By Lisa Francisco | Stories from the Storefront
Stories From the Storefront turns the spotlight on the bold, passionate small business owners who put the work in and never stop chasing the dream.
Progeny Coffee was founded in California by Maria Palacio, a fifth-generation Colombian coffee farmer, to serve as a distribution platform with the mission of empowering coffee farmers and lifting them out of poverty. Her passion for helping others has led her to persevere through small business hurdles and build a thriving business doing good. You can follow Progeny Coffee on Facebook and Instagram.
Lisa Francisco: Tell me a little about your business.
Owner, Maria Palacio: I own a small business called Progeny Coffee. We have been in business for three years! Progeny Coffee works with Colombian coffee farmers to build sustainable coffee farming and distribution partnerships. I was born and raised on a coffee plantation in the heart of Quindio, a famous coffee region in Colombia, so this business is very personal for me. Our mission is to empower coffee farmers, pay them fairly for their labor and crops, and help them get out of poverty.
What was the motivation behind your business?
Growing up on a coffee plantation, I was exposed to the hardships and poverty that many of these farmers face. I wanted to create a business that could give back to the community I know and love. When I first moved to New York, I was shocked to see the high prices people were willing to pay for a simple cup of coffee. The Colombian coffee market is a massive industry in the United States, yet these farmers were struggling to make ends meet. I started to think about how I could connect these two cultures — one of extreme wealth and one of poverty.
The education system in most of these farming communities is inferior, and most locals do not complete their high school education. I started to realize that we needed to bring in education and entrepreneurship to these communities and help them see that they’re not just growing coffee; they are also developing their brand. Progeny Coffee gives them the tools they need to improve and add value to their products.
What are some of the skillsets you teach these farmers?
What most people don’t realize is that the coffee market has a strict scoring system based on climate, soil, and other environmental factors. High-quality coffee is like wine. The higher the quality, the better the pay, from a farmer’s perspective. We explained to these farmers that if they can grow high-quality coffee, they’ll be able to access different markets in the United States, charge higher prices, and, ultimately, earn more money.
Your business seems so complex. What’s been the most unexpected part of starting or running it?
We honestly didn’t expect our business to grow the way it has. In the beginning, we were concerned about whether or not we would make it as a business. Progeny Coffee started small, selling coffee to our local community. Over time, we began to gain some traction, grow our client base, and become profitable.
The most challenging part was learning to manage cash flow alongside our business growth. Running a small business requires wearing different hats, and luckily, I use QuickBooks, which has helped me to have a clear view of our financing, how we purchase, get paid, plan, and forecast. It allows us to keep a financial balance month after month.
Securing funding was also a necessary step in pushing our business forward. As a Latino woman, there are so many upsetting statistics about Latino-owned small businesses. When I first started to pitch Progeny Coffee to investors, I faced many closed doors. It was a challenging time, but if you persevere, you’ll get there eventually.
How has that impacted the experience of running your own business?
Being raised in a third-world country gave me a different perspective on owning a small business. When I was looking for funding and investors, I was turned down because I was not from the United States. I didn’t fully understand the coffee scoring system in the U.S. It’s very different in Colombia. Not having that knowledge made me unattractive to potential investors.
To add to that, when I first moved to California I was a stay-at-home mom, so I had very little credit. I didn’t have any income statements to share with investors. The only documents I could provide were contracts I secured while I was back home in Colombia. I faced a lot of rejection during this time, but it forced me to look for other paths to success. I very quickly learned that, as a foreigner, I had to work 100 times harder.
I love how you persevered. You had a dream and went for it, but I’m sure it wasn’t easy. How did you move past these challenges?
At first, I was rejected by all of the major banks and financial institutions in the U.S. because I didn’t have enough credit. One day, someone recommended that I reach out to organizations that support women of color who own small businesses. Through this referral, I discovered this ecosystem of nonprofit organizations that help businesses owned by minorities and women of color, such as Working Solutions, Opportunity Fund, and Pacific Community Ventures. Soon after getting into contact with these organizations, we were able to secure funding! Through this network, I learned that there is always funding available. You have to be willing to get creative in your approach.
You’ve been through some highs and lows. How have you adapted to your different business needs throughout the whole process?
When you start a small business, it’s just you in your living room. As you begin to grow, you realize that you have to deal with HR, health insurance, payroll, and taxes. All of these added expenses change your cash flow, and you have to learn to adapt on the spot. I’ve been able to find help through nonprofit organizations. They hold free workshops that guide us through compliance-related business issues and expenses. I studied design, not business, so this was all new for me! There are a lot of free resources available. I sign up for all of them!
It’s incredible to hear your story and follow-through on something that you’re so passionate about. It sounds like such a huge learning curve. What’s your next business goal or milestone to cross?
Our goal is to improve the coffee industry in Colombia. Our model has been proven, and we know we can provide a healthy income for the farmers. To do that, we have to make sure our sales continue to grow in the U.S. We work with approximately 40 farms. Each farm supports five families, so the reach and impact of our partnerships with these farmers grows exponentially. Through our partnerships, we can improve the quality of life for these farmers and their families.
From speaking to you and hearing your story, I think you have some amazing insights and tips to share. What advice would you give to aspiring business owners?
Owning a small business is a beautiful journey, but it’s a hard one. You need to be able to motivate yourself because you will face a lot of barriers along the way. You have to be so passionate about your business. If I were doing something I wasn’t excited about, I would’ve given up already. Persistence is key!
Meet author (and QuickBooks employee!) Lisa May Francisco joined the QuickBooks communications team in 2017. She has a passion for connecting with others and hearing about how their personal experiences have shaped who they are. Lisa is currently pursuing her MBA at UC Davis and when she’s not studying you can find her diving into an arts & crafts project, working out, listening to live music, or exploring the Bay Area with friends and family.