Micro moments of love - The Chocolate Angel's mission to increase empathy and genuine interactions in the corporate world
"Did you say there is a Chocolate Angel in your head office?" Correct - however, Verena Rentrop's story goes much beyond candy wrappers. She believes that the corporate world lacks empathy and genuine, minor interactions of daily life - and is on a mission to change it by spreading micro moments of love.
AUTHOR: NETTA HEIKKILÄ
Tetiana Bykovets / Unsplash
Verena Rentrop established the Chocolate Angel concept 13 years ago to spread empathy and a sense of inclusion at the workplace, simultaneously diluting hierarchies and silos. During her journey, she has helped others, simultaneously discovering herself. She has learned to perceive her ADHD as a strength, got rid of the workaholic in her, migrated to Finland and established her own company, Chocolate Angel Oy. Today she works at Kalmar with colleagues from 17 different countries and, on her spare time, helps diaspora people living in Finland to connect with the Finnish society.
It is 1pm and already my 3rd virtual meeting of the day. I am restless and my bottom is almost numbed for slouching in my chair. I am about to interview Verena Rentrop, a Deployment Manager at Kalmar. I open the camera, and noticing my droopy red eyes makes me want to shut down the camera. But I won’t. Against the odds, instead of receiving the constant same old “Good afternoon”, on the other side of the screen awaits an explosion of positive energy and an enthusiastic colleague greeting me in Finnish ‒ “Moi Netta!”. I feel I’ve just been vaccinated with a shot of energy. I am overwhelmed and thoroughly want to scold my little brain for once again falling for the presumption that someone with a foreign name would not know any Finnish. Lesson learned.
Verena Rentrop, 52, has lived in Finland for almost 10 years and worked for Kalmar, Cargotec for nearly two years. Her daily tasks revolve around the interface of Business and IT bringing digital solutions for mobile technicians traveling between the customer sites. Basically, this means that she works with people from 17 different countries worldwide and is in touch with diverse people each and every day.
Unsplash - Kaffee Meister
Verena starts introducing herself by explaining that only lately, has she gotten rid of the workaholic in her and has begun to work “only” the expected 7,5 hours a day.
Suddenly my chest inflates with humongous relief and empowerment for her, for me and for everyone. It is great to see that employees nor employers want to promote a culture that encourages constant overwork. I strongly believe in the improving trend of work-life balance.
Verena did not get an official ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) diagnosis, but after 35 years of self-reflection, there is no other explanation than ADHD driving her life. Her attention and interest are often focused on several things at the same time. Even though Verena is privileged in many dimensions, she also represents many groups in vulnerable positions in our society. Verena has an astonishing ability to reframe the obstacles she has faced. “Due to my ADHD, there is a lot of energy left for my spare time” Verena explains.
And that you can really tell. Besides working at Kalmar Verena is running her own company, Chocolate Angel Oy. She is also involved in many other side projects. Verena runs the world’s largest ex-Nokian community, the “Beyond Nokia” group, and manages a blog related to that. She works with an NGO called Think Africa, which engages, promotes and empowers the African diaspora in Finland, as well as enhances the collaboration between Finland and African countries. She has also “adopted” her ex-colleague, Moses Acquah, the founder of AfroLynk, a Tech & Entrepreneurship space that connects startups and businesses focusing on Africa and/or wanting to expand into the African market. Verena supports him as his ‘second’ mother, a form of a deeply caring mentor.
“One of my ex-colleagues asked from me one day if he could be adopted by me. And I was like ‘Who wouldn’t want to be adopted by the Passionate Verena?’”
Disclaimer: Self-irony obviously is a superpower of Verena
The story behind Verena founding her own company, Chocolate Angel, indeed derives from her excess energy, shifting attention and the constant need to connect with other people. The Chocolate Angel concept was born already 13 years ago. Verena started it without having any plan or idea, not even a name for the concept.
What’s alluring is that Verena herself has never been into chocolates. The idea for the chocolate angel started from the free confections at cafeterias. You see, when you buy a coffee, you often get free chocolate along. Verena started giving her sweets to the person sitting next to her as an act of kindness. While working at Nokia, she began to buy sweets from the tax-free shop on her several business trips to Finland. After, she would walk around the office, through each department and each floor, giving out smiles and sweets.
“For years, I never truly understood the impact I had on people. And it took me time to understand it really was not about the chocolate at all. After ten years of being a Chocolate Angel someone told me, “But Verena, you see, it is you, it’s not the box.”
Verena is evidently a storyteller, she could go on forever, and my curiosity further feeds her hunger. What makes her unique is that she can give her absolute attention to one person for a moment and then hand it out to the next one. She has the ability to be fully present, even if it was just for one minute. It is actually something most of us are lacking these days, at work and outside work.
