Woman entrepreneurs at San Rafael’s Equator Coffees & Teas followed heart to success

Helen Russell, co-founder of Equator Coffees & Teas in San Rafael, was the keynote speaker at North Bay Business Journal's Women in Business awards gala at Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel & Spa in Santa Rosa on June 29, 2016. (JEFF QUACKENBUSH / NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL)

CYNTHIA SWEENEY,

Helen Russell, who describes herself as “blue collar,” says one of the great things about having a successful company is creating jobs for people. Co-owned with her partner, Brooke McDonnell, Equator Coffees & Teas, with more than 350 wholesale customers and 90 employees, is doing just that.

“We began the organization doing what appeals to our hearts and minds and the next thing you know, here we are. The American dream is truly what we are about,” said Russell, who was the keynote speaker at the Wednesday June 29 Business Journal Women in Business Gala.

Russell and McDonnell are naturally suited for this business. While McDonnell is a “super-taster” with a refined coffee palate, Russell likes the business side of things. Twenty years ago, the duo hocked a diamond ring, bought a small Italian roaster, and started a business. From humble beginnings in a small garage in Marin, the operation now runs out of a 5,500-square-foot roastery in San Rafael.

From the beginning, the company focused on sustainability, Russell said. As part of her efforts to be socially and environmentally responsible, the company invested in an energy efficient roaster, a biodiesel delivery truck, hybrid service vehicles, and purchases coffees and teas from growers who practice responsible land stewardship and bio-friendly farming techniques.

In 2007, Russell and McDonald entered into a partnership to buy a coffee farm in Panama. They supply worker housing and send children to school. They also provide pay incentives and micro loans for Central American farmers to ensure a consistent supply of quality coffee.

Equator was the first coffee roaster in California to earn Certified B Corporation status, appointed by B Lab, an international assessment organization, for meeting the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. Equator has also developed a reputation as an early champion Fair Trade practices and direct relationships.

This year, the business owners became the first LGBT Certified business to win SBA Small Business of the Year for the State of California.

Equator’s constant innovation and focus on quality and culinary complexity has attracted a loyal cadre of prominent chefs and bakers including Thomas Keller, Traci Des Jardins, and Tyler Florence.

But four years ago, the duo encountered a major challenge. Starbucks bought out one of their customers, the La Boulange chain in San Francisco.

“In one day $1.5 million in revenue fell out of our checkbook,” Russell said.

That’s when she decided the company needed to go into retail. With a small business loan they opened their first café in a surf shop in Mill Valley, where the Equator concept is a huge hit. Russell believes in great, high touch service, and is enthusiastic when she talks about the regulars who come in and say they feel comfortable there.

“It’s like a Katy Perry concert. It’s the Polo Lounge of Mill Valley. You feel welcome and that’s what it’s all about. I say to people, ‘We built this for you.’ We’re building community down there,” she said.

Equator went on to open three more stores — one in Downtown Mill Valley, one in Larkspur and another in San Francisco — in three years

In addition to her focus on Equator’s success, Russell volunteers her time and business experience to local and international organizations supporting women and the environment including La Cocina Community Kitchen in San Francisco, the International Women in Coffee Alliance, and Brown Girl Surf.