Valerie Beck, Chicago Chocolate Tours

Bitter Success Interviews, Lawyer Leave a Comment

What’s your current job and title?

I’m the president and founder of Chicago Chocolate Tours.

What is a typical day like for you?

A typical day for me is chocolate-filled, of course!

Entrepreneurship is about making something visible that would have remained invisible. Chicago Chocolate Tours is growing and booming, and most of my focus right now is to let more people know that Chicago Chocolate Tours is the answer to their questions such as, “What should I do to entertain my family while they’re in town?” Or, “What would be the absolute greatest outing for my firm’s summer associates?”

Some days are glamorous. Recently I served as a celebrity judge for the annual World of Chocolate event to benefit AIDS research. My role was to sample chocolate from around 30 incredibly talented chocolatiers, and it certainly beat cranking out another version of a revised and amended credit agreement and its spawn of ancillary documents.

Other days aren’t as glamorous. Sometimes I remove spam from our website, or order printer cartridges, or do whatever needs to be done if there’s no one else to do it. No matter what the day, I love being an entrepreneur, and I love that Chicago Chocolate Tours gives people a way to come together. My work is meaningful to me because what I put into it is what I get out of it—and because it lifts people up.

My worst day as an entrepreneur is better than my best day as a lawyer.

Law school? Law review?

I went to Harvard Law School. I didn’t go out for Law Review. On my first day of law school, I knew law wasn’t going to be my final destination. I didn’t want to argue, dig in, or analyze; I wanted to create, reach out, and synthesize.

Where did you work? Practice area?

I worked at Winston & Strawn, in corporate finance and M&A.

I tell non-lawyers that my job was to read and write the fine print in contracts. They groan and begin to have an inkling of why I changed careers.

What sent you to law school?

I have lots of lawyers in my family and grew up indoctrinated that I could be a doctor or a lawyer, or a doctor or a lawyer, or a doctor or a lawyer. I’m Jewish on my father’s side of the family, so there you go. I chose law over medicine because L.A. Law and Ally McBeal looked like more fun than St. Elsewhere and ER—snazzier clothes and no blood. I thought that law would be my vehicle to make a difference in the world.

Describe your “I have to get the F*** out of here epiphany?”

There were two turning points when I realized I needed to make a new life for myself.

One was when I woke up in the hospital after emergency surgery. I was literally working myself sick, and after finally dragging myself to the doctor on a Thursday afternoon and being ordered to report to the hospital the next morning, I actually went back to work that afternoon. I told the partner I was working with on a deal that I had to have emergency surgery the next day and would probably have to take the weekend off to recover from the general anesthetic. He said, “Hmrpf.”

When I went into the office on Monday, I had 14 messages from that partner screaming at me—even though nothing had actually happened on the deal that weekend. I went to see him and asked why he left those screaming messages when he knew I was having surgery. He replied that I hadn’t told him I wouldn’t be checking messages. I was astounded and told him, in what I hoped was an ironic tone, that in the rush and shock of the surgery, it just hadn’t occurred to me to change my outgoing voicemail to tell people that I’d be recovering from surgery that weekend and not checking messages. He said, with no irony whatsoever, “Next time it will.”

I said to myself there would be no “next time” because I was getting out of there before it killed me.

Side note: When people at the firm heard about this, the joke became that we’d have to change our outgoing voicemail messages for every situation: “I will not be checking messages between 4:02 p.m. and 4:06 p.m. today because I will be on the elevator between the 40th and 45th floors / in the ladies’ room / under my desk crying over my misguided life choices / running from the building in an attempt to salvage what’s left of my shredded sanity.”

And the second turning point?

I fell asleep on a date. I don’t know how I even managed to get a date since all I did was work, but I kept putting off the date—putting off life—because I was working on yet another deal and was pulling 20-hour days. The partners on that deal used to send us home to sleep for a few hours in shifts. Finally, I went out with the guy, but I was so tired that my date stepped away, and the next thing I remember he’s shaking me by the shoulder and saying my name in a loud whisper. I had fallen asleep right there at the table in the restaurant. It was a very dark restaurant, but I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have fallen asleep even had the place been brightly lit. I hope the poor fellow didn’t take it personally. Anyway, there was no second date.

