Last year, 2Bridge helped spread the word about Equator Coffees & Teas, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2016 Small Business of the Year. Owners Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell—partners in life as well as work—are the first LGBT-owned (and certified) business to win this honor.
“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,” said Jacklyn Jordan, president and CEO, Capital Access Group, the lender that provided an SBA 504 loan that enabled Helen and Brooke to purchase their building in San Rafael, Calif. Capital Access nominated Equator for the California Small Business of the Year award (which they won as a precursor to the national award).
Helen and Brooke co-founded Equator Coffees & Teas, Inc., in 1995 in a small Marin County garage. The company now has the 5,500-square-foot roastery in San Rafael, plus thriving wholesale and retail businesses. They now have more than 350 wholesale customers, retail cafes at LinkedIn, micro-kitchens at Google, and retail stores throughout Northern California. They also provide coffee at the renowned French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Calif.
It’s not just about coffee, though. Helen and Brooke—in addition to having spent the last 22 years focusing on sourcing and roasting the best coffees—are also determined to make a positive impact in the world, supporting food security issues for orphan girls in Africa, helping women in Nicaragua to secure land rights to their farms, and providing micro loans to farmers. They also co-own a sustainable farm in Panama named Finca Sophia.
They are proud to be part of a growing community of more than 1,600 certified B corporations from 42 countries and over 120 industries working toward a unifying goal: using business as a force for good. In 2011, Equator was the first U.S. coffee roaster to become a certified B Corporation, meeting rigorous environmental and social performance standards and by supporting the growers around the world and everyone involved in the supply chain. The company has been working directly with its farmers for 17 years and was one of the first roasters to support the Fair Trade Certified label to gain better wages for the growers.
“I think with any brand, especially with coffee, coffee being such a commodity, I think of it sort of like a fortune cookie,” Helen said. “Until you actually look at that little message inside, that's where the brand is really revealed. And all the things that we've done have just been things that sort of have really appealed to us, as people, in our hearts.”
Helen and Brooke's decisions—to become certified as an LGBT-owned business, to provide micro loans to farmers, to invest in their employees, and to give back to the community—came as a natural outgrowth of their own interests and concerns. Equator is an example of a brand that completely lives its values.
“It's about the entire supply chain. It's about the farmer, the exporter, the importer, the roaster, the retailer, the purveyors,” Helen said. “I think that in order to make an impact, you have to be profitable. That just makes sense. But the more business that we can attract, the more profitability that we have, the greater the impact is.”
Businesses like Equator are part of the growing impact economy that is helping address some of the world’s most pressing needs in sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, housing, and other sectors, challenging the notion that philanthropy alone should address social or environmental issues.
Equator also lives its values by helping its workers right here in the Bay Area, providing, since day one, health insurance to all employees. “Brooke and I feel that health insurance is something that as a company, as owners, we need to offer,” she says. “It's our responsibility. They work for us. So we're really, really proud of that.”
Equator’s retail store in San Francisco—in the Tenderloin District, an economically challenged neighborhood with a large population of homeless and marginally housed people—also helps its neighbors, hiring “ambassadors” who live in nearby hotels to work for the company. “I see people who need work and that want to grow in a company that cares about them,” Helen says. Equator aims to be a neighbor in its community, making everyone feel welcome, and helping some of them on the path to employment and stability.
“I kind of think of Equator as sort of like a Katy Perry concert,” Helen said. “Whether you’re 3 or 83 years old, you’re going to feel comfortable.”
While getting the SBA award shines a light on Equator’s good work, it also provides inspiration for other businesses small or large to do the same—bring passion and creativity to create a desirable product or service, and in so doing, help to make the world a better place.
“One of the things that we're most proud of, to be really, really honest, is our social mission, our sustainability mission,” Helen said.