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From Zero to $15 Million - She Believed in Herself - Not the Experts

By Cynthia Kersey
Motivational Expert
Updated: June 27, 2008
They say that "everybody's a critic," and that never seems more true than when you're pursuing a dream and trying to enlist support. There will always be well-meaning people who want to "protect" you from your "unrealistic fantasies." Critics tried to discourage Maria Elena Ibanez from starting a computer business. And yet she ignored their negative input and pursued her goal anyway.

When Maria Elena Ibanez was a teenager in Colombia, her father enrolled her in a course on programming minicomputers. Computers were becoming more common in Latin America, despite their $100,000 price tag, and Maria Elena was instantly taken with this revolutionary technology. In 1973, she went to the United States to study computer science at college and after graduation, she had an idea.

Personal computers were selling in the United States for $8,000--a fraction of what Latin American businesses were paying for their minicomputers. Why not set up distribution of personal computers south of the border she thought, where a fertile market was just waiting to be tapped? She took her idea to the major computer companies in 1980 and asked for a chance to distribute their products in her home country.

They told Maria Elena to forget it!. The computer executives said Latin America was in the midst of an economic crisis and Latin America countries were too poor and didn't have the money to make it a market for them to pursue.

Maria Elena saw the situation differently. She saw opportunity where others saw limitations. She figured, even if the market was only $10 million, it was still big enough for her and that she could make money in it. Plus, there was no competition.
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Maria Elena quickly realized that she had three strikes against her. She was twenty-three years old, a woman, and had no sales or marketing experience. But she knew two things: computers were cheap in the United States, and Latin America needed them. Hopeful and optimistic, she approached a banker and requested a line of credit. He wanted to see her business plan. Maria Elena had never heard of such a thing. The second banker she approached asked for her marketing plan. She didn't know what that was, either. Then she tried to go directly to the distributors. Most wouldn't meet with her, but two listened skeptically. She asked, "How much business are you currently doing in Latin America?" They said "None." Maria Elena committed to selling $10,000 of their product a year in Latin America and that all of her orders would be prepaid. Altos Computers--with nothing to lose--gave her an exclusive distribution agreement for nine months.

Maria Elena's next step was to call a travel agent. Her instructions were simple: "Book me on a flight from Miami to Argentina, stopping in every major city I can without having to pay extra." That was how Maria Elena designed her marketing plan. She later told me that "Ignorance can be bliss and sometimes it pays off because she didn't know what she was getting herself into."

With no experience, belief in her goal and common sense became her guides. She landed in Colombia, checked into a hotel, opened the Yellow Pages, and began calling computer dealers. She figured, the bigger the ad, the bigger the company. So she chose the companies that had the biggest ads first.
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