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Member Spotlight

Wendy Lieu

CEO and Chief Chocolatier, Socola Chocolatier

Tell us about your career journey to becoming CEO & Chief Chocolatier of Socola Chocolatier.

When I was 19, I saw a recipe for an espresso truffle in Gourmet magazine and, after some experimentation, I shared them with my community. Ultimately, my younger sister Susan took them to our neighbor, a radio marketing executive; she was so impressed, she offered us a radio spot on our county’s talk radio station to “talk about our business.”

I freaked out – we didn’t have a business, we just had an idea. Maybe it was naiveté, but my sister and I drove to Office Depot to buy supplies to make iron-on t-shirts and print-at-home business cards that day. We wrote a fictional legend about the chocolates and then went on the radio the following week. Susan got us a vendor booth in front of our parents’ Santa Rosa nail salon during the weekly summer farmers market.


Any profits were immediately invested back into the company so I could buy more chocolate making supplies and books. We didn’t have a health permit or a business license and got caught. Fortunately, a local restaurateur lent us his licensed commercial kitchen during his off hours to prepare our chocolates, then we applied for a business license to become more legitimate.

Since my sister and I were in high school and college, we continued making chocolates during the summer and holidays, selling to friends and family, but I always wanted this hobby to be something more. In fact, I didn’t even want to go to college after high school. My dream was to go to pastry school but my father was against it. Like many Asian American immigrant kids, I obeyed without a word. After graduating from UC Davis with a degree in Managerial Economics, I embarked on a successful career at Accenture as a management consultant, but my heart was still in chocolate. Eventually I saved up enough money on my own to attend evening pastry school.

After Susan completed college and a USAID internship in the Vietnamese cacao industry, I convinced her to help me build Socola Chocolatier into a real company. We spent the next three years in experimentation mode. She set up accounts with Whole Foods Markets, farmers markets, and an online shop while I made chocolates after my 9-to-5 job–sometimes until 2 a.m. – enlisting more friends to help us in exchange for chocolate. We learned a lot in those years and eventually I made the leap to leave Corporate America to open my own brick-and-mortar store. I’ve been working with chocolate since 2001 – refining our chocolate line, weathering the pandemic, growing our online community, having two kids along the way – and it’s been a whirlwind with its ups and downs, but looking back, I’m so proud of my path. It’s taken a while for my father to come onboard, but he’s totally supportive now (the positive press and awards helped!).

At Ascend NorCal, our community service program Ascend Cares - Feed Our Future enables us to partner with local Asian restaurants to serve cultural awareness and education through food. 

By bringing flavors like Vietnamese Coffee and Pho, how does it feel to honor your cultural heritage in your chocolates?

When I gained the approval of my aunts after sharing our signature Little Saigon Box, a four-course Vietnamese meal in nine flavors, I finally felt like I accomplished what I set out to do. For so long, I created chocolates mimicking Western European flavors to prove I had the chops. But to create a collection that was a true reflection of me and the flavors of my heritage, that’s when I hit my stride as a chocolatier and when the company found its voice and competitive advantage.

At Socola Chocolatier, we’re an ardent community supporter of many AAPI organizations. I remember right after the Atlanta Spa Shootings, my heart was so broken. Because I know I certainly eat my feelings, I ran a campaign where we donated 100% of our sales from the Little Saigon Box for that week to AAPI Women Lead. I was grateful to use my company platform as a way to help the community grieve with a tangible way to give back.

Our Ascend NorCal chapter is inspired by our community every day. How has the NorCal region inspired and influenced your products and business?

As a family-owned company, we make it a priority to support other family-owned businesses while maintaining a small carbon footprint. Since we’re based in San Francisco, it’s easy to maintain quality and live by our values with the majority of our ingredients coming within a 60-mile radius. Our products feature family-owned Guittard Chocolate (locally processed in Burlingame) and Straus Creamery (Sonoma County). We use local honey and fold in the beautiful ingredients from the farmers market whenever we can.

Like Ascend, you’re passionate about supporting others throughout their career lifecycle. What are some key lessons you can share with our fellow Ascend members that you teach at the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center?

First, there is never the “perfect time.” Sometimes people wait for perfect conditions to start something. However, if you believe strongly in your idea, start and test some ideas, even in the smallest of ways. Continue experimenting and iterating until you have a proof of concept to attract customers and press. I didn’t make my big career transition until I had built some momentum in the chocolate company. There will be more challenges: identifying and building a customer base, creating products people want, determining pricing that also folds in paying yourself, and building a team around you that complements your strengths. At the end of the day, others won’t believe in your business unless you believe in yourself. While feedback from others is critical to refining and learning, remember you are your own boss. You will have to make the final call because you have to live with the consequences of the decisions you made.

So many folks have been instrumental to my success and, to this day, I have fond memories of every mentor who has helped me along the way. 

Its critical to send the ladder down and mentor the next generation. 

Another program you support is Enterprise for Youth with mentorship and internships for high school students. Was this motivated from your time as a teen working to make Socola a reality?

Absolutely–never underestimate the potential and power of our young people! We have been proud participants for nine years now and we’re currently hosting two Enterprise interns in the chocolate kitchen.

When I started Socola Chocolatier as a teenager, I remember wishing for guidance on running a business and the food industry in general. So many folks have been instrumental to my success and, to this day, I have fond memories of every mentor who has helped me along the way. A few business owners took a chance on us as teenagers, helping nurture a budding hobby into a brick-and-mortar business. It’s critical to send the ladder down and mentor the next generation. It truly warms my heart when I get feedback from program graduates that Socola has been one of their favorite jobs and how much they learned around running a business.

What's next for you?

We just launched our e-commerce business with two chocolate subscription services, both of which would make incredible holiday gifts! We’ll be releasing limited edition collections for the holidays, Lunar New Year, and Valentine’s Day so keep an eye out for those. And in February 2024, we’ll be celebrating our store’s 10th year anniversary so we would love for Ascend members to come party it up with us!     

As a chocolatier for the past 22 years, I have had the privilege of making chocolates that honor my heritage for some pretty interesting people and events. I have big dreams of building this brand and increasing distribution while consistently making high-quality confections. I really enjoy what I do and feel like I'm just getting started. Stay tuned!


Teenager Wendy at her farmers market booth

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Now adults, Wendy and her sister Susan lean into the success of

Socola Chocolatier

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