Co-founder of Marin County’s Equator Coffees wins North Bay Business Leadership Pride award

Helen Russell

Co founder & Executive Chair

Equator Coffees. LLC.

115 Jordan St San Rafael 94901


Helen Russel, co-founder and executive chair of San Rafael-based Equator Coffees, is a winner of North Bay Business Journal’s inaugural Pride Business Leadership Awards.

Tell us your story in your words: My partner Brooke and I started roasting coffee in 1995. We previously owned coffee bars but were not satisfied with the coffee we were able to buy wholesale. We knew we could offer a better product so we jumped into the roasting side of business.

Brooke has an incredible palate and trained herself to be a top notch roaster, I love selling things and would cold call every new cafe and restaurant I heard about.

We set out to create a company where we would source coffee ethically, roast it expertly, and support our wholesale accounts completely.

We wanted to grow a business where we would be proud to work. We’ve had slow sustainable and steady growth since then, pre-pandemic we were operating 8 of our own cafes, supporting 400 wholesale accounts, and roasting coffee in San Rafael, LA and NY. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last 26 years.

Personally, what have you learned about yourself within the past year -- with its economic and social challenges -- and how will it change the way you live going forward?

This year has been such a reminder about the need to be in the moment. Things shifted radically for everyone overnight, those future certainties starting seeming much less certain. This shook me.

I’m such a striver, I’m a classic entrepreneur in that way, my work is never done because there is always more I can do. I’m realizing the importance of celebrating where we are, celebrating the small wins. Our business is not going to look the same as it did, it isn’t going to be quite what I thought it would be in Jan 2020. That’s ok.

We are still very much here and in some ways the pro-traction in our company has made us stronger than ever. We have a renewed focus to build back better and we are celebrating where we are today.

Did it give you a new perspective about your career or the business you are in? What was the biggest shift in that perception?

We’ve always known that our team members are our greatest assets, doing things like offering health insurance , investing in educational opportunities and paying more than minimum wage is built into our business model.

This year has solidified that people are the most important part of business. Our teams had to trust us to make the right decisions and we had open communication and shared everything with them. More than ever having the trust of our employees is what makes our business work.

What stereotype or bias involving the Pride movement which you most like to knock down and why?

I think the most frustrating arguments I hear around the Queer Rights movement, and this related to to equal rights of any marginalized group really, comes form the idea that there is a limit to liberations, that rights are somehow finite.

The gay community being able to marry, or serve in the military or see their stories reflected in the media doesn’t take away from the other communities having these same opportunities. Diversity and Inclusion only makes everyone’s lives richer.

What was the best decision you made in the past year in your professional life in the past year, and what was the worst? Tell us why.

Wow, this year was full of tough decisions, but we made them.

We are very lucky that as a company going into the pandemic we had a strong balance sheet and thankfully we were able to secure PPP loans or the outcome would of been devastating.

We have been conservative with cash which has allowed us to be laser focused on our budget while looking for other opportunities not effective by Covid to continue to grow our business.

With folks working from home, we were fortunate we had a brand new website to service that work from home coffee drinker.

We acted quickly in response to covid spreading into the US. We shut down our stores prior to being required to do so, we knew we had to take care of our teams and our communities as our #1 priority.

We moved to conserve cash quickly once it was clear that a massive shutdown was happening. We quickly laid people off, moved those who stayed to part time, and cut the salaries of the executive team.

Laying people off was not a conversation I've had to have before, and I had to have it over and over again. We made sure everyone knew about the benefits available to them and hired most of the team back once the business level allowed us to do so.

What is the achievement are you most proud of when it comes to your professional life and why: I’m so proud that Equator was recognized as the SBA small business of the year on the national level.

It’s the first time is the history of the SBA that a LGBTE won this award. It was so great to have the impact of the queer community recognized in this way. There are many LGBTQ owned small busnesses, we contribute millions to our country's economy and create meaningful job opportunities. We should be recognised as important constituent in the world of business.

What are you most proud of regarding the achievements of your organization, your work and/or your community activities when it comes to the Pride movement?

It’s funny, we were so head down in the running of our businesses for so long that we didn’t even realize, or take time to celebrate the impact we were having on the coffee industry.

My employees call us trailblazers, and it always makes me laugh. We knew we were often the only queer people in the room, but I didn’t realize how much were building a path to follow. I have young queer entrepenours reach out to me for advice and support and I’m always surprised, we were just growing our business because our livelyhoods depended on it.

We didn’t realize we were helping to change the landscape of the coffee industry. I’m so proud that there is a generation of LGBTQ entrepreneurs currently leaning in to make business more inclusive.

Words that best describe you: Generous, caring and fearless

As a successful professional, what were the biggest obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them?

I’m such an optimist that I truly see opportunities rather than obstacles.

Also, I walk through life with a lot of privilege, so even though part of my identity is of a marginalized group I have had a lot of doors opened for me. It’s interesting when I really think back to those meetings in the 90s, where I would be in a room full of straight men.

I didn’t notice the microaggressions because we didn’t have a word for them, I just knew I had to fight for space. I didn’t talk much about my personal life because it didn’t feel safe, but I don’t think people even knew that they didn’t know the whole me.

I compartmentalized to survive in a way that I don’t see the younger generation being forced to do. What this generation will be able to accomplish because they don’t have to hide themselves will be incredible.

Now tell us who influenced, mentored or inspired you in the area of the Pride movement, and tell us why:

It’s been very powerful being a part of the GGBA and connecting with other LGBTQ entrepreneurs and business owners. I’m always motivated by people creating their livelihoods out of their passions.

Current reading:“The Daily Stoic”

Most want to meet: Kamala Harris

Stress relievers: Cycling, meditation, dinner with friends and hanging out at home with my partner Brooke.

Favorite activities outside work: I’m very much into cycling now, I love connecting with the cycling community while visiting our Equator stores. I’m a later in life cyclist, I didn’t “clip in” until my mid 50s, and now I can’t envision my life without riding multiple times a week, often riding 70 miles for my weekend ride.

I love the group of women and men I’ve connected with and the way bicycles can improve lives. My passions are working with bike based non profits like World Bicycle Relief, The Challenged Athletes Foundation and Best Buddies. Equator has created community at our retail stores to support these organizations and provide a place to gather and commune

Those who care about you, what would they say are your best qualities: My warmth, humor and curiosity about and interest in other people

Is there anything we may have missed that you would like to add?

Who would guess, I have a heating and air conditioning license from 1980 when I worked for New England Telephone Company.

Helen Russell

Co founder & Executive Chair

Equator Coffees. LLC.

115 Jordan St San Rafael 94901


Show Comment