02/20/2013 12:09 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Expat-Entrepreneurs In The Developing World -- Why Jeff And Maria Opted Out Of The Fast Lane To Start Over In Ecuador

"One of the biggest pluses for us is the medical care. It's so much more personal here than in the United States. We can chat with our physician for an hour or more anytime we have a question or a concern. This is a big deal to us. And, of course, it's also nice that the cost of care is much, much lower than in the States..."

Jeff Stern is an American expat living in Quito. Jeff didn't move to Ecuador to retire. However, after years working in Washington, D.C. with various foreign aid groups and several stints as foreign aid workers overseas, Jeff and his wife Maria were ready for a change.

"I was frustrated by what I perceived as a general lack of integrity in Washington," Jeff explains. "Both my wife and I knew we wanted another chance to be living overseas but no opportunity was presenting itself. Finally, we realized, we'd have to create our own opportunity."

This meant not only planning and engineering a move, but also figuring out how to generate an income.

"Before the move, I was an aspiring chocolatier and professional cook," Jeff explains. "Our relocation to a new country seemed like the ideal time to pursue this interest more directly."

When it came to deciding where to go, Jeff had it easier, perhaps, than many would-be expats or retirees overseas. His wife Maria was born and raised in Quito, so Ecuador seemed an obvious choice for where to launch this next stage of their lives.

"Our plan," Jeff continues, "was to be the first high-end producer of sophisticated bonbons and other chocolate products in Ecuador. Our first year, we had high hopes for our new Gianduja Chocolates business because of our 'first-mover' advantage. We had little to no competition. We landed a few regular accounts and did some Christmas bazaars and other events for publicity and sales. But we also faced all the challenges a small business in Ecuador can face. Living and doing business in Ecuador is not all roses.

"We struggled with bureaucracy in the form of long lines... arbitrary answers to questions that seemed to depend on who you were talking to, what time of day it was, maybe the phase of the moon... answers to the same questions that would differ radically from one person and one day to another person the next... regulations that seemed to have no basis in any logic we could process."

Jeff and Maria persevered and pushed forward. Their business did not take off as fast as they had hoped, but, today, five years later, they are established, earning a living, and growing both their reputation and their revenue. It helps that Ecuador is the world's largest producer of "fine aroma" cocoa (only 5 percent to 10 percent of the world's cocoa is considered fine aroma). This is the cocoa that goes into the world's best chocolates, pastries and desserts.

Having gained an in-depth knowledge of the chocolate industry, Jeff and his wife have branched out to offer chocolate workshops and tours to cocoa-growing regions of the country. They have partnered with both Ecole Chocolat, an online chocolate school, and The Gourmandise School, a culinary school in Santa Monica, to broaden their market and reach. They provide consulting and industry advice to both local and foreign companies wanting to source cocoa or chocolate products from Ecuador.

"Perhaps the most important thing we've learned," Jeff says, "is that, living in Ecuador or any developing country, you have to pick your battles. Things work here the way they work. You'll run out of time and energy before you'll change anything. You need to accept that.

"We Americans are very trusting," Jeff continues. "This is partially cultural, but it's also because Americans count on recourse. They come from a place where there's a functioning judicial system. They know that the Better Business Bureau is always on their side. Ecuadoreans don't come from the same background and don't approach life or business from that point of view.

"Doing business here has been a real challenge. On the other hand, for us as a family, our time here in Ecuador has been wonderful. This is the first and foremost reason we stay -- the lifestyle advantages, both for us and for the kids. We are all now fully bilingual and bicultural. And while we face many of the same issues that children and their parents face everywhere, our lives are less about commercialism and more about personal interaction than they might be in the United States. And our children get to watch their parents struggle with the challenges of doing business in a developing country!"

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