This Colombian, Latina Entrepreneur Is Brewing Change During COVID-19

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve created an interview series to feature inspiring Latinx entrepreneurs whose stories of determination represent our community’s unwavering drive to seguir adelante.

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Published: July 17, 2020

Maria Jose Palacio and I met when she participated in the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative Scaling Program as one of the first millennial women business owners to go through the program.

Maria founded Progeny Coffee in California out of love for her native country, Colombia, and their farmers. Having grown up on a coffee farm owned by her father, she knew the difficult intricacies of running a coffee business in Colombia. In fact, she remembers being told at a very young age that coffee was not profitable and that to be successful, she would need to get out of Colombia.

Although she did make her way to the United States, where she began her career in design in NYC, those early words of advice did not deter her. She returned to coffee in 2016 after seeing her friends and family in Colombia struggle to maintain a viable living through their coffee farms. She was determined to empower Colombian farmers to help lift their communities out of poverty.

Left: Maria Palacio, Progeny Coffee Right: Hector Castro, Farmer

Progeny brings awareness, entrepreneurship education and business opportunity to Colombian farmers. It is critical that they first understand how valuable the coffee they are growing is. Then, the farmers are given technical tools and are taught to view themselves as entrepreneurs and their farm as a brand. To that end, Progeny works closely with farmers by packaging their coffee with the farmers’ images and listing coffee scores for transparency. Finally, Progeny provides the business opportunity by removing the middleman and paying them fixed prices for their coffee as a distributor.

Progeny became a B2B coffee supplier for Silicon Valley and San Francisco companies, including Google, Salesforce, Microsoft, Stripe and Intuit. Due to COVID-19, their contracts are now on hold. When I read the Forbes article about how her sales had dropped 95% in almost one day, I had to reach out to see how we could amplify her story.

When we got on the call, she was in her garage, holding her newborn baby and working on connecting to audio. Proof of a resilient entrepreneur.

Interview date: May 22, 2020

Melody: “How have you been? How has business been during COVID?”

Maria: Well, these last two months have felt like a year! It has been really challenging. It has stretched us thin, but our mindset has been to take it as a positive challenge.

Pre-pandemic, we were on a growth path; we were hiring, we were focused on B2B, and we were pushing our mission further. We were growing our customer base and customer service. When “shelter in place” began at the beginning of the pandemic, we started seeing small drops in our sales.”

Melody: “What did you do?”

Maria: “We called our banks and lenders immediately and told them what we were anticipating, so we were able to get their support quickly. And then, we lost all of our sales in 24 hours. We were trying to understand our situation. As time passed, companies were keeping people at home. We had to reckon with the idea that what we had built was gone now.”

Melody: “I’m so sorry! How did you pivot?”

Maria: “We decided to move to a B2C model and make it all e-commerce. It was also the right time, as everyone was shopping from home.”

Melody: “That makes sense. How was managing day-to-day with your team?”

Maria: “We were committed to our team and not letting anyone go. We have fought really hard to keep everyone. We haven’t reduced hours; we just reshaped their roles. Our sales manager is now doing social media and engagement. Our operations manager is writing blog posts, some others are doing deliveries. We have had to get creative.

This has also been an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We don’t have the choice to fail because as a small business you invest a lot of your own money.”

Melody: “I love your commitment to your company, the farmers, your employees, yourself — it shows true grit. Were there other ways you were innovative?”

Maria: “We pushed online sales. We gave free coffee to doctors and nurses. We began donating beverages to the Alameda Food Bank. We started working on some campaigns.

We launched “A Bag for a Bag,” a campaign focused on giving hope back to my hometown in Colombia, which is struggling to generate income since 70% of the workforce hold jobs as street vendors. To date, we have shipped 240 bags full of groceries.”

Melody: “I completely admire all the work you are doing for others, while also trying to keep yourself above ground. How are people hearing about Progeny Coffee now?”

Maria: “We are doing social media, digital marketing and email blasts. We are really trying to figure it out as we go.”

