ICA’s impact starts and ends with our entrepreneurs. In this section Maria Palacio, Reem Assil, and Fernay McPherson, owners of Progeny Coffee, Reem’s California, and Minnie Bell’s, respectively, share their small business stories in their own words.

They not only capture the impact of our investments, our Accelerator, and the work of the Rapid Response Liquidity Fund, but also speak to the essence of why we do our work.

Progeny Coffee

Maria Palacio

Growing up, I used to play in piles of dried coffee beans and pretend that I was playing in snow. I’m a 5th-Generation coffee farmer. I love coffee. But coffee farming in Colombia is a difficult industry. Most farms aren’t breaking even. When I was a girl, I saw my dad lose his farm. My grandpa and my dad always told me, ‘You need to get out and make something for yourself.’ I was told that if I stayed, I wouldn’t have a future. So I left the land that raised me.

I’m the first in my family to graduate University. And for a time, I worked in the fashion industry here in the U.S. One day, looking at the $5 cup of coffee in my hand, I thought about all the farmers who barely see a few cents from that coffee. And I knew I could do something to create a new, more equitable business model.

“One day, looking at the $5 cup of coffee in my hand, I thought about all the farmers who barely see a few cents from that coffee.”
“Attracting loyal customers who enjoy Progeny coffee is the easy part. Our farmers grow incredible beans. What was most difficult was finding investors and advisors willing to back me, a Latina founder in Silicon Valley. I heard ‘no’ after ‘no’ after ‘no.’”

Progeny is an artisanal coffee company offering single-origin coffee grown in Colombia and roasted in Berkeley, California. By working directly with 40 family-run farms, Progeny cuts out the middleman, doubling the income our farmers earn for their beans. I’m proud of the coffee we offer our customers, and I’m proud of the price we offer our suppliers. Along with a higher rate, we offer fixed pricing to farmers, who otherwise get caught in a fluctuating commodities market. We assume the risk, and they can focus on farming, which is what they do best. At Progeny, we offer free consulting to our farmers on their methods, and we pay for performance: coffee that scores higher is worth double.

Attracting loyal customers who enjoy Progeny coffee is the easy part. Our farmers grow incredible beans. What was most difficult was finding investors and advisors willing to back me, a Latina founder in Silicon Valley. I heard “no” after “no” after “no.” I had to work 100 times harder, and knock on 100 more doors. When I joined ICA’s Accelerator in 2019, I immediately gained access to financial and legal experts who are in my corner. I found an amazing community that supports women-owned and minority-owned companies.

The pro-bono advice and support I have received from Levi Booser has been indispensable. At the start of COVID, we lost our wholesale revenue almost overnight, as most of our clients were tech firms who offered our coffee to their workers. Levi encouraged us to push for direct-to-consumer online sales, and that made all the difference. The e-commerce capabilities we’ve built will be a big revenue stream for Progeny, even after we go back to selling wholesale to tech companies. The confidence I gained through the Accelerator, and the way I approach questions and challenges for my business, is a reflection of the experience I’ve had with ICA’s advisors.

Reem's California

Reem Assil

When I set out to open an Arab Bakery in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, I never imagined the attention and accolades it would garner after its first few years. I wanted to honor the heritage of my Palestinian Syrian household and introduce people to the warmth of Arab bread and hospitality. In the journey doing so, our mission and vision has become so much more expansive. Our vision is to build strong resilient communities through good jobs, nourishing food and sanctuary spaces.

“Our vision is to build resilient communities through good jobs, nourishing food, and sanctuary spaces.”

In our second year, we were named a Best New Restaurant by Food & Wine Magazine. I was honored as a semifinalist for Best New Chef: West by the James Beard Foundation in back to back years, and David Chang featured us on his Netflix show, Ugly Delicious. While all these accolades are incredible, it is the community space we created that means the most to me. And it is the continuous support from local community partners that gave me the confidence to open a second location in San Francisco’s Mission District. We opened on March 11th, but then had to shut down both locations one week later.

