It starts with a single idea, one fortified over time through action. Before long, a concept turns into a company, and the entrepreneurial journey begins. Most business owners look to the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) for the direction they need along the way. For those entrepreneurs still attending high school, college or university, they use the EO Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (EO GSEA) as their compass, where they receive the resources and mentorship needed to truly thrive.
As the premier global competition for student entrepreneurs, EO GSEA is strengthening tomorrow’s business leaders, today. Contributing greatly to this program is EO Mexico City’s Pablo Hernandez O’Hagan, founder of Ingenia Group and an EO GSEA Committee member who launched the first student business competition in Mexico, ushering EO GSEA into Latin America. In this featured interview, Pablo talks about the impact of this EO program, the role young entrepreneurs are playing in his region and the value associated with cultivating the next class of entrepreneurs.
Your journey into EO GSEA began during the inaugural EO Leadership Academy, where you were first introduced to the program. What inspired you to lend your support?
“When I joined EO in 2007, I was eager to be on my chapter board and give back to my region. I started out as a Membership Chair, and was invited to apply for the first EO Leadership Academy in 2008. I was honored to be accepted among 25 other EO leaders from around the world. While at the Academy, I met Steve Showalter, an EO New York member who was the EO GSEA Chair at the time. He told me about this program that helps student entrepreneurs reach the next stage of their business, and invited me to serve as a judge at a future competition. I was immediately hooked.
“One of the biggest reasons why I wanted to support EO GSEA was because I could relate to what the student entrepreneurs were going through. I started my digital agency, Ingenia, when I was just 21. I had been building websites for people since I was 14, and decided to turn it into a business after college. Thirteen years later, I have three amazing business partners and 150 employees. Looking back, being an entrepreneur at such a young age was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It gives you a head start in business, but you also need a lot of direction and support. I was excited for the chance to provide that to other young entrepreneurs as they built their businesses.”
You went on to serve as a semi-finalist judge for a regional competition in Kansas City in 2009. How did that experience open your eyes to the full value of EO GSEA?
“I was instantly amazed at what EO GSEA was all about. I had so much energy after meeting all of the incredible entrepreneurs, all of whom were eager to learn and grow. To get the full sense of EO GSEA, you have to experience the program in person and feel the high-octane energy. As I watched the students present their companies, it reminded me of when I was that age and starting my company. These young entrepreneurs are like gazelles; they’re moving so fast and thinking outside of the box. They’re hungry to discover new ways to build their businesses.
“A true component of being a successful entrepreneur is having great mentors, and EO GSEA gives you that. As a volunteer judge, I saw firsthand the immense value of the program and the role it plays in the lives of these entrepreneurs. As a contestant, you’re exposed to great judges who question your business model and teach you how to strengthen it; you’re introduced to networks of peers who are eager to share their experiences; and you leave with extensive knowledge that can help you grow your business. These connections and opportunities are invaluable for emerging entrepreneurs. Ultimately, they learn just as much from us as we do from them.”
While in Kansas City, you saw a need for an EO GSEA presence in Mexico City. Why did you think a competition for student entrepreneurs would work well in your region?
“That regional competition really opened my eyes to the possibilities. Latin America, especially Mexico, is quickly becoming a hotbed for entrepreneurs. What’s been happening in this country in terms of entrepreneurship is fantastic. If you came here 10 years ago, you wouldn’t recognize it. We have so many venture capital firms investing in ideas now, which didn’t really exist before. There’s roughly US$300 million dollars ready to be invested in Mexican businesses, many of which are led by student entrepreneurs. The Mexican government even created the National Institute of Entrepreneurship, and is committed to investing in business owners to grow the region. We wanted to capitalize on all of this and contribute to the growth.
“After seeing the value of EO GSEA up close, I was eager to lay a foundation for the program in my hometown. While serving as a judge in Kansas City, I met Carlos Camacho, a contestant who wound up becoming the first Mexican to make it to the Global Finals. We decided to pave the way for a competition in Mexico City. With Steve’s support, we picked a date, talked to local Universities, engaged sponsors … there was a long list of things to do. Our first win was landing the Mexican Stock Exchange as a venue. I leveraged my LinkedIn contacts and was connected with the CEO, who loved the idea of hosting student entrepreneurs in the heart of the local business landscape. He’s been lending us the stock exchange for the past five years, and has opened the doors for other stock exchanges in Colombia and Argentina. EO GSEA is something that’s naturally very appealing, which helped greatly when it came time to securing judges, gathering media and finding supporters in EO and beyond.”
