Lulu Sobrino: A story of chance, opportunity and Mexican gelatin
In life, sometimes we stumble upon things by pure chance. One day while I was at the office, we were all sitting around discussing possible story ideas. Every idea that was thrown at the wall didn’t stick, and personally, I was stuck as well. It was like I hit a dead end and I didn’t have enough room to reverse. Sitting innocently on the bookshelf was a white book with a red stripe on the spine that read “Thriving Latina Entrepreneurs in America.” I picked it up and on the front of the cover was Maria de Lourdes Sobrino, nicknamed “Lulu,” the CEO and founder of Lulu’s Desserts. Curiously, I read through her story and became inspired: she was a hardworking woman with a burning desire to make something great of herself and her business. We managed to squeeze a phone interview into her busy schedule while she was in the airport on the way to Mexico. Sobrino was going there to spend time with her family, the most important part of her life that inspired her to be an entrepreneur.
Growing up, Sobrino was expected to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. However, one day a realization hit her that she wanted to help her family in the immediate sense instead of waiting to become a lawyer. She came from a family of entrepreneurs, from her grandparents to her parents, and she decided she was going to join their ranks. She decided to go to Helena Herlihy Hall, an all-girl Catholic vocational school in Mexico City. At the age of 17, she received a certificate as a private accountant and an executive bilingual secretary.
After this, she went on to work at IBM, becoming the first female systems programmer in Mexico. Working for someone else wasn’t enough for Sobrino, though. She knew she wanted to run and own a business, as she “felt it in her blood.” Eventually, she went on to start her first business in the form of a flower shop. While at her flower shop, she started organizing events at different venues around Mexico. This was the inception of her second business, Turismo Copsa, a company that organized events for various companies around Mexico. Her second business was so successful that she decided to expand her business internationally to the United States, starting her third business, Mexico and Westside Connections, Inc. Little did she know she would end up creating a market that did not yet exist in the United States at the time.
The discovery of this untapped market happened by pure chance. While Sobrino was in the United States, she wanted to eat some Mexican gelatin. The problem was she couldn’t find it anywhere. She just couldn’t understand why it wasn’t in Redondo Beach, the city she was living in, or in the United States at all. Gelatin was a big part of her culture and her home. Her mother had taught her how to make gelatin, so she would go to Tijuana to buy the ingredients and make gelatin from scratch. An epiphany hit her: she could start selling gelatin. She left her Turismo Copsa office in Mexico City and sold off her flower shops. Armed with her mother’s recipe and her personal savings, she started Lulu’s Dessert.
When she first started Lulu’s Dessert, it was a 700-square-foot shop in Torrance, CA. She was a one-woman army, churning out 300 single-serve gelatin desserts a day. The only problem was in Torrance, the market wasn’t quite there. There wasn’t a big Hispanic community, so she didn’t really have the target audience she wanted in her immediate vicinity. Instead of waiting for customers to come to her, she had to come to them. Before she came to the United States, there was no such thing as being a “minority” or “Latina.” It was one of the biggest adjustments she had to make when she came to America. Now she’s proud to be considered Latina because she identifies with her culture.
With her confident attitude and determination, Sobrino also invented products for her company. One of the products she invented, the single-serve gelatin cup, changed the way gelatin was distributed everywhere. She saw a need for single-serve gelatin and she created a product she thought customers would benefit from. It took her competitors 11 years to finally start imitating her invention.
One day, when Sobrino was at the supermarket where her product was being sold, she saw a woman grabbing one gelatin serving after another. While Sobrino was watching, she realized that it would be so much simpler if there was a package of them available. This is how the inception of her bestselling product, the 12-pack, began. The one thing that Sobrino prides herself in is remaining close with her customers so she can adapt to their needs and tastes. Her attentiveness not only caters to the needs of the business, but to the needs of her customers has helped her business thrive.
While running a business is something Sobrino feels she was meant to do, she doesn’t believe it’s everything. She is a firm believer that everything in life is a balance. When I asked her what advice she would give fellow female entrepreneurs just starting out, she said, “It depends how much time you want to dedicate. You don’t want it to take over your life. You can be a mother and a wife, and have your own business. I did it, I have two daughters.”
It’s apparent that Sobrino is a highly capable entrepreneur from her experiences and successes with her flower shops and her tourism company. In life, though, sometimes we need the element of chance to step in, like spying a random book on a shelf. Without Sobrino’s simple desire to enjoy her favorite dessert while she was living in California, she wouldn’t have realized the untapped market for Mexican gelatin. Mixed with passion and entrepreneurship, Sobrino was able to create her most successful business of all, Lulu’s Desserts.