The Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) is committed to building the world's most influential community of entrepreneurs. One way we encourage and support young entrepreneurs is through the EO Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA), EO's premier competition for university students who own and operate a business. The competition culminates with the Global Finals, where "studentpreneurs" from 50+ countries compete and make connections with both seasoned entrepreneurs and fellow competitors. The 2019 EO GSEA second place winner, Alberto Soto Benítez, represented Guatemala in the intense, international competition. We asked Alberto, co-founder of Utopia Premium Tea, about his entrepreneurial journey. Here's what he shared:
Tell us about your company.
I started my company--one of Guatemala's first tea blending companies--after identifying a lack of quality tea in the Central American market. On my journey to find the best possible product by focusing on local growers, I discovered that Guatemala's Cobán region produces exquisite tea. I am committed to exposing the world to Cobán tea, which will both strengthen our brand and help farmers in that region flourish.
What inspired you to start your business?
Since age 7, my father encouraged me to work and earn money. I would sell bananas to local construction workers at lunchtime. I learned a lot and started to develop critical negotiation skills.
From an early age, I knew my mission was to help people. More than 50 percent of Guatemalans live under the extreme poverty line--I felt I had to do something for them. I used to think politics was the way to change our country, but reading about business and economic growth changed my perspective. I learned that sustainable impact is created through job creation.
The idea of creating impactful and sustainable growth for people around me caught both my heart and mind, and I knew I would start a company that helped people. I believe that businesses and the people who run them are agents of prosperity and sustainability.
What lessons did you learn from your company's experience in the coffee market?
I was supplying coffee to the Marriott chain of hotels in Guatemala. They were our largest client by far. Although our business was strong, one day I had the client, and the next day, I lost them. It felt like my entire world was falling to pieces.
That failure led to a great opportunity. In looking to diversify, I discovered that Guatemala had only low-quality imported tea, so we established one of the first tea blending companies using 100 percent local ingredients. It was a long and difficult road, but a most empowering one!
I learned that positioning one red ocean product or service in a client's operation is like a carrot in the soil--it can be pulled out easily. To become an integral provider, you must diversify the product line and try to create a root system in your client's operations. That way, you become more valuable, and it gives you leverage in the form of negotiation power. Root systems are more difficult to pull out.
Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur?
Yes, I consider myself a social entrepreneur. We utilize only local resources to make sure our impact stays here in our country. While that strategy can slow us down at times, the gratification of working on sustainable impact and seeing the benefit of this approach assures us that we chose the right path.
Because we offer local tea blends with fresh ingredients which are high in quality and reasonable in price, we are providing added value to local farmers. The Cobán region is in the most impoverished state of our country economically, but it is blessed with highlands that are ideal for tea production.
Instead of farming corn--which doesn't pay enough--farmers are now growing tea, lavender, chamomile, marigold and cardamom. Chamomile earns them four times more income than corn! These crops enable them to support their families.
Tell us about your GSEA competition experience.
The GSEA competition is very well-known in my university. I feel lucky that I was chosen to participate. I learned so much from other studentpreneurs at the GSEA Global Finals--so many brilliant young minds working on innovative projects to solve our world's challenges.
Interacting with fellow student entrepreneurs is the fuel that helps me keep pushing boundaries. They give me hope and a sense of healthy competition. As the only operating partner in my business, I felt alone when making big decisions. Now that I have entrepreneurial friends in other countries, I have a community where I can ask for advice.
The magnitude of GSEA, the quality of competitors and the level of detailed planning indicate to me that it is probably the best student entrepreneur competition in the world.
What are your plans to evolve your business in the future?
With the GSEA cash prize, I bought tea packing machines so that we can supply more tea, faster, to our growing client base. We are on the journey of making Utopia a world-renowned coffee and tea brand, with our strongest presence being in restaurants, hotels, cafés and supermarkets. Our vision for the future is to continue producing high-quality products while expanding our client base locally and internationally. So, we are looking for distributors of the brand in other countries.
My ultimate goal is to help create a legacy for the Cobán region, which grows extraordinary tea. I intend to help make Guatemala to tea what Napa Valley is to grapes. I am working hard to create this legacy for Guatemala in the hope that it will benefit indigenous landowners in the Cobán region.