Steven Wallace, '86: Finding Sweet Success Overseas

Appeared in Record issue: 
Fall 2010

An old saying has it that the only thing better than a good friend is a good friend bearing chocolate. If that's the case, then there can be no better friend than Steven Wallace, '86, who for more than fifteen years has been producing some of the world's most delicious chocolate products at his Ghana-based company, the Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company.

Ghana, for two reasons. First, Wallace went there as an AFS Intercultural Programs student when he was in high school and developed strong feelings for the country and its people. Second, Ghanaian cocoa beans are widely agreed to be among the best anywhere: Financial Times, for example, describes them as "the finest cocoa in the world."

Wallace's approach to the business makes him a good friend to the people of Ghana, too. Other chocolate makers buy Ghanaian beans and process them outside the country, but all of Omanhene's production takes place within Ghana. "We like to think that processing the beans on-site at their freshest makes for better chocolate,"Wallace explains, "and it also matters to me that more of the money from this resource stays in the country and that we're providing an example of the possibilities for entrepreneurship in a country that is striving to encourage business formation."

Becoming a chocolatier was not a career goal for Wallace. In college, he considered journalism, and that ambition got a heady boost when, on his first day as an intern at a Washington DC radio station, Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt. "It was an all-hands-on-deck occurrence, and as a nineteen-year-old I was covering parts of the story and even creating segments that were given airtime," he recalls.

When he came to the Law School, it was as much as a way to expand his understanding of the world as it was with the intention of practicing law, but his law school experience inspired him to give law a shot, and after graduation he returned to DC to join a boutique tax firm.

There, walking on K Street one sunny afternoon, he encountered Linda Benfield, '85, with whom he had worked closely on two productions of the Law School Musical. She asked him to help her with a theatrical production she was organizing for the DC bar, he agreed, they spent the next few months working together, and the rest is a history that includes three children and a cozy home in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. (He travels to Ghana a few times each year for the business and manages aspects of it from its Milwaukee office; she's a partner at Foley & Lardner in Milwaukee.)

Wallace first went to Ghana to explore possibilities for creating the business in 1991. It was not until almost four years later that Omanhene introduced its first product. "Those first few years were really tough," he recalls. "Lots of doubts and lots of frustrations. Somewhat to my surprise, I don't think there was anything that helped me through it more than my education at the Law School. It gave me confidence that I could trust my analysis that the business could succeed, even when old hands in the chocolate business were doubting me. It helped me understand the larger context of Ghanaian laws and practices, which sometimes seemed irrational and counterproductive but had an understandable basis in the country's history and politics. It helped me structure the crucial agreements I entered into with suppliers and many others. And maybe most importantly, I figured that if I had been able to hold my own when questioned by completely brilliant professors, I could withstand the regular grillings by government ministers and others who doubted everything about me, from my real intentions to, sometimes, my sanity."

Alumni who want to assess Wallace's judgment for themselves-and perhaps further endear themselves to their friends-can order a selection of Omanhene's products at the company's website, www.omanhene.com.