Steven Sponder

CEO, Vplenish

Background: Sponder opened his first restaurant in Santa Barbara at age 22 for a reason that any red-blooded male could appreciate. “Why do you do anything at that age?” he says. “I thought it would be a great way to meet girls.” Little did he know then that the popularity of The Palace Grill and its New Orleans-style cuisine (Sponder sold his stake 10 years ago, but the restaurant continues to thrive) would lead to a lifetime of entrepreneurial adventures—including a partnership with Bill Gates. In 1995, Sponder successfully pitched Microsoft a business plan for the early incarnation of its MSN network—a service that linked restaurants and hotels to suppliers. “I actually spoke on a stage with Gates in Vancouver,” says Sponder, 49. “For me, that was the pivotal business moment. I realized that other people appreciated what I could create.” Over the years, Sponder estimates that he’s been involved in—either as advisor/investor or his own start-up—some 25 different businesses and restaurants, including BizProLink, a collection of industry-specific Web communities that provided business-to-business tools for which he raised some $10 million in venture capital (VC) funding. Fun fact: Sponder counts David Crosby—of Crosby, Stills and Nash—as one of his best friends.

How he is making a difference: Sponder never fails to make time for the next generation of entrepreneurs, mentoring hundreds of local students (most from FAU)—and, in some cases, investing in their dream. One high school student, who participated in but did not win the annual Business Plan Competition at FAU, developed a website that helped people purchase their first car. Sponder liked the idea and gave the young man, who had recently lost his father, a few thousand dollars in seed funding. He pulls no punches when it comes to criticism, however, and tells students that experience in their field of entrepreneurial dreams is crucial when it comes to potential investors. “I’m a VC-funded entrepreneur, and I have the battle scars from the countless rejections of business plans,” he says. “I know what people need to see in a business plan, and I know how to advise the entrepreneur on how to get funding.”

What the future holds: Sponder is convinced that his latest venture—Vplenish, the vitamin boost (produced by Equal) in a sweetener packet—can be a billion-dollar global brand over time. The packets, which provide roughly 25 percent of daily vitamin requirements, contain micro-coated granules that eliminate any taste. Of the 10 million packets produced last year, 1.5 million were distributed to malnourished people in more than 50 countries through the Vplenish-the-World Foundation.