This is the true story of how a University of Virginia alumnus became the CEO of a successful business in rapid time. It begins outside a classroom on Grounds, continues at a closed coffee shop, and includes scenes at a lacrosse field and in a kitchen.
Griffin Spolansky, just 26, is the co-founder of Mezcla, a plant-based protein bar projected to earn nearly $5 million in revenue this year. The quick rise – punctuated by Spolansky’s inclusion on the most recent “Forbes 30 Under 30” list – is a credit to many things, but most directly to an entrepreneurship course in the fall of 2018.
The course, taught by Bala Mulloth and held in UVA’s McLeod Hall, was hosting a series of speakers one day, each taking 10-15 minutes to share their entrepreneurial journeys. Spolansky, a fourth-year student at the time who long had ambitions to run his own business, was eager to pick up a few tips.
He instead picked up a business partner in Coco Sotelo.
“I listened to her presentation and I just thought her story was really cool and she had so much passion for what she was doing,” Spolansky said. “So, after her talk, I left the class to go chat with her.”
Sotelo came to the United States from Mexico around two decades ago in search of a better life. Her venture was “Coco’s Granola,” a collection of homemade cereals, grains and pastas that she sold at farmers’ markets in the Charlottesville area.
Spolansky enrolled at UVA in fall 2016 after spending a year at Colgate University. A product of a family of entrepreneurs, Spolansky at 13 sold bottles of his grandmother’s secret salad dressing at farmers’ markets in the New York City area. At 16, he and a friend started a high-end men’s clothing line that included T-shirts, hats, belts and sweaters.
The two natural hustlers found they had a lot in common.
“I was initially afraid of doing business with someone I didn’t know,” Sotelo said. “But then we started meeting and talking and sharing ideas and brainstorming every single day. We had so many different ideas, many things that we wanted to do together, how we wanted to help other people and how we wanted to create a brand representing us. It was amazing.”
Unconventional meeting places soon became the norm for Sotelo and Spolansky. A few days after their introductions in a McLeod Hall hallway, they planned to converse again over coffee at Shenandoah Joe on Ivy Road.
Except the café was closed.
“But we decided we didn’t need coffee and just talked outside at a table,” Sotelo said. “Our first idea was to become partners in the granola business, but then Griffin and I decided we should do something different. ... It was amazing how everything turned out.”
They set out to find a space in the crowded protein bar market and began experimenting with different recipes in Sotelo’s kitchen in her home in Ivy. This meant Spolansky, a member of the UVA lacrosse team, would have a schedule packed daily with classes, practices and culinary arts.
“It was crazy,” Spolansky said.
But that kind of loaded slate fell in line with Spolansky’s character. His relentless pursuit of a goal that inspired Sotelo was evident within the Cavalier lacrosse program as he, against high odds, made the team as a walk-on in 2016 and helped it win a national championship three years later.
“You never had to hold Griffin’s hand on anything,” lacrosse head coach Lars Tiffany said. “He was always ready to go. And we loved that entrepreneurial, walk-on spirit that he had. We want our guys to be risk-takers, and he personified that.”
When Spolansky hit a wall, he’d work to find a different way through it. While he found the early days in Sotelo’s kitchen to be fun, frustrations began to mount as batches of bars would have a quality taste one day but go rancid a week later.
They eventually connected with a food scientist who led them to tweak their recipes.
“That was the biggest hurdle, and it took us months to figure out,” said Spolansky, who graduated from UVA in spring of 2019 with an economics degree, another aid to his business tactics.
Mezcla, which is Spanish for “mixture,” launched in August 2020 with availability online and in various grocery stores and coffee shops. Its “puff-crispy” texture and unique flavors – such as “Japanese Matcha Vanilla,” “Peruvian Cocoa Peanut Butter” and “Mexican Hot Chocolate” – remain the small company’s niche in the saturated protein bar market.
“We really want to give the consumer a different eating experience,” Spolansky said.
Mezcla’s big break came a few years ago when a Whole Foods buyer spotted the Mezcla bars in a juice shop in Austin, Texas, and reached out to Spolansky to learn more about the product. The organic supermarket grocery chain, which initially rejected Mezcla’s application to sell, soon came around.
Since July, Mezcla bars have been available at Whole Foods stores nationwide.
The company now has a staff of five and is mostly run out of New York. Aside from being a co-founder, Sotelo is Mezcla’s director of corporate and social responsibility, a job she handles remotely from her new home in Crozet.
A mother of three girls, Sotelo said she cried the first time she saw Mezcla bars on a retail shelf in Richmond. It put in perspective her 20-year journey in the U.S. and the visit to a UVA classroom that changed a couple of lives.
“I’m so blessed that I was able to have that opportunity to speak to UVA students,” she said. “Griffin is the best person I’ve ever known. He’s in Forbes now, we have bars all around the country and we look forward to doing more things together.”