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Looking for leads? There are hundreds of thousands of people smack dab in your target market wanting to learn more about your expertise. You’ve got to love that! But how do you go about finding these people and how do you engage and develop a relationship?
Maria de Lourdes SOBRINO
Founder and CEO Lulu’s Dessert
When Featured Lady Maria de Lourdes Sobrino arrived in the United States in 1982, all she wanted was a true Mexican dessert. Unable to find one, she recognized a need, filled it and revolutionized the food industry by creating the first-ever ready-to-eat gelatin product. Maria named her company, Lulu’s Dessert, and it is now one of the fastest growing and most profitable brands in the food industry. In addition, as a result of her leadership and influence, Maria earned an invitation to President George W. Bush’s 2002 Economic Forum in Waco, Texas to represent small businesses. She was also a featured speaker with Donnie Deutsch at the 2008 Microsoft Small Business Summit, a four-day event reaching 200,000 on-line viewers.
Maria was a successful travel agent in Mexico City with an office in Los Angeles when the dissolution of the peso occurred in 1982. Suddenly, her Mexican business was in trouble and eventually folded, so she came to the United States intending to stay only a few years. While in America, Maria couldn’t find the ready-to-eat gelatin dessert so common in her native country. With her entrepreneurial spirit ready for a challenge, she decided to begin making it herself.
Using her own mother’s recipe, Maria launched her business in 1982 with money from her savings and the sale of property in Mexico City. When considering what to call her company, a neighbor suggested Maria use her nickname, Lulu, and it stuck. Maria liked the idea of personalizing her brand this way. Maria started Lulu’s Dessert by making 300 individual-serving cups of gelatin each day, selling her product to grocery stores on a consignment basis with virtually no competition. Despite Maria’s family thinking she was crazy and the American consumer not understanding the product, she persevered.
Unbeknownst to Maria, introducing her dessert created the first ever ready-to-eat gelatin category in the United States, eleven years before Kraft, ConAgra and Del Monte began stocking grocery store shelves with their versions. Her product initially came in flavors like orange and strawberry as well as texture flavors such as creamy and rice pudding. Once consumers discovered Lulu’s Dessert, they realized it was a novel concept – priced right and very convenient. Basically, the public ate it up.
In the 1990s, once competition did enter the marketplace, the gelatin category exploded and Lulu’s Dessert grew even more. Growth brought many challenges for Maria, such as human resources issues, methods of distribution, product development and refrigeration options. Maria discovered that it was difficult to find a building with the appropriate amount of refrigeration to keep her products cold, so she ended up buying a 62,000 sq ft. plant that was once owned by Baskin Robbins.
Maria used profits from the company to keep Lulu’s Dessert going, even forgoing drawing her own salary for the first three years. Eventually, she secured loans from the Small Business Administration and local banks in order to expand.
However, in 1992 Maria was feeling overwhelmed. She had recently lost her father and was feeling guilty for not being in Mexico with her family. For a year, she contemplated moving home, and even sent her furniture back to Mexico. Ultimately, Maria remained in the United States after an important realization – many people were depending on her business for their livelihood, from her employees to suppliers and distributors. It wasn’t just about her anymore.
Throughout her business success, Maria experienced personal disappointment. Her first husband was not supportive of her dream and didn’t want to see her succeed. Eventually, the marriage ended in divorce and Maria became the single mom of two daughters.
Maria is proud that after 27 years in business she is still the sole owner of Lulu’s Dessert. She admits that in the past she has been very reluctant to consider bringing in partners for additional business growth; however, now she is considering possibilities that will take Lulu’s Dessert to the next level.
Along her entrepreneurial journey, Maria developed a passion for supporting other women business owners. In 2007, Maria published her first book, Thriving Latina Entrepreneurs in America, in which she shares her story, along with the stories of seven other successful Latina business women.
Currently, Maria is on the advisory board for NAWBO LA, Rancho Santiago Community College Foundation, NAFIN (Nacional Financiera, an investment bank in Mexico) and Latina Style Magazine in Washington, D.C. Maria is also a founding member of the Working Families for Wal-Mart (WFMM) steering committee.
What we learned from Maria: “I believe that we all must constantly adapt and improve ourselves. I see a lot of talent in women, we have special qualities that help us fulfill our dreams. We can’t be afraid and need to have the ability to overcome obstacles.”
Mentors are Key
“I found wonderful mentors to help me along. They either felt sorry for me or saw something in me. I have mentors in different areas to help me make decisions. They’re my advisory board. These people help me move faster.”
Thrive on Competition
“The industry changes and competition also makes you change. Competitors can help your product succeed. Lulu’s Dessert benefited from the advertising done by our competitors. Also, with all the possible competition out there, make sure you trademark your name.”
“My advice to women entrepreneurs would be to start small. Nothing happens immediately. You need to create excitement for your brand.”