The Next Step: Online Marketplace For Artisan Foods Gets Boost From Stella Zhang Competition

Editor’s Note: This story is part of an occasional series called The Next Step that follows startup founders who have been part of university competitions sponsored by Sunstone Management, Inc., and one of its partners, Stella Zhang. The Sunstone principals, including Zhang, have created the Sunstone Community Fund, a donor-advised fund, to help sponsor nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.

Dan Ta and Dylan Riffle were students at the University of California, Irvine, when a friend reached out from the Coachella Valley asking for help finding ways to sell the dates her family were growing.

That request evolved into Leprendo, an online marketplace connecting farms directly to consumers and chefs. Dan and Dylan developed their company through the UCI community, winning the Buttersworth Technology Startup Competition, then the 2022 Stella Zhang New Venture Competition – first in the consumer category and second overall.

“Not a lot of startups continue on after the competition,” Dan said. “But we did… It’s my fulltime job now.”

The company is called Leprendo, and it had $400,000 in sales in its first year. The site still sells the Medjool Dates that started it all, along with numerous organic foods and artisan products.

Dan said Leprendo still is in the startup stage, and he and Dylan hope to keep bootstrapping the company as long as possible, financing it on their own. But the prize money from the Stella Zhang Competition – a total of $15,000 – has made a big difference.

“It has helped us do more research into our market fit,” Dan said. “We’re getting into the agri-tech community… I’m living the dream.”

Dan and Dylan have taken a trip to Hawaii for the THRIVE Hawaii Agrifood Summit, connecting with farmers there. The website allows farms to sell directly to consumers, and Leprendo now is working to connect farmers with chefs for a next-level farm-to-table experience.

“We really want to share the stories of the farmers,” Dan said. “We’re working on short form videos now. We believe we can bring people together over food.”

Stella Zhang is a cofounder and partner at Sunstone Management, Inc., and American Lending Center, where she is COO. She has a master’s degree from UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business, and became the title sponsor of the New Venture Competition in 2022, providing the prize pot of $100,000 a year.

“This event means so much to me,” Zhang said. “We’ve watched past winners go on to accelerators and beyond. We’re so proud to witness this journey.”

For more information about Leprendo, go to the website at

About Sunstone Community Fund  

The Sunstone Community Fund is a key nonprofit component of the Sunstone Management vision to advance public benefit programs that support the development of inclusive and vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems. A Donor Advised Fund managed by the National Philanthropic Trust, the SCF supports a network of universities, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies that develop and implement entrepreneurship programs, early-stage tech accelerators, and advance local economic development. 

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About Sunstone Management  

Sunstone Management is a diversified private capital management firm with headquarters in Southern California that provides a range of early-stage venture capital, real estate, and fixed income funds to qualified and accredited investors.  The firm delivers new and exciting options for economic growth through innovative public-private partnerships, making use of its unique experience across government, education, and private sectors. Identified by Financial Times as one of America’s Fastest Growing Companies three years in a row. In the second quarter of 2023, PitchBook ranked Sunstone the seventh most active early-stage venture capital firm in the country, and 18th overall.

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