Melody: “Have you thought about a subscription service?”

Maria: “Yes! Monica Hernandez (of MAS Global Consulting, alumni of SLEI-Ed), reached out to me and asked me how she could help. She mentioned she had a whole engineering team that could help us build the subscription from scratch! We are so grateful to her and her team.

We are also launching Adopt a Farmer on May 25, 2020. We are really excited about it!”

An image of a Colombian farmer promoting the campaign, Adopt A Farmer.

Melody: “That’s great! I am so happy you are working with a fellow SLEI-Ed alumni!

Let’s talk a little about team morale. How have you managed that?”

Maria: “Initially, there was a lot of fear. We had someone who moved from New York with their child. We had to be really transparent that we were all in this together. Ultimately, we are a mission-driven company and our employees have also adapted this methodology.

I ensure that I keep channels of communication open. I speak to the team everyday about what we need to do, how much money we have, etc.

The hardest part has been production and ensuring that we keep our people safe.”

Melody: “Did you apply to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)?”

Maria: “Yes, we did. We also have applied to main banks and Minneopolis CRF USA.”

Melody: “How did you find them?”

Maria: “We have never been able to get funding from traditional banks, so we found all these lenders who support minorities and women-owned companies. We also had people forwarding resources.”

Melody: “It’s clear that this whole process has been hard for you and for many. What was it like completely moving from B2B to B2C?”

Maria: “At first, it wasn’t hard. But afterwards, yes. What saved us is that I applied to many different things at the same time. I went through all the phases of grieving our B2B model.”

Melody: “I am so sorry, Maria. What kind of personal support have you had?”

Maria: “God! I have had the song, ‘Waymaker’ on replay. That has been the song of the season.

However, it is hard to rely on anyone, because everyone is going through the same thing. It has been a lot of prayer.”

Melody: “I love that song! One of my favorites for sure. You touched base on this a little bit, but I’d like to expand. What are other resources that you rely on?”

Maria: “We are part of an accelerator called ICA Fund-Good Jobs. They are focused on minority-owned businesses seeking investment. Last year, we went through their program and they had a lot of mentorship available. They were the ones who forwarded me resources. When I requested funds, we also got them! We have had weekly calls and webinars and they have assigned us a financial advisor, so it has been really helpful!

One of my mentors and advisors, Bret Waters, has also been really helpful!”

Melody: “That is amazing! I love hearing about resources like this for small businesses and I am happy to hear that Bret[mutual friend and Stanford Lecturer] is also a sounding board.

Can you share a little more about the products you have?”

Maria: “We have coffee from different farmers and the kit for grinding the beans.”

Melody: “As sad as this sounds, I am a Cuban who does not have much experience making coffee — ha! When do you anticipate having YouTube tutorials?”

Maria: “I just ordered my LuMee light! We will be posting to Instagram and YouTube soon. We have some content but you can follow our social pages for upcoming tutorials.”

Melody: “Are you shipping nationwide?”

Maria: “Yes.”

Melody: “ Great! Lastly, what are things you need?”

Maria: “Since we are in a new market (B2C), we need to acquire customers. We are working on our SEO and learning e-commerce. Any guidance is appreciated.”

For Maria, COVID-19 has forced her business to pivot into a new model and market without the luxury of time. As a mother to two little girls, she is learning how to navigate this pandemic as a business owner, a wife, and a mother. However, her unwavering faith in God and in her vision for Progeny Coffee remains steadfast. She and her husband are defining what it means to be in the coffee industry as social entrepreneurs.

Edited by: Jessica Salinas

Learn more about Maria Palacio and her coffee business by visiting their website and social channels (Facebook and Instagram). If you are able to offer support or would like to contribute to the success of their business, feel free to ping me, and I can make an intro.

If you’d like to support Progeny Coffee and more exceptional entrepreneurs like them during the pandemic, spread the word about this series and share this article with family and friends on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Email.

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Amplifying Diverse Founders | Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative (former) | App Store Marketing (former) | CubaRican | SJSU Alumni