After these epiphanies, I created a plan to start a whole new life. I decided that I would be out of that firm in six months. I didn’t know how I was going to do it yet, but I figured if I got in, I could get out. I started opening my mind to possibilities, following my heart, and having some fun. I signed up for interior design classes. I joined a gym. I took up tennis again. I actually started doing more than just going to work and going home for a short nap before going to work again. There was no more time in the day than there had been before, but I knew if I didn’t make a change, nothing would change.

So to begin, I simply started letting opportunities into my life and letting the universe know that I was ready for something big and wonderful. It worked.

What was your best moment as a lawyer?

How do you type the cricket noise that TV shows play when the character has nothing to say? Honestly.

I’m grateful for my legal education and experience. I learned a lot about professionalism and attention to detail at the firm—and worked with very smart people. Through law, I met people who are now the most important in my life. And law has opened many doors for me and given me more credibility. I love having law firms as clients because I admire the kind of person who can make a law career work and stay sane and healthy. And because I like being able to put some extra joy and chocolate into lawyers’ lives. I recently held a seated chocolate tasting for 140 women at a law firm. The event was for the firm’s women attorneys and their clients, and it was a blast. In the end, there’s always a silver lining, or a chocolate one in this case.

Do you still keep in contact with friends from the firm?

Many people I knew at the firm have moved on. Whenever I do see people who are still there, I am flattered when they tell me—perhaps with a twinge of jealousy in their voices—how great I look, and how svelte, young, and happy I appear.

Flashback: I remember once going into the ladies’ room at the firm at 3 a.m. and looking in the mirror and realizing that my skin had a sickly green pallor. I thought: I look 59. There’s nothing wrong with looking 59 if you’re 69, but I was 29! I look exponentially better now than I did then. Maybe it’s the antioxidant-packed chocolate.

How did you start Chocolate Tours, and what’s it all about?

A Chicago Chocolate Tour is a fun, fascinating, and delicious walking and tasting tour of local chocolate shops and provides information on the history and health benefits of chocolate—plus samples galore. We run about 10 tours a week for private groups and the public. We’re known as the sweetest tour in town; that might sound corny, but it’s true!

I had the idea for Chicago Chocolate Tours years before I started it. I used to sneak out from the firm to go to one or another of my favorite chocolate shops for a quick chocolate fix whenever possible. It struck me one day that there were so many great chocolate shops in town that there ought to be a chocolate tour to link and shine a light on them so that chocolate lovers could sample more chocolate, learn more about chocolate, and find some of the local chocolate shops that they might not have known about. I sat on the idea for years. Or rather, the idea wouldn’t let me go.

After the idea had gestated for years, the timing somehow just clicked. Some friends came in from out of town, and I took them on a tour of my favorite chocolate shops. The business continued to grow from there. As Chicago Chocolate Tours grew, I brought on tour guides, expanded to more neighborhoods, joined business associations, got mentors (something I never had in the law somehow), and just kept going. It’s amazing how when the timing is right, the right people and opportunities seem to place themselves in your path.

Tell us something about chocolate that we don’t know?

You’ve heard that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, right? Did you know that people have thought so throughout history? The Aztecs were mad for chocolate, and Emperor Montezuma used to drink golden goblets of molten chocolate to fortify himself before visiting his harem.

Casanova wrote that chocolate was even more useful in the seductive arts than was Champagne (so watch out for Champagne truffles). The Marquis de Sade had his wife send him chocolate in prison, as he felt unable to live without its potent power. And, a recent survey showed that 50 percent of women prefer chocolate to, ahem, something else.

We hear that you sometimes lecture at law schools on alternative careers for lawyers. Do a lot of law students want to get out?

It always amazes me that law schools offer seminars on how to quit the profession before you’ve really even begun. What other profession teaches you how to get out while you’re still in school for that profession? The seminars I’ve been invited to speak at have been well-attended. I always bring chocolate, and maybe that helps. But I think schools are smart to offer these seminars, and the students are smart to keep their options open whether they already know that practicing law isn’t for them, or if they see law as a stepping stone to something else.

For more information on Valerie Beck and the sweet, dark stuff, visit Chicago Chocolate Tours.

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