Couple inspired to make chocolate, help women in farming communities

Paul Newman and Ariana Lee-Newman’s startup makes BIJA Organic Direct Trade Chocolates.
Paul Newman and Ariana Lee-Newman’s startup makes BIJA Organic Direct Trade Chocolates. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Each month the NW Innovation Resource Center writes about a Whatcom County resident who has invented products that solve everyday problems.

Name: Paul Newman and Ariana Lee-Newman of Bellingham

Product: BIJA Organic Direct Trade Chocolates; the business works directly with women’s cooperatives and small cacao farmers to produce the finest chocolate that supports families, community and culture.

How to buy:, Community Food Co-op, Elizabeth Station, Haggen, Market of Choice, Main and Vine, Metropolitan Market, Paper Dreams, Terra, Town & Country, Whole Foods Market

Contact:, 877-342-2452

How did you come up with the idea?

We set out to create a product that reflected our desire to facilitate change and to create a chocolate of the highest quality with the purest ingredients. We knew that indigenous communities around the world who work with crops like cocoa and coffee are the most vulnerable to market exploitation. We decided to make a product using one of the most consumed ingredients on the planet to raise awareness of two key issues: One, we believe that women who work for their families are also deeply committed to their communities. Two, if we can raise the awareness of the true cost of chocolate, and consumers can understand the human stories behind the chocolate that they eat, they will make different choices in how they purchase brands moving forward.

What made you decide you wanted to take this idea to market?

We realized that there’s room in this world for companies with conviction to make products that can actually make a difference. Having collectively worked in the natural products industry for over 25 years, we understand that consumers want to buy products with purpose while not compromising on quality. We felt we could help consumers align their needs to participate in a social cause by making conscious choices in the products they purchase while maintaining the highest-quality, purest products.

What has it taken in terms of time, effort or expense to get the product on the shelf?

We began this journey over two years ago with the intention to create a company where everyone throughout the supply-chain could benefit and flourish by doing what they love. We focused on finding ways to create a business that truly honors our partners, those that work tirelessly to carefully grow and meticulously process the cocoa beans that make BIJA everything it is today.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in the process?

Sourcing and organic certification. We decided early on to try to rewrite the way chocolate is sourced, manufactured and sold. We realized that most of the women’s cooperatives we identified in the field were not certified organic, and that was important to us. So instead of moving on, we made a decision to organize the certification for each of the groups we wanted to work with by financing their organic certification and then gift that certificate back to each of the groups. So far we have done this with our women’s association in the Dominican Republic and are working toward it with a farmer’s cooperative. We have replicated this model in Peru and have set our sights next on Ghana, Haiti and Honduras.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

First, start with a concept or idea that wakes you up in the morning; actually, something that keeps you inspired to stay awake at night. Then unpack the whole process from start to finish and find the areas that are unclear, then seek out counsel from those that have done it before. Learn from their wisdom and also from their mistakes. Understand that the process of stabilizing your brand in the market usually takes three times longer than you anticipate. Lastly, challenge yourself to do something that potentially scares you, because that is where the greatest personal growth can happen and where you will most likely find the greatest strength to follow a passion that will grow into a flourishing business.

Lara Merriam-Smith is the program manager for NW Innovation Resource Center, a Bellingham-based nonprofit that helps inventors and entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life. For more information, call 360-255-7870 or go online to

Inventor Insights

Two product experts will walk through the product development process to create products consumers want at the Inventor Insights event from noon to 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 7, at 2211 Rimland Drive, Room 106. The event is free, but register in advance at, or call 360-255-7870.