In 2010, the first EO GSEA competition in Mexico City was launched with a goal of encouraging and rewarding student entrepreneurship. What was that initial competition like?
“Early on in the planning process, I met with the manager of a large venture capital fund. I told him I wanted to do a business plan competition for student entrepreneurs in the area. He said, ‘I don’t think there are many of those in Mexico right now.’ He mentioned he could be a judge. I went back to my chapter mates and shared the feedback, and they believed in the cause so much that they decided to chip in. We ended up raising around US$50,000 for the first competition. My peers were saying, ‘I have a production company, so I’ll do the sound,’ and ‘I have a design company, so I can do the marketing,’ and so on. It was amazing seeing how much they believed in the power of EO GSEA.
“To spread the word about the competition, we started running Facebook ads geared toward local students with enterprises, and began inviting judges. Before we knew it, we had generated a lot of interest. In fact, we managed to get 230 applications from student entrepreneurs! The competition wound up being very successful, and laid the groundwork for future competitions like it. After the event, I emailed that venture capital manager and shared the good news. It turned out there was a ton of interest in the area. Everyone saw the immediate value of a program that helps local entrepreneurs grow their businesses, and in turn, the economy. EO GSEA has been paving the way for young entrepreneurs in Mexico and throughout Latin America ever since.”
It’s been almost five years since that first competition, and EO GSEA has come a long way in your region. What mark has the program made over the years, and what does the future look like?
“We’ve accomplished a lot in the five years we’ve been having competitions. We now have four regional events that feed into the finals at the Mexican Stock Exchange; we’ve secured sponsorships of more than US$200,000, including one from Visa; we have a social business fund; and we had 455 applications last year alone. What’s more, Mexico now feeds 25 percent of the applications globally for EO GSEA, and half of the students in the Global Finals last year were Mexican. That’s a testament to the impact of EO GSEA in our region and the influence of our student entrepreneurs who participate each year.
“A perfect example is Jordi Munoz, an entrepreneur from Tijuana who won the Mexican competition in 2013. His company, 3D Robotics, is the largest drone manufacturer in America. He earned US$25 million last year and convinced Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, to quit and join his business. This is a guy who has been touched by EO GSEA. He’s gained access to more people thanks to the program and discovered new ways to perfect his business model. And then there’s Daniel Gomez, who went on to compete in the 2013 EO Global Finals and become a second runner-up. These are just two of many Mexican entrepreneurs who are making an even bigger mark thanks to EO GSEA.
“I believe there’s a bright future for EO GSEA throughout all of Latin America. Every year, new cities are expressing interest in hosting a competition; it’s become a point of pride. As our economy continues to strengthen, more and more student entrepreneurs will want to experience the value of this program, which will help them give back to their community. The value comes full circle. I know EO GSEA will continue to play a big role in the nurturing of entrepreneurship locally, regionally and globally, and will help fuel EO through new members, new ideas and new experiences. This is such an amazing program, and I can see there being a competition in every major city around the world.”
Looking back, what has your involvement in EO GSEA taught you about entrepreneurship, your region or your own entrepreneurial journey?
“Personally, I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with student entrepreneurs over the years, and it continues to be one of the most enriching experiences of my life. EO GSEA is a part of my DNA. When I look back at my journey, I’m amazed at how much of an impact it’s had on me. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by so many bright, driven students over the years, all of whom are eager to make a mark through their incredible businesses. They remind me why I got into entrepreneurship in the first place— that innate desire to change lives through entrepreneurship.
“Ultimately, EO GSEA has taught me the power of connections, and how networking is the best kind of currency entrepreneurs have. And I’ve discovered just how impactful these student entrepreneurs can be— not just in Mexico or Latin America, but throughout the world. They’re contributing to their local economies, creating jobs and revolutionizing industries every day. In my eyes, this program offers a great opportunity for every EO member to give back to those who follow in our footsteps. I’ve been working alongside fellow members like Modesto Gutierrez, Isaac Lekach and Jorge Rubio, to help build EO GSEA locally, and I’m excited to see the program continue to grow.”