Reem’s is founded on the Arab virtue of hospitality, which includes creating a sense of home for people at a time when the idea of “home” is an elusive thing. The coronavirus has made this even more difficult. We can’t welcome people in the way we used to. In the wake of a pandemic, we have had to re-imagine what Arab hospitality means.

“In the wake of a pandemic, we have had to re-imagine what Arab hospitality means.”

It means making sure that our workers, customers, and neighbors are safe and cared for. It means that we discover more radical ways to feed our community. I went back to my community organizing roots, built partnerships with organizations like World Central Kitchen and transformed my Oakland restaurant into a commissary kitchen feeding thousands of meals a week to the most food insecure parts of our community. We forged forward with our San Francisco restaurant building a new community in the Mission, offering the curbside and takeout.

We worked around the clock to make sure that we could maintain the jobs of the most vulnerable of our workers, especially those who could not get unemployment. It was exhausting but it was necessary. When the federal government has not done its job to take care of its own, we must build our in systems to take care of ourselves. Our slogan became #wegotus.

The pandemic has revealed that the food industry needs to change. When we rebuild it we must center workers and BIPOC communities, who have been disproportionately impacted by the inequity it is plagued with. It is a privilege to be a business owner. This moment presents an opportunity to rebuild this industry to be better than the one we left behind.

“It is a privilege to be a business owner. This moment presents an opportunity to rebuild this industry to be better than the one we left behind.”
Minnie Bell's Soul Movement

Fernay McPherson

I named my company, Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement, in honor of my great aunt, Minnie, and my grandmother, Lilly Bell. It was my way of taking two women whom I’ve admired so much in my life, with me on my entrepreneurial journey. And what a journey it has been.

When I first started Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement, the “movement” referred to our mobile food truck which we used to serve our signature rosemary-scented fried chicken throughout the Bay Area. But once I opened a permanent location in the Emeryville Public Market the name took on a new meaning: I feel Minnie Bell’s is part of a bigger movement as another woman of color entrepreneur is facing the odds of running a successful, growing small business.

Like so many of the business owners I know, we pivoted. It was hard and it has been hard, but the ICA Accelerator was my secret weapon.

At the beginning of this year, I was executing on an exciting growth plan I created in the ICA Accelerator. Minnie Bell’s was a thriving business when I joined the Accelerator, and the work I did as part of Cohort 4 helped me to build the business infrastructure I needed to scale, and as a result, 2020 was going to be a big year. I had graduated from the Accelerator at the end of 2019 so it had only been a few months since then when the pandemic hit. Then everything changed.

First, we shut everything down, but even when we re-opened, our business was nowhere near where it had been before the pandemic. In the new reality, we’ve had to reduce our staff by 60%, and to date, we’ve lost about 75% of our daily in-person business, and 90% of our event orders have been canceled. Worst of all, we just don’t know when things will go back to normal.

When COVID-19 reached the Bay Area, the business intelligence and coaching I had gained in my time in the Accelerator, were invaluable. ICA helped me think through how to make the business moves I needed to make to adapt, and survive. However, I quickly realized that I also needed an infusion of cash to actually make the business moves happen. And ICA was there, again, with a fast and easy loan through the Rapid Response Liquidity Fund. Without ICA’s capital we wouldn’t have had the cash runway required to adapt, pivot – and breathe.

So far, our pivots have worked but we still have our work cut out for us. I’m doing everything I can: since reopening, we’ve integrated online ordering, negotiated lease terms with our landlord, and put more time and energy into our social media marketing. I’ve also tweaked my menu, started hosting socially-distanced pop-up events, and almost daily, I’ve been using tools and skills I learned during my time in the Accelerator.

The hard reality doesn’t mean I don’t have a big vision for Minnie Bell’s. I always have. I want to grow my company, and the first place we’re going is San Francisco’s Fillmore district. As a business owner, I call the entire Bay Area home, but I was born and raised in San Francisco, so I want that to be the next stop on my journey.  

Right now, we’re taking it one day at a time, but with ICA’s support, backing from my community, and the “movement” behind me, I am definitely not letting this dream go.

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