College staff member and alumnus enjoy sweet deal.


Svietlana Babienko

Svietlana Babienko (BBA ’02), database administrator/systems analyst in the College of Business Administration and Evening MBA student, loves chocolate and greatly misses the decadently rich dark variety she associates with her native Russia. A chance meeting with Fernando Panizo (BBA ’00), general manager of Helena Chocolatier, gave her the satisfaction of sampling chocolate much to her liking and opened a relationship between the alumnus and the college that promises to help him expand his company’s presence in the United States, with ample benefits for the college as well.

“After a hectic day on December 30, 2005, I decided I needed to get my hair cut but every place was booked. I begged the very busy owner of the salon on campus to take me, and he did, at 6:00 p.m.,” Babienko said. “I noticed a man passing out candy to the employees and, out of curiosity and boredom, I spoke to him. He gave me a chocolate that was beautifully presented and with the taste I prefer. When I found out that he had graduated from the college, I thought it would be good for him to meet some of our administrators and professors because it might help him and the college, too.”

Still, she hesitated.

“I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing I was doing or not,” she said. “However, when I told Annabelle Rojas, (MBA ’98, BBA ’87), director of external relations and resource development, about my idea, she was very enthusiastic, and she and Panizo met a month later. Monique Catoggio, (EMBA ’03), director of alumni and partner relations, was not able to attend the initial meeting, but by accident Executive Dean Joyce J. Elam happened to meet him that day also, and Catoggio has met with him since.”

Babienko’s initial instincts pay off.


Fernando Panizo

“These kinds of referrals are extremely important to the college,” said Rojas, who shared Babienko’s enthusiasm for the elegant appearance and marvelous taste of the chocolates, which are between a piece of candy and a full-fledged dessert. “Actions like hers help us advance our name and strengthen our association with alumni who value what we do and often want to contribute to our efforts. Panizo is a great entrepreneur and wants to do things with and for the college, so Babienko was right: we can help each other. Also, this episode shows the dedication of some of our employees, who are always thinking about the college.”

An early event that benefited both parties was the seventh annual Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Luncheon on May 17, 2006, at which alumni and corporate friends of the college had the pleasure of tasting Panizo’s favorite chocolate—and the company’s most popular offering—Pecan Chocoteja. Through his generosity, each guest received a complimentary sample, and he got extensive exposure for his products.

In addition, professors in the Department of Marketing may work with him to achieve consistency in his materials aimed at the vast U.S. market.

“I appreciate how the college is using my products to delight very important and influential people and to help me in other ways,” he said. “The local market is so international that it is a good fit for the style of chocolate we make. Soon, we will offer my products at a twenty percent discount to students and alumni.”

Guests in American Airlines’ first class cabins also have the pleasure of enjoying the pecan confection.

“This is my greatest success,” he said. “I am so proud to see that my Tejas are served on the same tray as Coke, 30,000 feet high.”

Past and present experiences in the college prove vital to Panizo.

The new connection isn’t the first time Panizo has had a positive experience with the college. He attributes most of his business knowledge to Operations Management, Managerial Accounting, and Strategic Management, the latter of which he took in Croatia through the college’s study-abroad program. He applied what he learned in positions at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and later, with Caribbean Marketing Resorts, before joining the family company, in which his parents and three other family members work.

Helena Chocolatier, based in Peru and launched in 1975, was named for Panizo’s mother, Elena, with the H added partially to honor the “hombre” who helped her: Panizo’s father. The business—prompted by compliments from neighbors about the sweets Elena made for Fernando’s five older brothers’ birthdays—began in the family kitchen, expanded into a small factory within the house, and then grew into a standalone facility. Today, the company employs one hundred people at a manufacturing plant in Ica, Peru, and will open a second site in Lima to handle the export business.

Though he has considerable business skills, as far as his talent for making the candy, Panizo takes no credit.

“I know how to make some chocolates when I go to the factory; however, it is not my strength,” he said. “Eating them is.”

The relationship with the college for which Babienko laid the foundation was formed less than a year ago, but it has proven important enough for Panizo to acknowledge, “I have no words to thank my alma mater. Someday, I hope to give back a lot more.”

For more information about Helena Chocolatier, visit http://www.helenachocolatier.com/Merchant/index.html. If you have a similar referral idea that can re-connect an alum and the college in a way to benefit both, send an email to Rojas at Annabelle.Rojas@fiu.edu.