Latina Entrepreneur LuLu Gets Her Just Desserts

LuLu Maria de Lourdes Sobrino
Latina entrepreneur Maria de Lourdes Sobrino, builds a sweet business

 

This Latina entrepreneur is still going strong after all these years...here's her backstory...

While some successful CEOs are quick to downplay their humble professional beginnings, Maria de Lourdes Sobrino never tires of recounting her early struggles as an entrepreneur. In fact, it’s a story she likes sharing with would-be business owners.

“I want to help other Latina entrepreneurs get started, have them learn from my experiences,” says the founder of LuLu’s Dessert, a Vernon, California-based maker of ready-to-eat gelatin snacks and other desserts. “I want to share my story about being an immigrant and coming here and building a business”

LuLu Latina entrepreneurAnd share she does. Ms. Sobrino regularly gives talks at schools and community functions. At the time of this interview she was preparing to travel to Cancun to address aspiring Latino entrepreneurs in her native country.

LuLu on Hispanic entrepreneurs

“I really believe Mexicans can do the same thing, become entrepreneurs in their own country. They just need to learn how. They just need to believe in themselves and put it together,” she says. Ms. Sobrino is eager to serve as a mentor because she knows all too well how difficult it can be to start and run a business without one.

As she’s wont to tell audiences, no one was there for her when she started LuLu’s Dessert in 1982. And unlike today, there was no Internet and little in the way of support networks for fledgling entrepreneurs.

One reason Ms. Sobrino is popular as a public speaker is her enviable status as a pioneer. LuLu’s Dessert is widely viewed as having helped revolutionize the food industry’s ready-to-eat gelatin category.

Today, the company manufactures more than 45 products at its 64,000-square-foot plant, which Ms. Sobrino bought from ice cream maker Baskin- Robbins four years ago. LuLu’s annually sells some 60 million cups of gelatin in the United States and Mexico and expects to gross upwards of $11 million when its current fiscal year closes.

USA Today has declared Ms. Sobrino “the queen of ready-to eat gelatin,” and she continues to collect professional accolades. Her numerous honors include being named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by the National Foundation for Women Legislators, in partnership with the Business Women’s Network and the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Office of Women Business Ownership.

“It has really been a great story, one that nobody can take away from me,” says this Latina entrepreneur. “It hasn’t been all great, though. We’ve had growing pains. But you come to realize that’s part of running a business, and you move on.”

From IBM To Latina Entrepreneur

Indeed, perhaps the main reason audiences flock to hear Ms. Sobrino speak is the irresistible bootstrap quality of her life’s story. Born the oldest of five children in Mexico City, Ms. Sobrino earned degrees in accounting and business administration before going to work for IBM. Quickly realizing that she was an entrepreneur at heart, she quit after just 18 months to open a flower shop in a large Mexico City hotel, later founding an events-organizing business that evolved into a travel agency.

Latina entrepreneur Lulu The latter company, which handled corporate accounts in San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Miami, brought her – a husband and young daughter in tow – to Los Angeles, where she opened a second office in 1981. The following year, however, peso devaluation devastated the Mexican economy, taking Ms. Sobrino’s travel business down with it.

Intent on making a go of it in the United States, she briefly tried her hand at importing Mexican arts and crafts before hitting on the concept of producing and selling gelatin. The idea was born of Ms. Sobrino’s own experiences as a consumer.

A staple in Mexico, ready-to-eat gelatin was nonexistent in the United States at the time. So she began concocting treats that friends and neighbors insisted were vastly superior to Jell-O®, which back then was available in packaged-powder form only.

Nickname LuLu

After settling on her childhood nickname, LuLu, for her incipient enterprise (a neighbor had suggested it), Ms. Sobrino leased a 700-square-foot storefront in Torrance, California. The accommodations were so Spartan that she used a milk crate as an office chair. Money was tight – she had by now exhausted her savings – and even without seeing the modest venture firsthand, Ms. Sobrino’s family worried about her.

“My family felt sorry for me. They thought I was selling on the street. In Mexico it’s common to see people selling gelatin on the street. They had no idea what kind of volume I was doing,” she says. Business was very slow initially, prompting Ms. Sobrino to add sandwiches, baked goods, and coffee to her menu, to little effect. Desperate to carve out a market niche, she came up with what would prove to be a signal idea: three-layer gelatin in single-serving cups.

Ms. Sobrino began producing 300 cups a day to present to independent shops and bakeries in nearby Latino communities. By 1983, the Boys Markets chain had begun carrying LuLu’s gelatins, leading to opportunities with other California grocers.

To meet growing demand, LuLu’s set up shop in a 3,000- square-foot production facility in Gardena, California, in 1985. Four years later, with the help of an $800,000 SBA loan, Ms. Sobrino took charge of a 15,000-square-foot plant in Huntington Beach.

Growth Leads to Challenges

But the rapid growth brought problems. To ensure production levels, Ms. Sobrino was forced to retain the Gardena building while her new digs were readied, paying the mortgage on both facilities for a span of nine months. And after completing the move to Huntington Beach, she bought new equipment, added staff, and invested in a new line of frozen fruit bars. She ended up losing the Gardena facility and her home as a result of the crushing debt load, which took her five years to pay down.

 

Pages

About the author