An in-depth and exclusive interview with Maribel Lieberman, one of the most successful women in business in NY, owner of MarieBelle tells us how she built her global chocolatier empire! A must read.
Your mouth waters immediately when you walk into this chocolate boutique that feels like an expensive jewelry store. The glass shelves exhibit a collection of delicate truffles decorated with artistic images, MarieBelle’s signature blue and brown tin cans of Aztec chocolate powder, and chocolate bars that you could send as postcards! But this Soho store, with an adorable coffee shop in the back where you can have the best hot chocolate you ever tasted, is only partly responsible for Maribel Lieberman being one of the most successful women in business we know.
She also sells her delicious MarieBelle brand at some of the finest U.S. department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, and she has recently opened four stores in Japan. This native of Honduras, who at 17 came by herself to the U.S. to study fashion design, can often be found at the Broome Street store offering a taste of her latest creations to grateful visitors.
Successful women in the family
Are there other successful women in your family? What about women in business?
I come from a family of eight children – six girls and two boys. All of us graduated college and one of my sisters and I are entrepreneurs. My mother and grandmother were very entrepreneurial. They were seamstresses and worked for the local men’s fashion tailor. My grandmother, who died in 1996 at 108 years old, started working as a single woman when she was 20 and continued after she got married and had children. That was back in 1908 when women didn’t work. My mom worked for the same tailor to help put all of us through college. As a young girl I always saw these two women in business for themselves and I was inspired to have my own little businesses selling candy.
Where did the idea to open a chocolate boutique come from?
I was at a point in my life when I didn’t know what I wanted. I was cooking a lot because I had just gotten married to an artist and was entertaining quite a bit in my house. I enjoyed visiting different neighborhoods, being exposed to various cultures, picking up different food ingredients and experimenting. I fell in love with food and I eventually opened a catering business from my house. I catered for the U.S. Mission to the UN when President Clinton was in office and even catered for the President. I think I got those types of gigs because I always loved beautiful things. Presentation for me was always key, so it wasn’t only about the food but the presentation of it and everything that surrounded it.
Five years later, when I was already working out of a rented kitchen, I wanted to move the business to the next level and open a gourmet store like Dean and Deluca where I could feature food from various countries. But I needed a lot of money to do that, and I couldn’t get it. So I started sharing space at an eyeglass boutique store with a friend of mine, which we called Lunettes et Chocolat (Eyeglasses and Chocolate). That’s when I plunged into research about chocolate, and I fell in love with it. I realized that chocolate came from the Americas and I wanted to bring the credit back to the region because most people think chocolate comes from Belgium, France and Switzerland.
The power of your brand
It’s evident to anyone who walks into your store that you are all about branding. The colors, the style, the look and feel… MarieBelle is absolutely unique. How did you come up with the brand? And I don’t just mean the name, which is a play on your own name, right?
I’ve always been a visionary. I never wrote a business plan, but I had vision. Blue was always my favorite color and when I decided to go into chocolate I had to add brown. I just imagined people would come into the store and see blue everywhere. I loved the vintage look of the blue and brown. Then when I started designing the packaging I would do different versions of the same blue and, without realizing it, I was creating a brand.
In terms of the product, I did a lot of research in Belgium, Switzerland and France; and I saw very similar things everywhere. In France they were mostly the same flavors: praline, cinnamon – nothing interesting, really. In Belgium chocolates are a lot sweeter, filled with liquor and milk. In Switzerland the milk chocolate is one of the best in the world.
I wanted to start with tropical flavors like passion fruit, pineapple, cardamom, chipotle, saffron… things I enjoyed eating when growing up. Back then nobody was doing those kinds of flavors. And most of the French chocolates looked the same with a little fleur de lis on top. The Swiss put lines across the top of theirs. I decided to put some of my husband’s paintings on my chocolates. Then I added more fashion images. Now the images on the chocolates include scenes from my daily life in New York.
Leadership style of women in business
Many women in business find that they have to adapt their leadership style to a more masculine style to get the respect they deserve. What kind of leadership style do you have?
I don’t need to do any adjustments of style in my company, because I don’t need to compare myself to any guy. I think everyone should respect their own way to lead. I’m a firm leader, but I’m also kind; I understand people. I’m not ruthless. I treat my employees like family.
Do you look at other successful women as inspiration to run your company? Who?
I admire people who lead big companies like Yahoo or Google. I read Coco Channel’s story, and I admire her a lot. She came from nothing and built something huge. She followed her instincts, and, although she was criticized because she was one of the few hard-working women at the time, she didn’t care about what others said. Nowadays is very much the same: If you have a good vision you should follow your instincts. Of course you should hear other people’s opinions, but always follow your vision.
Biggest challenges faced by successful women entrepreneurs
Your business is doing really well. Your product is unique and every time we visit your store there’s a mob lining up to buy your chocolates. What are some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome to become one of the most successful women in New York?
There are always challenges. There are ups and downs and competition. When you create something good people copy you so you can’t sit down and relax and go on vacations. You have to stay ahead of the game. One of the challenges has always been to keep up with the trends of eating habits, ingredients, and packaging. (Think about it, ten years ago people weren’t eating chocolate with salt or hot pepper.)
And what are some of the great advantages of being a woman in your industry?
I feel that in America it’s the perfect time to be a woman in business. Everything is changing so fast. Even companies that buy my product tend to prefer women-owned businesses. In a few years there will be a much greater number of women running companies in all industries. I’m biased but I think women are much smarter than men when it comes to running a business, because they have a sixth sense; they have more knowledge of psychology.
A large percentage of your clientele comes from Japan, and you recently opened four stores in that country. Why do you think there’s such a passion for MarieBelle’s product over there?
Since day one the Japanese were attracted to my brand. I remember there was an article in a Japanese newspaper saying that my chocolate reminded them of sushi. The good thing is that the Japanese are the toughest customers to please. So if you can make it in Japan, you can make it anywhere.
What suggestions do you have for successful women entrepreneurs looking to expand to other markets?
Everyone wants to come to the U.S. to sell their products, because this is a huge market with a very sophisticated consumer. Master your product here first, and then you can try expanding to other countries. I was first approached in 2009 to go to Japan. but I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have enough variety of flavors and I needed to research that market before I entered it. It took me until 2012 to be prepared, and that’s when we opened our first store with a local partner.
Where are you going from here?
The plan is to open several more stores under the brand Cacao Market by MarieBelle in Japan. It’s a more casual brand for impulse buying. It has an old pharmacy feeling, old-fashioned packaging. We also serve ten types of different hot chocolates and coffees to go. After that we want to expand to Singapore and Hong Kong.