Food Bank through guided chocolate tastings and special product promotions, and they drastically pivoted their wholesale model of business by creating the Chocolate Laulima Program to partner with nonprofit organizations to raise financial support.

“And you know what? Our company is still struggling, but our company is still here. We are rebuilding and growing,” Cooper said. “But most of all, we have peace of mind knowing that we did everything we could during the most testing time to stay true to who we are. We’ll never have a reason to regret that.”

With the company still in its early years, MKEC’s untapped potential feels limitless to Ashley. She foresees helping to discover many new ways to engage and support the island community. For this Maui girl, fulfillment has come from living the truth of her college professor’s wise words.

“Ku’ia’s dedication to sustainability, community and just good ol’ fun really checks all the boxes,” she said. “It’s so rare to be in a space where the owner of the company works longer hours than a single employee, every team member speaks to each other with respect, and there is an unlimited amount of employee snacking chocolate!”

A “sweet” career path, indeed.

Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate is located at 78 Ulupono St. in Lahaina. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week. For more information, go to mauichocolate.com.

In related news, Jazz Maui presents “Maui Ku’ia Chocolate Tasting,” an afternoon of fine chocolate and live jazz to benefit music education programs, on two Sundays, Aug. 22 and Aug. 29, from noon to 2:30 p.m. at the Maui Ku’ia Chocolate Factory in Lahaina. Keyboardist and trumpeter Paul January is the featured performer along with Maui vocalists Sarah Black on Aug. 22, and Tamara Calibri on the 29th. Tickets are available at mauichocolatetour.com/weekend-tasting-chocolate-laulima.

“Enjoy breathtaking views and sample nine varieties of award-winning chocolate, including unique island flavors found only on Maui,” said Bryant Neal, executive director of Jazz Maui.

“Maui Ku’ia Chocolate will support Jazz Maui’s music education programs by donating 100 percent of ticket sales and 40 percent of net sales for chocolate purchases made at mauichocolate.com/collections/arts-education-for-children-group at these events and throughout the year.”

January got his first paying gig when he was 11 years old, playing piano for a children’s fashion show in Denver, Colorado. Since then, he has worked with some of the biggest names to grace the stages of Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada, playing jazz, standards, pop and funk. Recently, Paul relocated to Maui and looks forward to sharing his music with his new island home.

Black is a contemporary jazz and soul vocalist from the West Coast who got her professional start in San Diego. She spent years visiting Maui and recently moved to the island to be closer to her family as she pursues a remote graduate degree in psychology. Sarah’s vocal style is greatly influenced by gospel and soul traditions, and she layers modern, jazz and neo-soul styles to create her unique sound.

Singer, songwriter, author and poet Calibri is of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage. Her multi-lingual and experimental style encompasses world, pop, spoken word and soul, which she expresses with authenticity and fervor.

Tanama is presently working on a new EP and performs weekly at family-owned Empanada Lady Restaurant.

For the tastings, chocolate lovers should bring their own beverage; room temperature wines, coffee and stout beer are suggested pairings.

This event is semi-outdoor with socially-distanced COVID-19 policies in effect for attendees’ protection and comfort. For more information, visit jazz maui.org.