2004 was a year that Michael Stebinger will always remember. Stebinger was the top winner at the recent Global Student EntrepreneurSM Awards ceremony honoring the world’s best college entrepreneurs. If running a business and going to school were not enough of a challenge for him, Stebinger, a senior at Utah Valley State College, and his wife Angie also celebrated the birth of their first child soon after.
The GSEAs are student entrepreneurs’ version of college football’s Heisman trophy. Last year, 18 regions, including all of North America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and China, participated in the competition. From that group, 15 regional winners came together to compete for first-place honors and a grand prize of $10,000.
The awards were presented at the College Entrepreneurs’ Organization annual conference in Chicago. The GSEAs are a program of the John Cook School of Business at Saint Louis University. The overall winner received a $10,000 grand prize and the innovation and social impact category winners each earned $3,000.
Stebinger, a business management major, founded Tropi-Cool, a Latin style ice cream parlor that specializes in producing authentic Mexican paletas, or fresh fruit bars, and fruit drinks. The business has flourished since 2003 and the franchise recently expanded into Arizona and Texas.
Here’s our interview with Stebinger, including his reflections on the people who helped him make it to the top, the advice he has for any young person looking to make their own money, and what he plans to conquer next.
So, how did you get the idea to start Tropi-Cool?
STEBINGER: Well, my wife actually grew up in Northern Mexico and she was raised on the fresh fruit bars or ‘paletas’ as they call them in Mexico, the fresh fruit drinks and other products. One night her brother, now my business partner, was over and we were all sitting around the kitchen table visiting. They started reminiscing about home, or Mexico, and talking about the things they missed. Someone made the comment that nowadays they could find most all of the products they missed from Mexico here in the U.S. but still couldn’t find an authentic paleta to satisfy their craving for a refreshing fruit bar, packed with real fresh fruit, like those only sold in Mexico. So, they recognized the need and I saw the opportunity.
How did you find the money to start the company?
STEBINGER: My wife and I actually spent a few months learning about real estate and how to buy and sell a foreclosure property for a profit. When the right deal came along, we bought a home at auction, cleaned it up and sold it, all within about a month’s time. We were able to profit enough money to get the business started.
Where did you get the motivation to pull something like this off?
STEBINGER: I’ve always known that working for someone else wouldn’t give me the lifestyle I want for myself and for my family. It seems that either people have plenty of money but no time to enjoy it, or plenty of time, but no money. I want to have both. I felt like being in business for myself was one way to achieve that. Of course, we aren’t at that point yet. It will take time and a lot of effort to get where I want to be, but a clear vision of what I want my future to look like is what motivates me from day to day.
What advice would you offer to people coming out of college who are interested in doing something on their own like you’ve done?
STEBINGER: I would say, start as soon as you can out of college or, even better during college, because the more comfortable you become with the lifestyle a regular job creates, the less likely you’ll be to take the risk of starting your own business. A big advantage of being a student or recent graduate is the willingness of other successful entrepreneurs to help you along the way. Mentorship is key.
So, what’s the future from here?
STEBINGER: As for Tropi-Cool we will continue to grow our business throughout the western United States, targeting our niche market. As for other interests, I continue to be the typical entrepreneur always exploring new business ideas and markets. Regardless of the path or paths that I take, I’m extremely excited about what the future holds.
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Entrepreneurship on the Web
Global Student Entrepreneur Awards: The GSEA program gives more than $80,0000 to college entrepreneurs each year. Eligible students can visit the website to download an application form for the 2005 awards.
Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization: CEO is the premier global entrepreneurship network serving more than 500 colleges and universities. Students can register online for the 2005 national conference.
Small Business Television Network: Video footage of the GSEA presentation is available on this website devoted to the small business market—from business start-ups to established enterprises.
YOUNG MONEY: The website’s entrepreneur channel features expert advice, student profiles and small business calculators.