To taste Puja Satiani’s chocolate is to enter a world where you will never be tempted to buy a bag of mass-produced chocolate again. The 36-year-old has always loved chocolate, but it wasn’t until she started contemplating what she would do once she abandoned the corporate track that she started thinking about chocolate as more than just an occasional treat.
Satiani was seven when her parents moved from Pakistan to Miami, following their siblings who had already made the leap overseas, in search of better educational opportunities for their two daughters. Satiani’s path was fairly typical for first generation Pakistani Americans. She lived at home and worked her way through the University of Miami graduating a year early. She spent her last summer in Washington D.C. as a White House intern and fell in love with the city. So after graduation she went straight to law school at American University, worked for a federal judge, and then landed a job at a law firm where she worked as a litigator in government contracts.
Satiani loved her colleagues, but the work? She just liked the work. And after nearly five years at the firm, she started thinking there must be more.
“I had just been promoted to counsel, so I knew I was on the right path if I wanted to become a partner, but it made me think, did I want to become a partner? When I entered law, I knew I wanted to be a great lawyer, but I never cared about the title. Now I was an accomplished lawyer, but I wasn’t doing anything creative and that bothered me.”
Satiani had always loved baking and realized that with her crazy work schedule, she hadn’t had been making time for it. So she made a commitment to carve out that time. “I took pastry classes at night. Once a week I would leave the firm at 4:30 pm, high tail it to Gaithersburg, Maryland, for a 6 pm class, soak up all the instruction, and return home and work.”
There was something else on her mind while she was taking pastry classes. Satiani’s beloved grandfather who had always been her biggest fan passed away. It was her grandfather who had instilled in her a sense of knowing that she could do whatever she set her mind to.
“My grandfather had lived his whole life in Pakistan, most of it during a time when women’s rights and higher education for women weren’t a priority, and the expectation then was that when you got married, you weren’t going to do much outside the home. But my grandfather always made his female grandkids feel like we could do anything. When I graduated from law school, he said he knew I could be a senator or a Supreme Court Justice. He was quite remarkable.”
While the firm clearly offered financial reward and stability, Satiani thought a lot about her grandfather and what he would think if she settled for a career without any emotional reward.
Satiani didn’t share her renewed interest in baking with anyone at the law firm. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was distracted at work.” But she was becoming more inspired by her evening classes at L’Academie de Cuisine, and an idea was starting to take shape. Midway through the semester when the instructor devoted a few classes to chocolate, it all came together for Satiani. “It just clicked. I had never worked with fine chocolate, but I knew I wanted to pursue it. I didn’t know if I wanted to become an entrepreneur or a chocolatier working for someone else but I knew it was going to be chocolate.”
In order to give herself the brain space to decide, she left the law firm, where she was easily working 70 hours a week, to go back to her federal judge. With the more manageable 9-5 schedule, she could plan for her business in the evenings and weekends.
“Also, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t running away from the law. I’ve seen a lot of friends leave the profession because they are burned out but then six months later, they realize they just needed a change in the law, not to quit entirely.”
For Satiani, the move to the judge was perfect. She took two specialized chocolate-making classes – one in Chicago and the other in France, with a side trip to Brussels for what else but chocolate tasting, and spent her weekends working on recipes, investigating packaging, branding, work spaces, and writing a business plan with the help of her MBA-toting boyfriend.
By the fall of 2013, she was ready. “It was scary and still is, but I was ready to launch.”
Her eponymous company, Puja Satiani, Luxurious Artisanal Confections, sells its goods on the web and in three boutique shops in Bethesda and Silver Spring, but much of her business also comes from corporate clients.
Satiani largely funded the business herself and cautions others to overestimate what start-up costs will be needed. “I knew the first year was going to be an outlay and not much coming in, but I realized quickly that I spent far more than I thought I was going to despite being very budget conscious.”
Satiani also advises to budget for an investment in yourself while you’re starting out. For the chocolatier, that meant a trip to Belize to see where the cacao bean is grown and how it’s processed. Understanding the finer grades of cacao and cacao butter and how to work with them is key to educating her customers about her confections.
“I don’t think I realized how painful it would be in that you really have to work hard to not let your emotions get the better of you. You have to push forward in whatever way you can through challenges.”
And when all else fails? Well, just comfort yourself with a piece of chocolate.
- Things will change but have a business plan. When you know what your brand is, who your target is and where you want the business to go, it helps you stay focused through challenging times.
- Know your business’ value. Being small doesn’t mean that you can’t say no to opportunities that don’t fit your vision. Being a small business also allows to you provide a personal touch and frequently be flexible in ways that a larger business can’t.
- Don’t take shortcuts in any respect—from complying with state/federal requirements to get your business up and running to producing a quality product.