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If You Want To Enter The Rice Business Plan Competition Read This

Lancaster MBA shares his experiences of reaching this year's semi-final, and why he chose the UK over the US

Sun Oct 3 2010

While you’re at business school you’ll have many opportunities to enter competitions open only to you. As well as sharpening your business skills and testing your stamina for late nights and early mornings, many of these MBA-only competitions offer serious prizes, from foreign trips to venture capital investment.

Juan Reyes Garcia, who has just completed his MBA at Lancaster University Management School, reached the semi-finals of this year’s Rice Business Plan Competition, the richest business plan competition in the world.

Mexico native Reyes, 33, took time out of his summer research project with the Co-operative Bank to tell us about his experience.

He first heard about the Rice Competition in an MBA class called “New Venture Challenge”, in which students develop a business plan for a start-up. The 2010 competition had more than $1 million in cash and prizes on offer.

Reyes Garcia was interested but didn’t know if anyone else was too. He fired an email off to his classmates suggesting that anyone who was up for the challenge should get together.

“We started discussing… one person had an idea and a team.” Full-time MBA Manoj Krishnapillai had met Commonwealth Shams Usmani at a welcome event for British Council scholars in Manchester. Usmani was researching biological water purification at Lancaster’s Environment Centre. His research was pretty advanced and he’d talked about it  with Krishnapillai, who was quick to identify the commercial potential of the idea.

So, the Lancaster team, comprising Reyes, MBAs Krishnapillai and Sonu Bubna and PhD student Shams Qamar Usmani spent two months estimating the potential of the marketplace, which markets they would start in, what their marketing strategy would be, and how much money they could make.

The first challenge was to submit an executive summary to the competition judges in February. Reyes Garcia was juggling this with a consultancy project at HSBC. Once it was announced that their executive summary had been selected for the next round they had four weeks to submit their business plan.

In total, 400 MBA teams apply for 42 places in the final in Houston. Only seven of these places are open to non-US schools. To their amazement, the Lancaster team’s business plan for Gaea Naturals was selected for the final, and also got a prize to cover their travel expenses from AAI Global Equity, one of the competition sponsors.

The quarter-finals were intense. Teams were divided into categories according to business sector. The Lancaster team was competing against three other teams in waste treatment. Other categories included medical devices, technology systems and energy.

The challenge was to present their business idea in 15 minutes, and field 15 minutes of questions from successful venture capital investors. Only 15 teams would reach the semi-final.

Again, the Lancaster team impressed the judges. “We were at the stage of developing the product in the lab,” says Reyes Garcia. “Other teams had been developing their business for five years. Some of them had already won awards and investment.” Most of the teams were from US schools and were in the second year of a two-year MBA, so they’d known about the competition for longer too.

Despite their relative lack of funding and time, the Lancaster team made it through to the semi-final. This time they were competing against a mixed group of four teams, and only one would be selected.

“The level of the teams was very high,” points out Reyes Garcia. “The team that won in our group went on to be placed second overall. We did really well to get so far”

And that wasn’t Reyes Garcia's only taste of competition during his MBA. He also entered an award-wining essay to the Interstate Programme. The Programme brings future business leaders together to discuss developments within the European Union, with a focus on its relations with the US.

Reyes Garcia’s essay on applying sustainability in business won him a three-day trip to Brussels; where he networked 50 MBAs from top US and European schools. They also debated topics like NATO intervention and Greece’s debt with politicians and experts.

He’s a long way from Mexico, but Reyes Garcia is pretty casual about his achievements. After all, he threw himself into the tough world of selling goods to Mexico’s supermarkets at the age of just 22.

Reyes Garcia was chosen to be a Procter and Gamble scholar when he was still doing his undergraduate in industrial engineering. He worked for the firm part-time as a student and when he graduated, was hired as a sales rep selling products like Ariel, Pantene and Head & Shoulders directly to Soriana, Mexico’s second-biggest retailer.

He was sent to Ciudad Juarez, a city on the US border constantly in the news for violent crime. “I had to deal and negotiate with store managers every day… products had to be in the right place and at the right price.” He was also selling to regional chain S-Mart.

After two years he was promoted to the capital, Mexico City, and put in charge of five states in central Mexico, and also the company’s strategy with government customers nationally. “I was working on operations as well as sales – ensuring the product doesn’t go out of stock, executing brand strategy, working with brand managers.”

However, not content with his “very good career” at P&G, Reyes Garcia quit and returned to his hometown of Guadalajara. There, he developed a second career as a property entrepreneur, leasing his mother’s small hair salon to a more profitable fast food business.

He went on to lease properties to a bank and a low-income consumer retail business, and later became a broker for a new shopping centre opening in the city.

In 2008, with eight years work experience behind him, he decided to do an MBA.

Lancaster might seem a leftfield choice for a Mexican, most of who look to the US first when choosing schools abroad. However, Reyes Garcia didn’t want to take two years off. He also wanted to go somewhere different, and meet people with completely different experiences than his own.

He remembered Lancaster from his undergraduate days, when he studied Professor Peter Checkland’s software systems technology.

As his packed year draws to an end, Reyes Garcia wants to stay in the UK. He’s looking for roles in strategy consulting, amongst others, though the UK job market is tough. When we spoke he had a job offer that he was still deciding on.

His goal is to get some international experience and, once he has the “money, contacts and ideas”, return to Latin America with a company that will develop his career, or to start his own business.

Either way, he eventually wants to return to Mexico to help develop the country’s economy, and he thinks he has a decent shot.

“A lot of doors open if you knock on them,” he says. “If you work hard you can do more than you could imagine.”