Some USC Marshall alumni earn their degree with their eyes on becoming a CEO, COO or CFO. Shana Elson MBA ’14 took a creative and delicious turn when she launched Top This Chocolate and designated herself CEC — Chief Executive Chocolatier.
When Elson came to USC, she was trying to relaunch her career in the food and beverage industry. She’d discovered almost immediately out of law school that she didn’t like being a lawyer. But even though she’d taken baking classes at a culinary school and worked as a pastry chef for Roy Choi’s A-Frame and Sunny Spot, she never guessed she’d launch an online chocolate business from her one-bedroom apartment as a newly minted MBA, much less open a brick-and-mortar shop in Ventura, Calif.
“I knew I wanted to learn about entrepreneurship. I thought I might start a business, or I might just get a job,” said Elson, who had a summer associate’s internship at a corporate restaurant group. “But I spent my MBA career vetting the idea in class.”
The idea was a “build-your-own” experience, where customers choose the chocolate and the toppings.
“I knew the entrepreneurship program was stellar, and I knew that the alumni network was amazing.”—Shana Elson, on why she chose USC Marshall for her MBA
“My company started as a class project. It was taking on steam as I went,” she said. “And then I didn’t actually decide that I was going to do it until I won the $25,000.”
Elson beat out 60 competitors to win Marshall’s Women’s New Venture Pitch Competition.
“That was the vote of confidence that I needed,” Elson said, “and then I knew I was really going to do it.”
She launched her business online in 2015. After a mention in Redbook magazine’s holiday gift guide, she had to hire seven people to fill the orders. She knew she was on to something.
In 2019 she opened her shop in the Ventura Harbor Village, a well-touristed complex of restaurants and boutiques near Ventura Harbor. Here customers choose dark, milk or white fair trade Guittard chocolate, which is poured into bars, and top it with any of 40 toppings, such as gummy bears, nuts, jelly beans and pretzels.
How does being a chocolatier compare to being a lawyer?
“I definitely have the freedom to be on my own schedule, which is great, but you’re also working a hundred hours a week to avoid a 40 hour a week job. You’re up at night worried about things and trying to solve problems. There are always things that you could be doing or improving or fixing or updating,” Elson said. “So I love it.”
The best thing about being an entrepreneur, she said, is making people happy by doing something you love.
“It’s rewarding when people come in and love what you’re doing,” Elson said. “Everyone in this community is responding so positively to this store. They are very warm and welcoming. It’s almost overwhelming.”
Ready to Win
A Washington, D.C., native, Elson had come to Los Angeles for law school and stayed. She chose USC Marshall for her MBA for two major reasons: “I knew the entrepreneurship program was stellar,” she said, “and I knew that the alumni network was amazing.”
Practically from day one, she was working on the chocolate business. In Entrepreneurship 101, the students were asked to create a business. “They showed us how to vet it, to understand if this is something that we should move forward with or not, to help you discover that if you have a product that is going to cost you $18 to make but you find out that customers are only willing to pay $15 for it, then you don’t move forward with that,” Elson said.
She worked on the idea in any class where she could choose a project. “ It really came together in the Writing a Business Plan class, which I took very early, during my second semester, at the same time as Entrepreneurship 101,” she said. “I also ran a lot of the numbers in Entrepreneurial Finance.”
By the time the pitch competition came along, Elson had already written her business plan and pitched it several times. She was ready to win. “My Marshall education gave me the confidence that I could do anything that I wanted to,” she said.
The most important lessons Elson learned in the MBA program were: “Knowing what your customers are thinking, focusing your time on the things that are most important to your business, watching the money outflows and realizing that not everything has to be perfect.”
It’s a lot to think about, but that’s what gets Elson up in the morning.
That and the chocolate.
“Sometimes I’m jealous of people who are at work when they’re at work and are at home when they’re at home,” she said. “But your business becomes your child almost. One of the most amazing things is how much I truly care about it. In my previous career, I was emotionally distant from my work. And now I’m so passionate that it’s almost scary.”