BEQ Today

Equator Coffee & Teas named SBA Small Business of the Year

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By Melissa Lowery

When Equator Coffees & Teas, headquartered in San Rafael, California, was recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration as the 2016 Small Business of the Year, co-founders Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell were “over the moon”. The fact that they are the first LGBTQ-certified business to receive the distinction made the honor even richer.

“When you’ve been working as hard as we have for so many years, to have that acknowledgment, and to represent the LGBTQ community, we’re so proud,” Russell said.

Partners in life and business, Russell and McDonnell founded Equator in 1995 when they began roasting coffee beans in McDonnell’s garage. Since then, Equator has grown to 90 employees and 350 wholesale customers including the renowned French Laundry restaurant, cafes at LinkedIn, micro-kitchens at Google and three retail stores in Northern California with two more on the way.

Fair Trade

From the beginning, Russell and McDonnell wanted their company to have a positive impact, to make the world a better place. As a pioneer in the Fair Trade movement, Equator helped to influence the overall trajectory of the coffee industry toward fair wages and sustainable environmental farming practices. They are actively creating change in South America and Africa, impacting everyone from the farmer to the exporter to the importer to the roaster to the wholesaler to the consumer.

“We’ve supported Chido Govera’s work with orphan girls and food security in Africa, helped women in Nicaragua secure land rights to their farms, and provided micro loans to farmers, among other programs,” Russell said. “In 2011, we became the first US coffee roaster to become a certified B Corporation, and have recently been part of a completely B Certified supply chain by working with Sustainable Harvest to bring coffee from Nyampinga, a Rwandan farm, to market.”

In 2008, the duo founded Finca Sophia, a sustainably planned farm located in the highlands of Panama. In 2015, it yielded its first small harvest, which they anticipate will be one of the world’s best coffees.

A Powerful Ally

Growing the company from roasting beans in a garage to a multi-national enterprise required years of hard work. But Russell and McDonnell weren’t going it alone. They had a powerful ally in the form of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“The SBA has had our backs since day one,” Russell said. “We received an SBA 504 loan to purchase our own roasting plant. When we were ready to open our first retail store, the SBA again provided easy access to capital. They’ve had our backs at important milestones in our evolution, and we are so grateful for that.”

Jacklyn Jordan, President and CEO, Capital Access Group, walked them through the process of applying for that first 504 loan and has continued to work with them as the company grows. Jordan nominated Russell and McDonnell for the California SBA Award, another honor in Equator’s growing collection.

“These amazing women have not only created a successful, socially responsible business, they have also helped to influence the overall trajectory of the coffee industry through their early support of the Fair Trade movement,” Jordan said. “They are imminently deserving of this award, and we are honored to have played a role in the success of their business.”

The example Equator sets for sustainability and Fair Trade practices was one of many that SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet cited when presenting the Small Business of the Year award to Russell and McDonnell.

“We’re celebrating entrepreneurs with a double bottom line: it’s important to make a profit, but it’s more important to make a difference in a community,” she said at a press conference at Equator’s flagship cafe. “This is transformational, the kinds of wages that they’re paying, the fact that they’re representing and hiring people from the community and represent inclusive entrepreneurship.”


Community and inclusion are also central to Equator’s mission. When Equator moved out of the garage and into the Mid-Market District of San Francisco, community outreach was a top priority.

“When we came into the city and planted our flag in a historically blighted area, we knew it was really important that we reach out to the gay community and the local community, to make sure we were moving here in a way that embraced and supported the community,” she said. “We hired a lot of folks from the neighborhood who helped us out and guided us through being successful in this area.”

Equator became a certified LGBTQBE by the NGLCC in 2015 and is an active member of the Golden Gate Business Association, the regional NGLCC affiliate. Why seek certification after 20 years in business? For access to additional opportunities and to serve as examples of successful LGBTQ small business owners in a country where inclusiveness is an ongoing conversation.

“The Obama Administration is the most inclusive in history,” Russell said. Coupled with the certification which allows LGBTQBEs to self-identify, the “NGLCC connected the dots” between the President’s inclusion policies and access to resources for LGBTQBEs.

“President Obama understands the importance of small business in this country,” Russell said. “We are the backbone of this economy. We are the people creating the jobs. The Obama Administration worked closely with the NGLCC to create this certification, and we are proud to be certified.”

Russell expressed the sentiments of those who understand the importance of welcoming everyone to opportunity. Being woman-owned and LGBTQ-owned are attributes that may have kept other business owners from pursuing success in the past, but for Russell and McDonnell, they are strengths.

“We were far along in our careers of being an LGBTQ company, but being able to be certified, that opened so many doors,” Russell said. “We don’t lead with being a women-owned company or an LGBTQ-owned company. What we lead with is being experts in terms of what we know about specialty coffee and then, by the way, we happen to be LGBTQ. Creating a business in this country and being a woman in this country, to have come as far as we have, we’ve been very, very fortunate to have so many opportunities. The government can guide us, but it’s the businesses in this country that can lift us up.”

Business Equality Pride (BEQPride) is the first publication from the BEQ family of national print and digital magazines exclusively addressing the needs of LGBTQ small-to-medium sized businesses, entrepreneurs and professionals.