Equator Coffees & Teas Founders Go to the White House As the First Out LGBT-Owned Business Honored for Small Business Week
Listening to Brooke McDonnell wax on about the notes in her espresso while sitting on the steps of Pioneer Square in Portland during the early 1990s, Helen Russell, who was enjoying her mocha with the whip cream piled high, suddenly had an idea: let’s open coffee shops in San Francisco.
“You love coffee and I love business,” said Helen turning to Brooke. “We see this whole coffee thing happening. Why don’t we put together a business plan and open up a couple of coffee bars in San Francisco?”
The couple was young and in love having met several years prior at the Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs, California. That led to Helen moving from Boston to Marin in the North Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area where Brooke settled after a childhood of globetrotting with her parents.
If Brooke didn’t really love Helen before those magic words, she loved her even more at that moment, and even more now 26 years later as they will wed in a couple of weeks. The couple celebrates their 27th anniversary in June.
Back then, those words were simply a dream come true for Brooke. In her early 20s, she imagined opening her own San Francisco café while slinging back espressos at Café La Flore in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood alongside activists, artists, literati, and other thought leaders, like the late Harvey Milk, during the late 1970s.
That dream came true last year as the couple celebrated the 20th anniversary of Equator Coffees & Teas with the opening of their first San Francisco craft coffeehouse on Central Market next to the famed Warfield concert hall.
Now, 21 years later, the couple’s caffeinated plan landed them in the history books – well, the business history books – as they became the first-ever out gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender-owned business to be named “Small Business of the Year” for the United States and California by the U.S.’ Small Business Administration.
The couple celebrated with customers, San Francisco’s business community, and Maria Contreras-Sweet, administrator of the U.S. SBA, who closed out Small Business Week, May 1-7, at the café on Market Street on Friday, May 6.
Maria called Brooke and Helen “impact entrepreneurs” as she presented them with the small business administration award on behalf of President Barack Obama at the their coffee shop in San Francisco on May 6.
“We wanted to close out National Small Business Week celebrating entrepreneurs with a double bottom line, those who make an impact. It’s important to make a profit, but it’s more important to make a difference in a community,” Maria tells the audience of more than 30 people.
Maria tells the group that these two women exemplified what the SBA is about: passion, overcoming obstacles, focused single mindedness, and community.
Telling the story about Brooke and Helen’s journey starting a café, but then following the food line to Panama only to find a land devastated by deforestation and a desolate community, she asks, “What did they do?”
“They decided to plant trees to transform that community,” says Maria.
“Then they saw women who were picking their coffee beans,” she continues. “They decided to give them equal wages as well as to say for every cup of coffee or tea that they sell that they were going to build a fund so these women could actually own their land. I mean this is transformational.”
“I want to thank you for leading the way for getting us started here as California is always the harbinger of things to come, always the stalwart,” says Maria. “I’m so proud of my California always paving the way for so many others.”
Brooke held the award beside Helen thanking Maria, Jacklyn, and the SBA for its support.
“What it’s about for us is selling more coffee. The more coffee that we sell we can have a greater impact and the more jobs we can create,” says Helen, who told the group that when asked what they were going to do now they simply replied that they were going to get back to work. “That’s what it is about for us.”
The celebration followed a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Monday where Brooke and Helen accepted their awards for being “Small Business of the Year” and for their state along with 54 other small business owners representing their respective states and four U.S. territories at the White House on May 2.
National events will take place in Oakland and San Jose, California as well as Atlanta, Georgia; Denver, Colorado; and Phoenix, Arizona throughout the week.
The couple was just catching their breath from being named finalist for the 2016 Good Food Awards when the SBA announced they were named the “Best Small Business of the Year” for California on March 14.
“Only in this country could this happen where you can have a small business that is also LGBT certified making history,” says Helen, 55, who is CEO of Equator Coffees & Teas. “We are blessed. [We are] so fortunate to be a part of being recognized and making history.”
Brooke, 58, who is president of Equator Coffees & Teas, agrees.
“It’s pretty intoxicating. I think it’s taken a minute to sort of trickle through our consciousness, ‘Wow, this is making history,” she says, talking about how it hit them one night while they were taking out the trash. “Wow! We are part of something larger. I think everybody craves that. Everybody wants to be connected to something larger.”
Top of Their Class
People who know the couple aren’t surprised as they sing their praises. But they also couldn’t emphasis enough the significance of the accomplishment of being the first LGBT business officially recognized by the U.S.
“Helen and Brooke are just the ultimate example of powerful, beautiful, wonderful women who really understand and have a passion for their business,” says Dawn Ackerman, owner OutSmart Office Solutions.
The 43-year old lesbian business owner interviewed Brooke and Helen during the process to become an LGBT certified business as a board member of the Golden Gate Business Association.
“The fact that two women – and lesbians – have accomplished this is fantastic, but not surprising,” continues Barbra Blake, CEO of the Greater San Diego Business Association, the regions LGBT chamber of commerce.
The 60-year old lesbian was impressed by Brooke and Helen from the moment she met them a year ago. “They had impressed me quite a bit.”
“They’ve poured their hearts and souls into their business and given back to so many people,” praises Chip Conley, head of global hospitality and strategy at Airbnb. Chip stocked his boutique hotels as the founder and former owner of Joie de Vivre Hospitality with Equator Coffees & Teas. “It’s time they got honored.”
