Food & Drink: Model entrepreneurs

Equator Coffees & Teas founders set impressive example

By Tanya Henry

“Whether you are three or 83—your experience with Equator Coffees should be like a Katy Perry concert,” says Helen Russell, who along with her partner of 26 years, Brooke McDonnell, co-founded their San Rafael-based coffee roastery in 1995.

Up until three years ago, Equator Coffees & Teas was a wholesale business. The pair’s coffees were served throughout the Bay Area at notable places like The French Laundry and Jardiniére in San Francisco, but it wasn’t until they opened their first retail store at Tam Junction that their distinctive red and black packaging became a recognizable brand.

Equator isn’t just a fast-growing coffee and tea company. This year, it was recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) as the 2016 California Small Business of the Year. This makes them the first LGBT-owned business certified by the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce to receive the prestigious award.

“At this stage in my career, I always want to be a role model,” says Russell, who is proud to have this recognition, but acknowledges that being women entrepreneurs committed to sustainable business practices is more of a focus than the company’s LGBT status.

Russell and McDonnell have long been committed to improving their industry by creating more transparency, building community and being environmental stewards to the areas where coffee beans are grown. Chef Thomas Keller congratulated them for their SBA award and noted their  “commitment to forging personal relationships with farmers and a “hands-on approach” that “makes them inspirational leaders and business owners.”

The 21-year-old company has 90 employees, more than 350 wholesale customers, retail cafes at LinkedIn and Google, multiple stores and more in the works.

With so much going on, the partners have moved to Mill Valley from Novato to be closer to their expanding operations. They have also been invited to speak in June at The United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C. about entrepreneurship and innovation.

An opportunity on the national stage to pass on some acumen and inspiration to future generations of women is heartening. Good role models? Heck yeah!

Learn more about Equator Coffees & Teas at

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