These queer Latina business owners went from Etsy to Target in seven years
The married duo behind those viral “Latina power” shirts share their No. 1 piece of advice for success in a white, cis, male-dominated world.
When Jen Zeano first told her parents she’d be quitting her stable government job to pursue her passion project, Jen Zeano Designs (JZD), full time, they weren’t exactly thrilled. “I have a degree in psychology, and I was working at a foster care agency,” says Jen, who immigrated from Mexico with her parents when she was 6. “I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I went to school; I graduated; I got myself a professional job. Then one day, I told my mom and dad, ‘I quit my job and I’m starting a business where I’m going to make T-shirts.’ There were a lot of follow-up questions.”
It’s an experience that’s familiar to countless first-gen kids — I know I can still clearly recall the moment I told my own immigrant parents “Voy a trabajar para una revista!” (I’m going to work for a magazine!) They were generally supportive but concerned. My journalist dream, with its competitiveness and financial instability, contradicted their American Dream. That internal conflict is what drives so many children of immigrants — myself and Jen included — to work hard, realize our dreams, and prove our family’s sacrifices weren’t made in vain.
Today, Jen can safely say she’s achieved that goal. Even better: She’s done so with her family — not just her parents, Mary and Gus, but also her wife and co-founder, Vero Zeano — by her side.
Despite their initial skepticism, Jen’s parents quickly jumped on board, even opening up their home as JZD HQ and helping to screen-print clothes and pack orders. It paid off: In the span of seven years, JZD went from a small-scale Etsy operation to a beloved, successful lifestyle company that celebrates Latinx culture through statement-making apparel, stationary, and home decor. Jen and Vero have seen their “Latina Power” shirts (created initially as a way to channel anger in response to Donald Trump’s 2016 election) go viral via celebrities like Jessica Alba and Jenna Ortega; expanded their HQ into a Texas warehouse; and released a historic capsule collection with Target that went live during Hispanic Heritage Month 2022.
Not everything has changed, though. Mary and Gus — who’ve unofficially taken on the role of Vero’s surrogate parents (“I’m the favorite,” Vero says) — were instrumental in JZD’s early success, and they continue to be an integral part of the company. “Now Jen’s mom is our warehouse supervisor,” Vero says. “Jen’s dad takes care of our shipping.” They also personalize customer orders with handwritten thank you notes and regularly appear on JZD’s Instagram, the latter of which offers funny, candid looks at what owning a small business is actually like, as well as sneak peeks at upcoming merch drops.
Jen and Vero talked to Mic about seeing their Latina- and queer-owned brand make headlines, the importance of prioritizing family and community in JZD’s social media, and their advice for breaking into historically white, cis spaces.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JZD was thrust into the spotlight with the release of your “Latina Power” shirts. Was the move to release them intentionally political?
Jen: It was one of the most unexpected things because we did not plan it that way at all. This was around the Trump era. I’m a U.S. citizen now, but I was not born here. And my mom is a resident; she’s not a citizen yet. So I was just in my feelings; I was afraid. At the time Vero was working in immigration — working to help the kiddos find relief to stay here in the U.S. — so she was seeing firsthand how everything that was being discussed on the news was actually going to affect our community. We felt it so deep, so we created the “Latina Power” shirt. I screen printed 12 of them — one for me, one for Vero, and one for my mom. At the time, we didn’t even have a website; we were just selling on Etsy, so we listed the rest. That was the first product we sold quickly. It was also the first time people were replying to our Instagram posts and starting conversations in our DMs.
People commented “Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for creating this” or “I bought it on Etsy, and I wore it out to a coffee shop, and it sparked a conversation with somebody.” That was the best outcome we could have ever imagined. Ever since then, we knew this was what we were supposed to be doing.
“We felt we had tapped into something important and meaningful. It all made sense.” — Jen Zeano
Vero: It was a conversation starter. It was what we were going through at the moment. It was Jen’s fear of being a naturalized citizen, her mom being a resident, and me working in that line of work, really seeing how it was affecting kids. It was also a mixture of us not only being immigrants but also being gay and being women. There were so many things happening at once, all while the U.S. was on fire. It started really important conversations with our customers, and it instantly made us feel connected to them.
Jen: We loved those interactions — people we had never met before were feeling the same way we were feeling. We felt we had tapped into something important and meaningful. It all made sense.
Every immigrant and first-generation has felt that pressure to succeed in a financially stable — and often, traditional — career. Jen, you shared your parents had a lot of questions when you first told them your plans. How did it go from there?
Jen: My parents did everything they were supposed to do to survive here and have a better life. They followed what was expected of them. I was a little rebel. The first thing my dad said was “How much do you owe in student loans?” And I was like, “I won’t talk about it.” He said, “Why are you not going to use your degree if you spent so much time and money getting your degree?” He was shocked, and he wasn’t really happy about it at first. He was supportive in that he wished us well and hoped we’d succeed. And my mom was like, “You can do anything. You’ll be fine. You’re young, and if all else fails, you have your degree. You’ll go back and you’ll find a job.”
Vero: Mind you, these are immigrant parents. They moved over here; her dad went to school, he started university when he was 40 years old, and became a teacher.
After we went to them and said “We’re starting a business. Jen’s quitting her job. We’re going to keep my job,” we left the house and Jen’s dad went online and Googled “What does it mean when you start a business? How many women are in business? How successful are women in business?”
