This year has been a very good year for Julia Birnn Fields, the president and fourth-generation owner of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont.
In April, the 35-year-old was named Vermonter of the Month by the Attorney General’s office. In May her son Teo was born. And in November she was recognized as one of Vermont Business Magazine’s 40 Rising Stars under 40.
The Hinesburg resident said she was surprised by the Rising Star award. “It’s definitely a recognition that has been on my radar,” she said. “I’ve had colleagues who were chosen over the years and it’s something I looked up to.”
Fields and her husband Mel joined the family business in 2010, and took the reins in 2016.
“I’m the first woman president and a fourth-generation owner,” Fields said. “It’s a huge weight that we hold, particularly for my husband because he’s not a blood relative.” Prior to joining the firm, the pair had a very different lifestyle: Fields worked as a ski instructor and the couple served as caretakers of a private island on Lake Champlain. “We worked hard but it was nice to go home and not think about work,” she said. “That’s not a luxury we have anymore.”
After being nominated, Fields was told to submit a cover letter and resume, something she hadn’t done in over a decade. “It was a bit of a scramble,” she said, but in the end, she was one of the 40 Vermonters honored.
The Vermonter of the Month award was bestowed on Fields by Attorney General T. J. Donovan in honor of Birnn Chocolates’ work with New Americans. Fields said that when her father and uncle moved the business to Vermont in 1991, they hired immigrants through the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.
“News spread by word of mouth, and now in some cases we have multiple people from the same family. Some have come from such hardship that we’re happy to give them a place to work where they can feel valued and comfortable, she said.”
Birnn Chocolates offers free English lessons to all their employees.
The two honors have raised the company’s Vermont profile since Birnn Chocolates is a wholesale manufacturer without a storefront. “We are behind the scenes,” Fields said. “We’ve been in the same location since 1991 but people didn’t really know about us so it’s neat to be discovered locally.”
Teo, born in May, has been a transition for the couple. “It’s a surreal experience juggling new motherhood, the business and renovating our home,” Fields said. “We bring him to work to visit with the staff but that doesn’t make for a productive day because he has lots of people offering to be aunties and uncles.”
Fields is happy she can share the workload with her husband. “We’re a great team,” she said. “It’s hard because there is no longer a wall between home and work but Teo has helped by being a priority and helping us live in the moment.” The couple has different strengths, so they play different roles in the company. “If we tried to do everything together if wouldn’t work,” she said.
Fields admits there are times she wishes she was still an employee, rather than an owner. During their island caretaker days, they worked from sunrise to sunset, but now they’ve traded the sun for fluorescent lights.
“It was a hard transition to go from outside to inside,” she said “but the benefits outweigh the negatives.”