Verena moved to Finland in 2012, when Nokia offered her to continue her job abroad. “So I accepted the job and it was just yeah, sorry Finns, now you’ll have to deal with me” Verena explains confidently yet filled with self-irony. And just like that, Travelling to Finland, the trigger for Chocolate Angel in the first place, was gone.
Glen Carrie / Unsplash
It rapidly became clear that she did not really need the business trips to spread the empathy, attention and kindness around her at the workplace. However, she discovered that the chocolate box was actually a great and essential tool in hectic working life and reserved colleagues.
“You never know what mood a person is in, very busy, stressed, irritated maybe? The chocolate box works only as a tool. If all of a sudden you stop by people’s desks just smiling at them, they might block you out, not be responsive nor give a smile back, especially if they are stressed. People might even be confused or annoyed, having a “just walk away” attitude. But if you utilise the box of chocolates as a tool, you sort of justify your visit. You have a mission, and people tend to be more responsive. However, chocolate is not what makes the impact. It is the deed, the smile, the attention one is receiving, no matter how reluctant impression people might give at first hand.”
Sara Cervera / Unsplash
The impact of her actions started to dawn to Verena slowly, step by step - “drip, drip, drip,” as Verena describes it. People began to respond by saying, “I can’t take the chocolate, I am diabetic, but please don’t stop offering it to me.” She then turned Chocolate Angel into business and became an entrepreneur. The core idea of the Chocolate Angel was to offer positive energy for events, companies or whoever with hourly pay. “However, it was never financially successful. But I was able to make up to 200 people happy in an hour. That’s something,” she confesses.
Verena wants to emphasise that it is not about It could not work as a business, but she actually did not even want to scale up the idea. “It is more than just a service. There is a deeper underlying meaning for me. It is coming from my soul”.
Pexels - Fauxels
When Verena initiated her habit of giving out chocolate, she never really thought about the actual consequences. Today, however, she contributes to generating an ambience where everybody gets treated the same way. She gives the same smile to everyone. She is just as approachable to a member of a leadership team as well as any other employee. This might actually provide a sense of inclusion for the managers too. Verena shows that for her, they are just as approachable and humane as everyone else.
Anne Nygård / Unsplash
“Meeting me is like Finnish Sauna. In the sauna, everyone is naked, equal. The refugee is sitting next to the president. For me, it does not make any difference. I have made Jorma Ollila smile, I have made Risto Siilasmaa smile and I’ve even made Tarja Halonen smile. But the encounters with refugees and seeing any other people’s smile is just as valuable for me,” she states dauntlessly.
“I don't forget anyone, but the fact that people I’ve met don’t forget me is already a sign of the deepest kind of appreciation I can receive. That is why I believe that another human being is worth my positive energy. Did you know that smiles have huge health benefits? There is scientific proof that a smile makes you more resilient. And there are so many other elements too. But please… ask the next question… haha,” Verena continues.
We’ve covered only a couple of the topics I wanted to ask Verena, and the time is almost running out. Verena reminds me that “We still have 20 minutes” as I look at the numerous questions I still want to ask her. The control freak inside me sputters, but I decide to let it go. It is good for me to see how other people interpret situations. It is enriching to see that there are so many others, who are not me. After all, I am really not the person to nag about other people going on sidetracks. In times when I grovel to my hole of enthusiasm, I can juggle with three overlapping stories that go on for ages. Verena’s presence revives that I am not the only one. She makes me feel tolerant about myself, hopefully for others too. There is something intriguing in the conversation. I start to think that maybe the fact that I am a little rip-roaring enthusiastic makes me unique? And just like that, through the screen of my thinkpad, she pushed me to discover more value in me. (And I haven’t even had the chocolate yet).
Verena believes that increasing diversity, inclusion and equality should start with two steps: Acknowledging that we biasedly tend to think there is no issue. In progressive countries such as Finland, there is a common biased belief that our society is already equal in all dimensions. This is not the whole truth, and there is a lot of work to be done. We have to start by acknowledging that. Connecting people on a one-on-one level, from diverse circumstances, across the borders. Meeting people one-on-one in instinctive circumstances broadens one’s mindset and decreases the we-those-setting.
The most crucial learning Verena brings along with Chocolate Angel to Cargotec is that she doesn’t care about borders. In companies such as Cargotec, which have strong brands such as Hiab, Kalmar and MacGregor, it is not uncommon to catch yourself getting siloed. Verena doesn’t care about the department or business unit. She has the ability to unite people by daring to deconstruct organisational structures in the name of unity and equity, and that is something we all could learn a lot from.
"I learned along the way that every positive gesture and the resulting smile creates a ripple effect. Those are incredibly important at work but also beyond in our private lives. Join me in sending waves of positive ripples into every corner of the world!" Verena summarises.