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2019 Most Influential Women: Melissa Gelner

Askinosie Chocolate LLC

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Melissa Gelner is building a culture of servant leadership.

It’s the idea of collaboratively setting a vision and working together as a team to accomplish the goal, she says. The needs of the team and positivity are prioritized in this leadership model.

She first studied the initiative during her 13-year career in customer development at Tyson Foods Inc. in Arkansas and has carried the philosophy in her role at Askinosie Chocolate LLC.

“No one really wants to follow grouchy, negative leaders,” she says. “Positivity is infectious, and I have seen the approach serve as a rallying cry to help my teams get through heavy loads or hard projects.”

As Askinosie Chocolate’s chief kinship officer and executive director of the Askinosie Foundation, Gelner leads classes of elementary, middle and high schoolers through the company’s Chocolate University.

Chocolate University is designed as an experiential learning program that inspires students to be global citizens and understand that businesses can solve world problems. It utilizes the direct-trade relationships between Askinosie Chocolate and cocoa farmers so that students can establish a global perspective.

The Askinosie team visits students at Boyd Elementary School and Pipkin Middle School about chocolate-making, international direct trade work, brand identity and innovation.

Her most direct influence, she says, is helping students in Springfield and Tanzania find hope for the future. Through the Empowered Girls and Enlightened Boys clubs that she helps manage in Mababu, Tanzania, she helps students set goals in their personal and professional lives.

“Ultimately, I influence students by helping them find hope and sharing a simple formula for their future success,” Gelner says. “The student success stories are the best validation.”

She says a boy in Tanzania recently rose to second in his class after ranking in the 200s, and his renewed commitment of education was impacted by the vision writing.

Gelner also helps local Chocolate University students in its International Business Immersion program with a community project challenge set by Askinosie farmer partners in Tanzania. About a dozen high schoolers in the program travel to Tanzania every two years, she says.

Gelner coaches students to set goals for the projects, which has resulted in installing school computers, drilling a well to bring water to a rural village and vision writing for 400 Swahili-speaking middle schoolers. They also engage in direct-trade relationships firsthand as they see profit sharing reports and financial statements translated to the farmers.

Gelner has been a member of the Junior League of Springfield for over 20 years and a four-time committee chair and sustaining adviser. She’s also on the Summit Preparatory School Board of Trustees, the Care to Learn advisory board and has served in several roles at Isabel’s House since it began in 2007.

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