She went from working on Google Glass to hosting "cacao ceremonies" in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Cacao — a concentrated chocolate brew that is said to provide mind-altering experiences — is taking over the San Francisco Bay Area. The effects are said to be so dramatic, some users compare it to "instant therapy."
Sena Shellenberger, 29, a former Google employee, quit her job in 2016 after trying cacao for the first time. She said the experience opened her eyes to realize working at the tech giant no longer aligned with her goals.
At the end of July, Shellenberger started offering online classes on the art and science of cacao under her new wellness brand, Open Your Heart with Cacao. The three-week course promises to teach participants how to prepare cacao, source its exotic ingredients, and work with the brew to break bad habits, deepen connections with others, and find joy within. It starts at $139.
The cacao she's talking about is not exactly what you find in a Hershey's chocolate bar — nor is it a code word borrowed from one memorable "Portlandia" sketch. The drink is made from mixing raw cacao paste with water and sometimes cayenne pepper and heating it.
When consumed in "ceremonial" quantities (one to two ounces), the mixture produces a wide range of reactions, from feelings of openness and ecstasy to hallucinations in rare cases, according to devotees. For centuries, the Aztec and Mayan peoples used the cacao drink as a natural remedy to relieve fever and faintness and improve digestion, among other ailments.
In the Bay Area, the cacao drink is gaining popularity with the New Age crowd. While you won't find techies sipping on the bitter brew in cafés, ceremonies centered on cacao seem to pop up on the calendar of healing collectives, tea houses, and yoga studios on a regular basis.
In 2015, Shellenberger was working as a program manager on the Google Glass team. At the time, she was commuting three hours a day from San Francisco to the company's headquarters in Mountain View and eating most of her meals at the office. Over time, she found herself becoming indecisive and unfocused in meetings. She contemplated leaving Google.
A vacation to Mexico changed all that. On a platform near the beach, a yoga instructor offered Shellenberger her first sips of the cacao drink, a brown liquid said to taste like bitter coffee cut with dirt. A warmth came over her body, and she started to experience a gentle twitching.
"It really felt like I was unraveling from this person that I was before," Shellenberger said.
Shellenberger said she returned to the Bay Area with a greater sense of clarity. She bought raw cacao online and started experimenting in her kitchen with the rituals she observed in ceremony. The internet provided her with basic recipes and medicine songs to perform.
She describes cacao as having the "lowest barrier to entry" in the plant-based medicine world.
The drink does not induce hallucinations, as some fans have claimed, but a megadose may cause physical side effects. Nutrients in the cacao bean called flavanols have been shown in studies to help lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, and fight cell damage. Better blood flow brings more oxygen to the brain, which boosts functioning.
These benefits are lost when cacao is processed for commercial chocolate production.
In March 2016, Shellenberger left Google. She spent the last year traveling in Costa Rica and Peru soaking up instruction from shamanic healers and participating in cacao ceremonies. She posted often about her adventures on social media and noticed that she received a lot of the same questions from friends. It inspired her to create a beginner's course to using cacao.
Open Your Heart with Cacao holds weekly sessions broadcast over a video conference, in which Shellenberger shares the history of cacao, lessons on how to work with it, and best practices for preparing it. She said it's important to spread and honor the ancient traditions around the sacred brew, so it doesn't "become this Silicon Valley corporate-cacao trend."
Still, Shellenberger said she hopes to someday lead cacao ceremonies as a team-building exercise at tech companies like Google.
"I loved my time at Google. I loved the people I worked with," Shellenberger said. "But I realized my passion didn't lie in the technology or the product I was working on."