On American Business Women’s Day, we honor and recognize the contributions of women in the workforce and women business owners. In celebration of the holiday, we recently spoke with Maria Palacio, co-founder of Progeny Coffee Farmers, who is a fourth-generation coffee farmer born and raised in Colombia. After coming to the United States, she started her own coffee business, which works with farmers in Colombia.
A lightly edited version of our conversion is as follows.
Community Reinvestment Fund, USA (CRF): What’s the state of your business today? Is Progeny Coffee recovering? Is Progeny Coffee Farmers recovering?
Maria Palacio: “When the vaccines started, corporate business resumed, but then closed again, so we saw an increase and then a decrease. It’s still pretty much on pause for the commercial business, but some companies that need to be in the office still use us. However, we needed to shift our target to consumers, subscriptions, and retail.
With retail, we had to learn who the specialty coffee audience is. There was a whole learning curve, but we didn’t have social media nor a marketing team, so we didn’t know how to build sales. We had to find our voice for consumers through launching the subscription platform.
We were growing in 2020 and had strong projections, then COVID came, everything closed, and we lost our revenue. That year we kept operating and all of our reserve cash was spent. We also needed a team to push things forward, and the PPP loan was critical to keep our team on the payroll and keep up with our new model.”
CRF: How is the business doing today?
“Fast forward to today, we were able to open up new channels – still launching at Target and Walmart and HEB, going to retail and direct to consumer. We recently received an initial investment for $2 million in seed capital. It started with the PPP loan to feed our pipeline. I feel like we’re stronger than ever now, we can invest in a marketing team and push towards consumers by hiring a salesperson.”
CRF: Did you add jobs this year? Are you hiring?
“So far we’ve hired two full time people and plan on adding an additional three full time. We hired a couple of agencies over the pandemic as we switched our focus towards specialty coffee consumers. We hired a female-founded social media agency, a PR agency with a Latina female founder, and we hired a marketing agency. So, it’s not so much payroll, but we have partnered with key agencies.”
CRF: How was your supply chain like during the pandemic?
“There is a backlog at the port in San Leandro, so things will get stuck for six weeks. When companies started reopening, we needed to bring in more coffee from Colombia and the ports were closed. We couldn’t get our coffee to port so we had to send them by plane, which greatly increased our shipping costs. But it has also impacted the availability and the packaging, among other parts of our supply chain.
Then we launched our beverage for HEB shelves. They were meant to launch in August, so the product needed to come in June and July, but due to how broken the supply chain was we were delayed two months to get everything here.”
CRF: What advice do you have for other women who want to start their own business?
“I would say that whatever you do in life, make sure it has a mission and a purpose. It must fulfill your life as you have to give a lot of yourself into your business. Don’t do it for the sole purpose of money because it will never fulfill you. You will always find yourself needing more because it lacks a purpose. If it holds meaning, then it will push you to achieve more and keep going.”
CRF: Are there cultural or social challenges for women coffee growers?
“Yes. Colombia is very male dominated; businesses are mostly operated by men and women aren’t expected to work or run their own business. They are expected to stay home and take care of the family. It is still very traditional in the sense of gender roles.”
CRF: Are you a member of any coffee industry groups?
“As an independent business, Progeny is more about being its own platform where we give assistance and speak to other organizations through our platform. Hence the reason we chose not to be members of any particular group. However, in order to operate in Colombia, we have to be by default. We are members of the Specialty Coffee Association.”
CRF: What are your aspirations for the company? Where do you see Progeny Coffee Farmers in five years?
“Sales equal impact, so we need to scale, by which I mean bring in more farmers to grow the company into larger retail sectors. My vision for Progeny is to reach retailers and become a huge brand of coffee. We hope to expand nationally and open our own cafes someday to showcase our farmers and become one of the major buyers in Colombia.”
CRF: Do you work with any other women-led organizations – business support orgs, women-owned farms, etc.?
“I am part of many different groups. I didn’t realize before the COVID-19 pandemic how important it was to be a part of the community. During the pandemic I was able to find resources and support and focus on my mental health through these groups.
Currently, I work with other female farmers and I’m using my platform to bring their coffee into the programs. Our best seller is called Fuerte Sandra, and we’re about to launch a new collection. My mother Anna Maria is one of the farmers.”
CRF: Did you have any mentors – particularly women – who set an example for you?
“Gosh I’ve had so many people that I look up to, but I would say that my biggest mentors are my mother and grandmother. They are such strong women who have always pushed me towards my goals and never doubted in me. They helped me get to where I am now. We didn’t have the means to pay for my last semester of university, so my mother sold her cows and her car so that I could graduate. A lot of sacrifices were made by them for my sake, as a woman that makes me proud because it shows how fuerte (strong) we are.
Business-wise I have always had some mentors, I think it’s pretty important. Right now we have an advisor, Michelle Stewart, a former lawyer in Silicon Valley, named 40 under 40, now Pastor of Vive Church who speaks so much into Progeny. She gives us advice on where we need to go and has a great mind.
I remember before I arrived in the U.S. I was looking for an internship in the fashion design industry and I made a call to a company in New York. A woman named Leonor Rosario was working at a fashion house and she took the call, I got through the interview and she gave me the internship. Later, as I realized that other companies weren’t taking interns from Colombia, I asked her why she gave me a chance. She told me that as a woman of color and Latina, if we don’t give each other the opportunity as women we won’t rise up.
Ever since then, I try to give people as many chances as I can and that’s why I work with other female coffee farmers and organizations as well.”
CRF: Is there anything else you would like to mention in relation to women in business/entrepreneurs?
“Yes. It’s really important to support other female founders. Personally, I still meet with a support group every Friday where I share contacts with other female business owners. We need to remember that as women we rise together, and we should celebrate each other. Envy won’t get us anywhere. I like to share a lot of advice with my contacts, every day I get a lot of emails from single moms who want to get into the coffee industry. In order to help them out, I need to scale more and that is another thing that keeps me going.
As of now I do ship internationally and have more than 1,500 active subscribers between the U.S. and EU. Around October I may launch my coffee farm reserve where we will have three tiers available-if nothing impedes it. This year we’ve had so much innovation, we’ve reduced our water consumption and have remained a sustainable brand-that is important to me. It’s been a lot of teamwork but we plan on expanding and continue to grow Progeny.”
If you want to try specialty coffee from Colombia, then head over to the Progeny Coffee Farmers website for an artisan taste. Stay tuned – there will be more to come from Progeny Coffee Farmers and you may find them in a store near you soon!