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Alumni Profile: Hajo Engelke (MBA ’09) launches his own venture after nurturing his business idea at UNC Kenan-Flagler

11/16/2009

Hajo Engelke (MBA ’09) is a numbers guy. That and a degree in finance landed him in mergers and acquisitions at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt.

That's where Engelke discovered he was also an entrepreneur. Working closely with high-powered CEOs who'd risked a lot and made it big, Engelke says, "I knew then that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the decision-maker, the one who makes it happen."

German-born Engelke looked to the U.S. East Coast to find a leading school of entrepreneurship. He found one at UNC Kenan-Flagler, enrolled in its MBA Program, and pursued concentrations in entrepreneurship and investment management.

At UNC Kenan-Flagler, Engelke found "lots of professors who are also successful entrepreneurs, who know what to do from experience, not just from research." He also found much more.

Thanks to the Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative (CEI), Engelke found cross-campus venture-creation programs and a network of people engaged in helping aspiring entrepreneurs hone their ideas for new businesses and nonprofits into viable action plans to create them.

Two programs, Launching the Venture (LTV) and Carolina Challenge, took Engelke step-by-step through the process of defining his niche and developing a business plan for his venture, Custom Choice Cereal.

Custom Choice Cereal is an online business that allows users to customize their own gluten-free cereal mixes from a variety of different ingredients. The cereal is mixed in a safe, gluten-free environment and shipped to the customer.

"When I came to Carolina, I already had an idea of what I wanted to do," says Engelke. Custom-mix cereal companies already were successful in Germany. Engelke wanted to bring the idea to the United States. The programs at UNC gave me the structure, framework and contacts I needed to move forward with my idea," says Engelke.

During his studies, Engelke signed up for LTV, a series of courses designed to empower entrepreneurial teams of UNC students, faculty and staff to launch commercial businesses and social ventures. The program is sponsored by the CEI and offered jointly by the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and Office of Technology Development.

"Launching the Venture was primarily about writing the business plan for Custom Choice," says Engelke. "I received a lot of valuable input from many coaches. In fact, it was because of LTV that I decided to target the gluten-free market for my cereals."

An LTV coach made the suggestion that the company target the burgeoning gluten-free market. After further research and input, Engelke decided it was the way to go.

"The more I learned about it, the more I saw how many people have to live on a gluten-free diet and are unable to find a variety of tasty gluten-free cereal. It makes perfect sense: the gluten-free aspect differentiates Custom Choice Cereal in the market and allows us to target our marketing."

By the end of the program, the Custom Choice business plan was 80-90 percent complete. From there, it was a natural progression to participate in the Carolina Challenge, CEI's annual student-led business-plan competition for UNC students, faculty and staff.

"The Carolina Challenge took us to a broader audience," says Engelke. "In the Challenge, we had more opportunity to compare our business idea to others and to get direct feedback from a larger group of people." Engelke's team made the final round of 16 teams in the competition.

"During the Challenge, we learned that people were not always clear that we were both gluten-free and customizable," he says. "That led us to change our tagline to 'Gluten-free cereal mixed in a dedicated facility' and clarify our marketing message. It was a great experience to go through."

Engelke graduated May 10 and opened Custom Choice Cereal's offices in The Research Triangle Park in July. He and a colleague are working and reworking every aspect of the business. "Every decision you make has an immediate impact," Engelke says. "It's hard, but it is fun and rewarding."

Engelke credits the School’s strong entrepreneurial environment for his decision to create Custom Choice Cereal.

“At UNC Kenan-Flagler, the students and professors live and breathe entrepreneurship. They support and promote every aspect of creating your own business,” he says. "Without the networks I've built through UNC's entrepreneurship programs, this business would not be possible," says Engelke. "I could have gone back to Germany and worked for another company, but after being here, I didn't want to do that. This is what I want to do."