Alumni Story: Tomas Fuentes Benitez, Class of 2016-2017

August 27, 2020

My name is Tomas Fuentes Benitez, I’m from Argentina and a scholar from the 1st cohort. I’m a business lawyer by training turned entrepreneur in China, where I founded STOKES释多卡, China’s first all-natural grass-fed beef jerky startup.

It all started back in Argentina. I was working long hours as a lawyer and, since I love sports, I wanted a nutritious snack for the office. But all I could find were chips, cookies and even the so-called healthy snacks were all carbs and sugar. I couldn’t believe in the land of steak we didn’t have all-natural beef jerky as a high-protein and low-calorie snack.

Curious to give it a try, I imported a special oven from the US and started studying food chemistry and manufacturing at night. The first dozen experiments were terrible, only Freud (my family’s great dane) was happy to eat them. A month or so later, I left a 3-pound bag of product in the pantry and a few days later it was all gone. It was then that I knew I could have a viable product.

As my side project was picking up steam, I received my offer for Schwarzman Scholars. This program was a dream come true, so I decided to bring my recipes and know-how to China.

Shortly after arriving in Beijing, I remember going to a supermarket and standing in awe in front of a huge isle of beef snacks. The category was huge. However, upon a closer look, I saw all products were oily, had preservatives and additives, were high in sugar and sodium and their branding was old-fashioned. Similar as the US market was 10 years ago, when beef jerky was unhealthy and mostly consumed in the Midwest. But then a few innovative startups such as Krave and Duke’s disrupted the category and blew up doing so. This was my aha moment: the Chinese meat snack category was US$4B in annual sales and completely undisrupted.

I went back to the College and started working on it. Not long after, I was smuggling machinery into my dorm room at midnight, so that no one would know. For the next months, myself and my ex-girlfriend Alina (also from Cohort 1) worked on adapting the product to the Chinese market. So, Stokes was literally founded in room 303 of Schwarzman College.

After graduation, I knew I wanted to stay in China to do business in this exciting and dynamic market. I was offered a role as the Investment Advisor to the Embassy of Argentina in China. But I wasn’t going to quit on Stokes. Every day I would wake up at 6am to go work on a kitchen-lab I had set up in downtown Beijing. Then, when I finished at the Embassy, I would return to keep working on the product. Then, every weekend I would have a stand at Beijing’s biggest farmers’ market, where I would sell get feedback from Chinese consumers. Then be back at the lab on Monday and used that feedback to make it better. Then iterate.

After a few months, the product was ready to be taken to the next level: industrial production. Finding a factory in China that had the technology, standards and scale I wanted, and at the same time willing to work with a startup to make an all-natural product was not easy. At that time, Angela Dai, a scholar from the 3rd cohort had asked me to do an internship at Stokes. It was she who helped me find our first factory: here was the magic of Schwarzman Scholars again.

After staying at the factory for a few weeks, I grabbed some samples and started trying to get a pre-order from a supermarket chain. I got my first order from a famous chain in Beijing and with that in hand I set off to fundraise. I didn’t want to blow the opportunity by not having a team nor a financial foundation.

After over a year of working on my own, bootstrapping and investing all of my own money, I was excited to get funded and set up a team. After pitching to 100+ investors I had 4 investors practically confirmed, including Javier Mascherano, football legend and former Captain of FC Barcelona. Last minute they all backed down. This was a huge blow. After a few days, I concluded I had come too far to give up then, so I decided I would keep bootstrapping and show them how well the product would do in the market.

Two months later, September last year, we hit the shelves for the first time. It was life or death, so imagine my nerves. Luckily, in less than a month Stokes became the category best-seller. Then I got into another chain in Shanghai, and the same happened!

Quickly, I put together a new pitch deck and went back to fundraising. Now we had sales and revenue, our valuation had to be higher. Most importantly, I needed it to be higher and use that as my small victory over the past failure. The round ended up being over-subscribed and our valuation increased 35%.

Fast-forward to today, we are sold in 100+ stores and online across China. This month we are entering national chains OLE华润 and Alibaba’s Hema盒马. Despite the pandemic, we have seen our sales double every month since early this year.

I’ve been fortunate to put together a team of industry leaders. Our CMO comes from 蒙牛 and 新希望; our Director of R&D from 百草味 and 雨润; our flavor innovation in charge of a Michelin Star Chef, among a few other teammates.

Among our investors, which leading investor ended up being Javier Mascherano, are also 4 fellow Schwarzman Scholars from the first cohort and my good friends: Jay Li, Teddy Cohan, Zach Kay and Andrew Schoen.

It has been an exciting and incredibly challenging few years. China is the world’s largest consumer market but is also the most complex. Since I graduated from Schwarzman Scholars 3 years ago, I have studied Chinese every day. Today I work, manage our factories and negotiate with suppliers fully in Chinese.

My company Stokes is still very small, and we can still add chapters to our successful story. But whatever we have accomplished, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Schwarzman Scholars.