Jen: I remember the first time he started seeing how the business was growing. He came up to us, and he was like, “I never doubted you, but I’m so sorry I wasn’t super supportive like your mother at first.” They both work for us now. They both are a huge part of the business, and they’ve always been supportive to the best of their abilities.
Vero: The business is our whole livelihood. We don’t have jobs anymore. I know we have our degrees to fall back on, but this is it. This is what we do full time. So every time something big comes around — like the opportunity to move into a bigger warehouse — we make sure to tell Mary and Gus, so they can smack us on the heads and be like “What are you worried about? Just do it.”
What were your expectations when you started JZD?
Jen: When we first started the brand, I would say to myself, “I want to be this huge brand, and I want to get into retail.” I had these vague dreams, but I had no background in business or in anything even remotely close to what I’m doing. I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen. I didn’t know if I could; I just knew I wanted to. So to see how far we’ve gotten is just an overwhelming amount of pride. Then seeing that through my parents’ eyes because they are so involved is a whole other layer of amazingness. Because I’m able to see how we’re building together. And my mom and my dad are building with us. Yes, it’s my business, but it’s all of ours because we’re all building it together and we’re all growing this together. It’s just a really cool dynamic to have because we’re all growing this little baby together.
“We’ve built this community where you don’t have to feel so lonely. You can come to us and we’ll be your family. We’ll be your friends.” — Vero Zeano
Over time, your Instagram followers have become so well acquainted with you and your parents, and JZD orders even include thank you notes from your dad. Talk to me about the community you’ve built.
Jen: Sometimes, people see my dad on Instagram and send us pictures of the thank you card and say it reminds them of their own dad or mom. At the end of the day, [Latinx] families are so alike, and we all have gone through these universal experiences — whether it’s the journey of discovering and honoring our Latina dad or going through those stages of life where you didn’t feel proud of your culture or you didn’t want to claim it in a way or you’re tired of your parents because they’re immigrants and they have these really strict rules you have to follow. When you’re able to talk about that and find somebody who feels that way, it makes you feel less alone.
Vero: It’s really nice to share our family with everybody else. Mary really does feel like everybody else’s mom. Gus really does feel like everybody else’s dad. Sometimes, it’s a lonely journey when you’re an immigrant or when you’re first-generation; when you go off to college and you’re the one who stands out. We’ve built this community where you don’t have to feel so lonely. You can come to us and we’ll be your family. We’ll be your friends.
When your Target capsule collection was announced, a news segment showed the two of you sharing a kiss. What was that moment like, and what was the response?
Jen: We were shocked; we didn’t know that it was going to air until we saw it on TV. Then they showed that clip and Vero literally screamed “Oh, my God, lesbians kissing on TV.”
Vero: On national TV.
Jen: And you were like, “That’s you. You’re that lesbian.” But it was such a shocker. We were texting with JZD’s social media manager, Cat, as it was airing. She was watching it with her family, and her mom asked, “Why are y’all so shocked?” And Cat was like, “This doesn’t happen, Mom.”
We got a couple of comments saying “I didn’t even notice this was such a huge deal.” To some people, it’s so normal. But to a lot of other people — and a lot of other gay people — it wasn’t always common. It’s not a normal thing. As much as we wish it was, there’s still a lot of work to be done in that area.
Vero: I wish I would've seen that growing up, so I could have been like “Oh, it’s OK for me to have these feelings.”
Jen: Or it’s OK to be gay; it won’t stop you from being successful. Because that’s a common belief some people have: “If you’re gay, your life is over. You’re not going to be able to have a job, and people are not going to hire you. And you’re not going to be able to run a business because people are going to be homophobic.” We never hid that we’re a gay-owned business — it’s who we are; it was always a part of us. Thankfully, our community is so supportive, and they’ve embraced our queerness as a huge part of the brand. It’s obviously a huge part of our lives; it’s who we are, it’s there every single day, and it doesn’t change over time. It doesn’t go anywhere.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people looking to enter historically white, cis-gated spaces in their careers?
Jen: Walk into those spaces as if you know everything. Because a lot of the time these spaces are filled with people who don’t — they’re not experts. But once you get into that room, open yourself completely to learn from everybody. It doesn’t matter who is in there; ask questions. I am a huge fan of admitting you don’t know certain things once you’re already in the room and saying “Look, in complete honesty, I don’t know. Can you teach me?” or “Can you answer this question for me?” Then ask all of your questions.
When we started working with Target, I was super straight with them and said “Look, I’m going to be honest with you. We’re still a small business, and I absolutely want to take this on, but I don’t know if I know anything about retail. I don’t know all of the systems, and I don’t know all of these things. Is it OK? Will you be teaching me? Will you help me?” And they were like, “Yes, we’re going to help you set up.”
But I’m a fast learner. I always say that: I’m a fast learner, and I’m willing to put in all my time and energy, and I will pick it up. I just might need a little extra time, and I might email you a lot with all of these questions.
Vero: Don’t be intimidated. Of course it’s scary. We were terrified; we didn’t know what we were doing. Jen and I both know our weaknesses, and we can admit it to each other. There’s no shame in somebody knowing more than you. The shame is in you not accepting help or not admitting it to yourself — that’s how you hurt yourself and your business. Sit with yourself and think “What are my fortes? What are my weaknesses? Where can I get extra help? How do I outsource?” Never stop learning. Open a book; go to YouTube; go to Google. Everything is there for you. You just have to look for it.