Solomon, Kansas, is 850 miles away from Chihuahua, Mexico, but a Youth Tour alum with family ties to both communities turned that connection into a business opportunity that placed him and his partners on the popular ABC show “Shark Tank” last month.

“Pinole Blue corn is locally grown in the mountains of Chihuahua, and my family would always bring a few sacks of the ground and powdered roasted corn flour or masa harina back with us when we returned to Kansas,” said Sandoval.

Growing up as members of Solomon-based DSO Electric Cooperative, both Sandoval and his older sister attended NRECA’s Electric Cooperative Youth Tour along with their Kansas delegation 10 years apart.

During his Youth Tour Trip in 2012, and throughout high school, Sandoval not only shared his love of traditional Mexican dishes with friends, he also introduced them to pinole, a finer grind of flour used to thicken smoothies, cocoa and coffee drinks. The corn kernels, about the same color as blueberries, produce a high oxidant flour containing about 20% more protein than yellow corn.

“When I attended Wichita State, I kept using it, and would drive back to Chihuahua to pick up more corn periodically,” said Sandoval. “There’s plenty of corn in Kansas, but not blue corn.”

While pursuing a finance degree, Sandoval and classmate Kyle Offutt entered a business plan for their dorm-based pinole sales venture and won $10,000 in a 2017 startup competition. Over the next two years, they developed a client list of about 300 outlets, primarily in Kansas. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of his vendors, particularly restaurants, were shuttered, so they turned to online sales to survive.

“E-commerce saved us,” said Sandoval. “We ship products all over the place and we have probably over 150 retail locations.”

Sandoval is now using his finance degree and marketing background to tap social media for additional exposure. That’s led to some regional and national opportunities and growing followings on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook.

“We’ve since won other competitions with our tortillas,” said Sandoval, adding that the nutritional value appeals to fitness advocates and athletes. “In Chihuahua, members of the indigenous Tarahumara tribe run 50 miles and more fueled by pinole-based tea in sandals they make locally from tires.”

That was among the factors that brought Sandoval’s company, Pinole Blue, to the attention of “Shark Tank” producers.

“It's a complex carbohydrate, so it’s different from simple carbs like white corn and white rice and your body absorbs it right away, so the nutritional value is part of its appeal,” Sandoval said. “We’ve got four full-time employees now in Wichita and we send a bit of our proceeds back to Chihuahua to help the Tarahumara people. That’s our way of supporting the community there.”

Offutt and Sandoval appeared on the show with their former academic adviser, Kate Kung-McIntyre.

While Pinole Blue was not picked up by any of the members of the Shark Tank panel, Sandoval and Offutt were thankful for the exposure and the opportunity to learn from their experience preparing for the show, which is available for viewing on streaming services.

“I think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Sandoval said. “But it really taught us the ins and outs of our business and each other.”

Sandoval continues to enjoy a relationship with Kansas Electric Cooperatives. Pinole Blue catered the statewide member services and communicators event last fall, and Sandoval has been a featured speaker for some of its programs.

“I try to tell people that if they work hard, they can achieve meaningful success including opportunities to make a difference in their communities,” he said.