San Rafael’s Equator Coffees and Teas named California Small Business of Year

For the first time in its 63-year history, the U.S. Small Business Administration has selected lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) business owners as the Small Business Persons of the Year for California with the honors made to two women from Marin County.

San Rafael-based Equator Coffees and Teas ( is owned by Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell, who began roasting coffee 20 years ago in their Marin garage.

The company has also been named the SBA San Francisco District Office’s Small Business of the Year for 2016.

“This celebrated recognition of Helen and Brooke’s outstanding work not only exemplifies what we know of women in business leadership, it also illuminates an answer to the challenge of our time, demonstrating that businesses can be both successful and sustainable,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Capital Access Group, based in San Francisco, provided SBA 504 financing in 2003 for Equator to purchase its own, 5,500-square-foot roasting plant. Russell calls that “one of the best decisions that we’ve ever made.”

“It is such an incredible honor to be recognized by the SBA as Small Business of the Year for the state of California, and we are grateful to Capital Access Group for nominating us for this prestigious award,” she said. “As an entrepreneur, a women-owned business and a LGBT-certified business, I am proud to say that the SBA has been there for Equator at all stages of our growth over the last 21 years. The SBA knows that small businesses like Equator are creating quality jobs and driving our economy. The SBA has had our back at important milestones in our evolution. We celebrate this achievement with our employees, our partners and our collective communities.”

In 2011, Equator was the first coffee roaster in the U.S. to become a certified B corporation, or fair-trade company, meeting high standards of societal and environmental responsibility.

The company works directly with its farmers and was one of the first roasters to support the Fair Trade Certified label to gain better wages for the growers. It also co-owns a sustainably planned farm, Finca Sophia, in Panama. The operation won the 2016 Good Food Awards. Equator, as part of its social mission, provides 100 percent health insurance to all of its employees.

The company’s wholesale programs are in Marin, with shops in Mill Valley and San Francisco. Equator has 90 employees, more than 350 wholesale customers, including the renowned French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, cafes at LinkedIn and microkitchens at Google. Two more retail outlets are on the way.

Equator has been included in the San Francisco Business Times’ Top 100 Women-Owned Businesses 12 years in a row. It also is a certified LGBT-owned business by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Golden Gate Business Association.

SBA awards-winners from the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have been invited to attend ceremonies in Washington, D.C., on May 1-2. The 2016 National Small Business Person of the Year will be named there.

Each year since 1963, the president has issued a proclamation calling for the celebration of National Small Business Week the first week in May. This year the dates are May 1-7. Events are planned in Washington, D.C., New York City, Atlanta, Denver, Phoenix and San Jose and Oakland.

“There are more than 28 million small businesses serving as the economic engine of our country, employing half of the private sector and creating two out of three net new jobs,” said Maria Contreras-Sweet, head of SBA. “These small business owners represent the best of the best and showcase daily their entrepreneurial spirit and what it takes to be successful in today’s evolving and competitive business environment.”

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