Born and raised on a Colombian coffee farm, Maria Palacio was able to experience firsthand how challenging it was to make a living while working in the industry.

A fifth-generation coffee farmer, she was inspired to make coffee more sustainable to improve the lives of farmers. After moving to the United States, she met her husband, John Trabelsi. Together, they co-founded Progeny Coffee, an intentionally impact-driven specialty coffee company.

Progeny Coffee co-founder Maria Palacio on her family coffee farm in Colombia as a little girl.
Used with permission from Maria Palacio / Progeny Coffee

Palacio recalled connecting with now-husband John Trabelsi over coffee when they first started getting to know each other. “We realized the irony of paying $5 or more for a single cup while farmers struggled. It was clear that something had to change.”

She dreams big for Progeny Coffee’s future in terms of giving back to coffee-farming families and communities. They hope to one day build schools, distribute funding for new tools, and organize public agriculture classes to enhance farming methods. Today, they’re working with a community of 500 families.

In an interview with mitú, the co-founder and CEO tells us what motivates her, how she’s overcome business challenges, and how her coffee company promotes positive change in a community her heart will always be in.

How Progeny Coffee is transforming the coffee industry

According to Palacio, coffee farmers historically produce coffee 15% below the ideal margin. It’s widely known that they are thrust into a cycle of poverty. 

Aside from not being paid a living wage, these hard workers are victims of an outdated coffee supply chain. In a nutshell, the product goes through many people before distribution, from transport to buyers. Palacio and Trabelsi started a four-year journey to understand why this was the standard practice. 

“Our exploration revealed that the coffee supply chain involved approximately ten intermediaries, eroding the value at each step,” said Palacio. “Additionally, we discovered a lack of education and information reaching the farmers, hindering their ability to maximize the quality of their coffee.”

They were motivated by what they had learned and were determined to operate their specialty Colombian coffee brand sustainably and ethically. So, the husband and wife team became business partners and founded Progeny Coffee in 2016. Their mission was to help a generation of coffee farmers out of poverty. They began conceptualizing ideas to create their own coffee supply chain.

Removing the “unnecessary” middlemen helped create an efficient and truly direct trade process. Progeny Coffee’s chain starts with farmer support — education, agricultural support, new farming techniques — moves to collection and transport, then sorting, milling and exporting, and finally importing, roasting, and distributing.

Three bags of Progeny Coffee on a pink backdrop. A hand is grabbing the bag on the left.
Used with permission from Progeny Coffee

With each blend sold, Progeny Coffee invites customers to “adopt a farmer.” Photos of the coffee farmers are front and center on bags filled with beans from their farms. For instance, the Alegria medium roast caramel, milk chocolate, and pear coffee proudly features Sandra Isabela Largo’s photo with beans from her farm in Caramanta, Colombia. 

“By forging direct relationships with farmers, we ensure that the value of your purchase directly benefits those who pour their hearts into growing exceptional coffee,” said Palacio.

Overcoming obstacles as a business owner

Progeny Coffee’s streamlined supply chain didn’t come without challenges. They had to build relationships with the farmers and develop trust between them due to how intricate their industry is. 

Another obstacle was showing the world the value of specialty coffee and its impact on farmers’ lives. Chain coffee houses are on every corner these days, so it can be difficult to persuade people to try something new.

“Breaking into an established market and convincing consumers to prioritize ethical sourcing and sustainability was a challenge,” said Palacio. “However, we persisted and worked hard to educate consumers about the benefits of supporting fair trade and direct trade practices.”

Palacio’s heritage and faith are fueling her drive

The CEO thanks her Latina culture for her “unwavering spirit of resilience and determination” when it comes to her business. It reminds her that she can overcome anything, especially with passion and a strong sense of community.

“It is the strength passed down through generations, the power to rise above adversity, and the ability to find beauty amidst challenges,” explained Palacio.

Faith is also a substantial part of her identity, particularly as an entrepreneur. Her favorite Bible verse — Romans 8:37, “In all things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us” — keeps her grounded throughout this experience. It reminds her of their fight to uplift the community she grew up in and encourages her to keep going.

Palacio wants Latinas looking to start their own business to lean into their inner power to create something extraordinary. “Embrace your brilliance and let your passion light the way,” she said. “Begin by uncovering the fire that burns within you, that unique purpose that sets your soul ablaze.”

Seeking support from mentors and finding that tribe along the way is another tip from the jefa. She also wishes up-and-coming entrepreneurs never to be afraid to start their path to small business ownership.

“The journey may be challenging, but it is through the pursuit of our dreams that we unleash our true potential,” said Palacio.