Milene Kibler has trucks ready to roll across the Mexico border as soon as retail stores open again. Trucks filled with chairs. Lots of them. They are pre-orders for a business Milene Kibler doesn’t have yet. Nothing really rattles Kibler. She has been working toward a singular, focused goal for decades. Recently, that goal just got a lot easier to obtain with an influx of $20k in cash and servicing, and a lot of mentoring. Kibler is the 2020 winner of The Big Pitch at Maricopa Community Colleges.
The Big Pitch is a week-long student start-up accelerator that takes place over Spring Break at The Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation. The week of fast-paced education culminates with a high-stakes pitch competition. Each participant learns how to deliver a winning pitch from subject matter experts, allowing participants to build connections. Students learn about launching and running a business, which, as it turns out, is the hardest lesson of all.
First, Kibler won the qualifying round held as a local competition at Phoenix College (PC) against six other students. As her professors and the judges noted, she has perseverance beyond the ordinary. “The most challenging part for me was the language,” Kibler said. “I love to talk, but English is my second language. I started learning English at the age of 32.”
So when it came time for the competition, what did the woman trying to balance time between family, work, school and the competition do? She met with Julie Myers from the Phoenix College Communication department. A former news reporter, Myers showed Kibler the tricks for a good presentation and helped her overcome some of the challenges of the language. Naturally.
It all started years ago when Kibler fell in love with furniture. She started in the city of Concordia, Mexico, as the Executive Director of a group that represented 27 carpentry shops specializing in hand-crafted furniture. “My biggest responsibility in this organization was to open a new market in the USA,” she said. “But I had a little problem: I didn’t speak English. To fix that, I came to the USA to study English.”
In 2005, she started working for another furniture manufacturer and worked her way up through five different ranks so she could learn all the details of the furniture industry. She worked in the Boxing Line, Human Resources, Accounts Payable, Sales and Shipping. Working in sales allowed her to work directly with the owners of small furniture stores and create strong business relationships with them.
“Everything was fine until four mega furniture stores arrived in Arizona, and my customers started going out of business,” Kibler remembers. “They could not compete with the big stores; the small stores were selling the same products but at a higher price.”
That gave Kibler the motivation she needed: to establish a distribution company that can be the bridge between the more than one hundred carpentry shops in Concordia and the small furniture stores in Arizona, which can offer unique merchandise not sold by the large chain stores.
Then COVID-19 hit and stores closed. That didn’t phase Kibler one bit. She’s a woman with a plan. “My alternative plan is to add a network of friends to the sales force, focusing on patio furniture. With the social distancing recommendations, our best alternative to entertaining is from the safety of our homes. When we invite people over, we want our patios to look like a resort. And for that, we need beautiful patio furniture.”
The patio furniture industry is a $48 billion dollar business. Kibler knows that. She also knows Mexican taxes, import fees and freight. She knows her 5-year projection, what start-up fees would cost, who the competition is, and how to get the best quality materials. She has planned for it all. In fact, before the competition, she even went back to Mexico to interview multiple family-owned suppliers and manufacturers so she would have a concrete network when she launched her dream, “Concordia Designs.”
“Milene is a life-long learner,” said Sherlyn Celaya faculty and co-chair of the Phoenix College’s Big Pitch competition event. “There’s just something about her besides being an outstanding student. She’s curious about everything and genuinely wants to learn. During the competition, she stood out. It was her passion and preparation. But also the fact that this was a life dream – not something new she’s been thinking about.”
Dawson Dopp, PC faculty and the other co-chair, said, “I would hand her a business book and she would just soak it up. She has that entrepreneurial mindset. She pours all her research, knowledge and a positive but humble attitude into her work and it’s simply amazing.”
PC’s competition brought out student inventors and entrepreneurs from a wide variety of areas – from restaurant ideas to scientific inventions. But what it really did was help students open a conversation about really taking something they are passionate about and crafting it into a career. Not only the co-chairs poured themselves into the students, but three judges with varying backgrounds such as law, small business ownership and marketing.
“Programs like The Big Pitch help students take a good idea or a thought and say ’Hey, maybe I can actually do this for a living!’- using feedback and coaching to help students learn to plan and set goals,” said Dopp.
If you ask Kibler though, Concordia Designs is a “we” project and not a “me” project. She credits Celaya and Dopp with unwavering support and advice. “They always trusted me, and that makes a big difference,” Kibler said. “Mr. Ernest Villicana from Physical Sciences worked with me several times and gave me a big boost of confidence that I really needed.” It’s that sentiment that leads both Celaya and Dopp to say Kibler is the most humble person they know and that winning couldn’t have happened to a better person.
“It was an absolute pleasure for us to coach Milene and watch her embrace the entrepreneurial mindset over the last few months,” they noted. “She was receptive to our suggestions and exceeded our expectations every time we met. Milene proactively researched and learned more about her industry while balancing family, work and school. As a Phoenix College family, we are proud to have her represent our school and the District as The Big Pitch winner. It just goes to show, the American Dream is not dead.”