“I knew two things: I wanted to start a business that focused on Oaxacan culture, and I wanted to start a business with Janeth.” – Lizeth Zorrilla (STM ’11)
Opening a business just a few years after graduating high school is itself a remarkable accomplishment. For Lizeth (STM ’11) and Janeth (STM ’13) Zorrilla, however, entrepreneurship was just another obstacle for their family to overcome.
The Zorrilla sisters opened La Finca Coffeehouse, located on E. Sivyer Avenue in St. Francis, in October 2017. Highlighting the family’s Oaxacan culture, La Finca serves coffee-based drinks, hot brunch food, and baked goods, all with a distinct Mexican flair.
But the Zorrillas’ mission for La Finca goes far beyond their own professional success or financial gain. The Zorrilla sisters want to incorporate La Finca into the local community, offering people of all cultures a welcoming, inviting space to meet and collaborate.
“A big part of our mission is collaboration with our community,” Janeth explained. “Outside of serving high-quality coffee, we also want to create the ambiance so that people feel like this is a place that they can call home. It’s more than just getting your coffee and leaving.”
Their vision for La Finca emerged after a 2016 trip to visit family in Oaxaca, Mexico. Although many of their family, including their paternal grandfather, still lived in the southwest Mexican state, the Zorrilla sisters had not been back to Oaxaca since the ages of one and three, when they immigrated to the United States with their parents.
Despite not physically returning to the family’s homeland, Lizeth and Janeth’s father, Juan, always ensured that his children had plenty of opportunities to learn about their Oaxacan heritage and celebrate their cultural identity.
“Our dad was always a huge proponent of our culture and making sure that we knew where we came from because in his eyes that was really important in us becoming adults,” Janeth said. “When we were growing up, he would always tell us stories of what it was like in Oaxaca when he was growing up on the farm. We were able to live vicariously through him.”
During their three-week trip to Oaxaca, Lizeth and Janeth stayed on their grandfather’s 900-acre coffee farm and returned to Milwaukee with a few samples to share with their family and friends.
“Everyone really enjoyed the coffee, the story, and the connection to our family in Mexico,” Janeth recalled. Since its first day of business in October 2017, La Finca has sourced all its coffee beans from their grandfather’s farm in Oaxaca. “We thought this [single sourcing] would be a great way to keep the connection with our
family in Oaxaca alive since we weren’t able to for so many years of our lives.”
One of the people they shared samples with was St. Thomas More Spanish teacher Ann Marie Dorn, who, as she had done when Lizeth and Janeth were still in her classroom, encouraged them to pursue this unique opportunity.
“Mrs. Dorn really contributed to me finding my voice and developing leadership skills,” said Lizeth, who remembers learning to network at Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meetings with Dorn and the autonomy she gave students organizing the popular Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass. “She captured and celebrated my cultural identity, even at a time when there were very few Hispanic students at St. Thomas More.”
“You could tell that she cared about her students,” Janeth added. “She was always a welcoming presence in the school and was definitely one of the most important role models that we had during our time at St. Thomas More.”
Lizeth describes Dorn and her other favorite St. Thomas More teacher, biomedical science chair Darlene Langhoff, as “strict in a very loving way,” a characterization that many alumni from 2000 and beyond may find familiar.
“We benefited from people at home and at school who had very high standards, and we wanted to meet their expectations for us because we didn’t want to disappoint them,” Janeth explained. “They were very strict, but they also gave us the tools necessary to fulfill the potential that they saw in us and that ultimately is what helped to prepare us for life after high school.”
While continuing to set ambitious goals, the Zorrillas remain humble by placing their accomplishments in perspective. In the future, they hope to expand La Finca beyond its flagship St. Francis location but only if it matches the needs of their family, employees, and community.
“Our dad would always tell us, ‘humility and intelligence are compatible if and only if humility comes first,’” Lizeth recalled. “Sometimes you want to be the most successful, you want the best, but if you choose the humblest option, you’ll achieve far greater success. And through that quote, we try to be fair employers and to be a fair business in the community because there are needs greater than ours.”
Lizeth and Janeth especially want to give back to their parents, recognizing the countless sacrifices they made to ensure that their children had every opportunity to succeed.
“Our family was the definition of overcoming struggle and staying united,” Janeth said. “It was not always an easy childhood, but I remember it being a happy childhood because of the great sacrifices that our parents made to keep us happy and give us amazing opportunities like being able to attend a school like St. Thomas More—that was all out of their sacrifice.”
About the Author
Kevin Russell has been a member of the STM Development Department since January 2014. He currently serves as Marketing Director, chairs the STM Communications Committee, and acts as the primary content editor for the Spirit.