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Profile: Maria de Lourdes Sobrino, Founder and CEO, LuLu?s Dessert Corp.

For all those women who think of an idea for a small business—sometimes it###s a product they wish they could find on the market but can###t—there###s hope. Take it from Maria de Lourdes Sobrino, founder, president and CEO of LuLu###s Dessert Factory based in Anaheim, California. Sobrino began mixing up her mother###s recipe for gelatin by hand in 1982 after she discovered the popular Mexican dessert wasn###t available in the U.S. Her neighbors loved the tasty dish and encouraged her to enlarge her efforts. Today, many hours of hard work and lots of square feet expansion later, her company has revenues of more than $9.5 million. Like most entrepreneurial paths, hers wasn###t easy: It involved tough choices, overcoming her family###s traditional expectations for Mexican women, and the stresses of ownership and full responsibility. At a recent Small Business Administration/National Association of Women Business Owners sponsored conference, Sobrino detailed highlights of her career and offered advice to others.

Sobrino and her family came from Mexico City, where she began working in the convention and event planning businesses. She had worked for IBM as a business programmer but quickly decided she wanted a more active job. Many of my ideas and businesses have been started because of what others suggested, she says. It teaches you to listen to the market.

When Sobrino searched for the gelatin desserts she used to have as a child and had no luck, she called her mom and aunts in Mexico for the recipe and decided to start producing them for the growing Hispanic community in the U.S.

I was naïve, she laughs. I found out I needed to have a location, follow all the requirements, etc. So I got a retail location immediately, but noone was buying the product. Then I realized it was in an Anglo area. What I needed were first-generation Mexicans. So I suggested to stores that I provide the product first on a consignment basis, and that###s how I really got started.

The three keys to Sobrino###s success weren###t magic: Responsibility, dedication, and hard, hard work. She also found her niche and focused on building relationships with clients, always making sure that she made many of the sales calls herself, even after her business was well-established.

The biggest challenges she faced were in production capacity as supermarkets eventually asked for large orders—a nice problem to have—she says. Still, it took two years to expand into the industrial-sized location she needed to meet that production growth in 1985. After three years, Sobrino still took no salary, had no credit, reinvested all her profits, and was not open to investors. In 1989 her bank approved her for a $1 million loan through the SBA to expand capacity including refrigeration so she could produce frozen foods. She took on a partner, was shipping to Europe, Australia and other markets, and by 2000 had moved into a 64,000 sq. ft. plant. Some products, such as the fancy fruit she had introduced, did not succeed, however. She stresses the importance of not losing focus.

By the late 1990s the awards began coming her way: a Women of Enterprise award from Avon, notice from the U.S. Small Business Association, and many business and community achievement recognitions from the Latin Business Association, Working Woman Magazine and the Orange County Business Journal. She is now studying strategic alliances and exit strategies to stay ahead of changes in the business climate.

Above all else, it took strength for Sobrino to achieve what she has not only as a woman, but as a Latina. In 1992, after her husband had left her because she chose the business over attending to his needs, she herself considered going back to Mexico due to pressures from her family. Then I walked into the factory and it sounds corny, but I saw all the gelatins going into the conveyors, and all the people working, and I thought, a lot of people depend on me. What will happen if I close this down? The bank won###t get paid. People will lose their jobs. I had already sent my furniture to Mexico. But I looked around and I told myself, God gave me the intelligence and the fortitude to do this, and this is my future. And I don###t regret it.