Enrique Sanchez-Rivera was born to be an entrepreneur, even if he had to get an MBA to figure out how to best run a company. Scrappy business tactics were instilled in him from a young age. The Colombia native’s grandfather used to travel from the city of Cali to Buenaventura, the country’s main seaport in the Gulf of Tortugas, to wait for cargo ships carrying produce. He would dive and wait for the produce to fall off the vessels. After hitting the ocean’s floor, he would gather as much as he could carry out, go back in and repeat. He’d keep at it until the sacks and cart he brought were heaping. Then he’d walk it back three days and three nights to Cali, where he would sell the produce on the streets.
When Sanchez-Rivera was 14, he started his first business. He would purchase tilapia from his family’s tilapia farm and take the fish to his mom’s kitchen to clean. After gutting and filleting the fish, he would package it and take it to school to sell to the teachers and staff. That was his first business accomplishment. His most recent business accomplishment? Seeing his swimwear’s company product – little, teenie-tiny product that it is – in the recently released Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
THE UNLIKELY BEGINNING
Sanchez-Rivera, 38, came to the United States in 1995 to attend the University of Connecticut, where he earned a degree in economics. He rushed to the world of finance, working for a few family-owned portfolio specialists across the northeast, and eventually found himself on Wall Street. Then his sister called with an idea. She wanted to start a swimwear company from her bedroom in Colombia. Sanchez-Rivera was willing to help but at first it might not have been the best idea.
“Sometimes I am invited to speak for venture capital classes at business schools and the first thing I tell them is don’t ever start a business you know nothing about,” says Sanchez-Rivera. “That was my biggest mistake. My sister and I thought it was cool and we were young. But we didn’t know what type of fabric was best. We didn’t have a separate budget for marketing and advertising. We even went to the wrong trade show two years in a row.”
Mistakes aside, the very personable Sanchez-Rivera kept adjusting and grinding. Seamstresses in his native Colombia made new patterns. He got connected with Cedella Marley (Bob Marley’s daughter and a high-profile fashion designer) and his swimsuit ended up being worn by Miss Jamaica at the 2006 Miss Universe competition. Sanchez-Rivera found out he might be coming into a big-time game in the first quarter. Soon, La Isla was created.
SINK, SWIM OR GET AN MBA
“All we really knew was Colombia and Brazil were becoming huge swimsuit designers and producers,” Sanchez-Rivera says. “It was just starting to peak and we were there for it.”
A decision loomed.
“I was born and raised in a family and country where education was important,” Sanchez-Rivera says. “In Colombia, one degree isn’t enough. You have to get specializations. Here we call them master’s degrees. I always had in my mind I would get one but didn’t know when, where, or how.”
That odd combination of being on the verge of boom with the likely potential of bust pushed Sanchez-Rivera to explore the MBA.