Jacklyn Jordan, the founder and president of Capital Access Group, which has helped finance Equator Coffees & Teas growth since 2003 and nominated them for the SBA honor, quoted Helen, “It’s so nice to be an overnight success after all those years.”
“That’s the case, they were producing this wonderful coffee all along, but the consumer, the individual consumer, was not so aware of it if they didn’t go to the French Laundry every day,” says Jacklyn, who also lives down the street from Brooke and Helen. “We are tremendously proud of what they’ve accomplished tremendously proud and they deserve all of the credit that they are getting.”
“They just represent the best of small business and why small business still drives this economy and the impact that it can have,” says Barbra, who researches and teaches about LGBT and women entrepreneurs and small businesses. “They make me very proud to be working with lesbians and LGBTs and small businesses.”
Everyone who praises Brooke and Helen for receiving the honor also point out that it’s not just a significant feat for them, but for LGBT businesses and women across the board. Even on the list of 54 businesses being honored 18 are women-owned and only five are in the hospitality industry all of which are restaurants.
Jonathan D. Lovitz, vice president of external affairs at the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and the late Jon Paul “JP” Leddy, president of the GGBA, the LGBT chamber of commerce for San Francisco, which is the oldest in the nation, call this accomplishment one of “breaking the glass ceiling.”
“It is historic and it is well deserved,” JP, who died in his home unexpectedly April 26, told Girls That Roam during an interview in March soon after the SBA announced the state winners. “It validates the contributions and excellence found in such businesses and their importance as part of our national economic landscape. This award spotlights the level of excellence found in LGBT-owned companies and the impact they are having in our economy.”
“The entire LGBT business community and NGLCC family is celebrating this win for Equator Coffees & Teas – it’s yet another sign that LGBT businesses are continually shattering glass ceilings around the country, and around the world,” Jonathan wrote in an email interview to Girls That Roam.
“It is other breaking of the ceiling to access and recognition for the LGBT community,” says JP. “It means LGBT owned businesses have a place at the small business table and we plan to stay there.”
“It’s so fantastic,” says Barbra, about their honor by the SBA. “It’s a milestone that we are thrilled to have crossed.”
“It’s a victory for all LGBT businesses, not just for Equator Coffee,” adds Dawn.
“It’s extremely important,” she continues pointing out that it’s still difficult for women in business – not to mention queer women – who often blaze trails operating in male dominated industries.
“There have been a lot of LGBT business that have done incredible work over the years that have not received the recognition,” she says, pointing out that queer women continue to struggle in business, even in the LGBT community, “to get equal recognition and equal opportunities.”
Dawn adds that during the past 40 years more women have entered the playing field starting businesses. Even so, it’s still difficult for queer women – and LGBT entrepreneurs as a whole – to be recognized in workshops where minority, women, veteran and other marginalized communities are mentioned by the instructors. LGBT people continue to be invisible in the small business arena, not to mention queer people aren’t protected by a national anti-discrimination employment law. LGBT people still have a long way to go toward equality, she says, pointing to recent laws stripping LGBT people of their rights in Mississippi and North Carolina, as an example.
“We have a long way to go to fully be included as an equal member of society,” says Dawn.
In spite of the issues she’s observed, she also sees Brooke and Helen’s win for Equator Coffees & Teas as a part of the movement with President Barack Obama being the first sitting U.S. president to mention the LGBT community in his inauguration speech and State of the Union addresses during his term in office.
“Their win underscores the commitment the SBA is making to identifying, supporting, and growing LGBT-owned businesses through its historic partnership with the NGLCC,” continues Jonathan, pointing out the LGBT Business Builder program, which is currently in its second year touring the United States. The program’s goal is to bring information about accessing SBA capital and mentorship programs, along with NGLCC certification and local affiliate programming, to LGBT entrepreneurs and corporate partners nationwide, he writes.
Jonathan points out that currently there are nearly 1.4 million LGBT business owners in America. The opportunity to be recognized and sought after by more than a third of the Fortune 500, state governments, and multiple federal agencies is a new set of opportunities for LGBT business owners, many of the programs which have been spearheaded by the NGLCC, he notes.
“Now that our businesses are here at the table, we expect to see countless more wins like this for the community,” says Jonathan.
Dawn is hopeful, too.
“I hope this is the first of a long history of LGBT businesses that get to be this successful and get to be recognized in this way by the United States and the Small Business Administration as an exceptional example of a small business,” she says. “It’s not because they are women. It’s not because they are LGBT. It’s because the whole package is there. They are an incredible business that just happens to be run, owned, cared for, and tended by these amazing women who are also lesbians.”
“We love that they are an LGBT business, but the fact is they are a community business that cares about community and supports the community where they come from,” agrees Mark Quinn, a 63-year old ally who is the district director at the SBA’s San Francisco office.
“The bottom line is the coffee is great,” praises Mark. “They are successful because they are good at what they do.”
This Is How You Do It
Being honored at the White House for Small Business Week is only one of many firsts for the 21-year old San Rafael-based lesbian-owned coffee company, which started out as a coffee roastery and has grown into one of the few fully integrated coffee company’s in the US.
Equator Coffees & Teas was one of the first California businesses to become certified as a Fair Trade company, an LGBT Business Enterprise, and one of the first Benefit Corporations in the U.S. It is also a certified Green Business in Marin County and is a certified business with the California Certified Organic Farmers.
The coffee company has more than 350 wholesale customers, three Bay Area cafes with three more scheduled to open this year, and a coffee farm in Panama. The coffee company employs nearly 90 people in the communities where it operates.
They create jobs, mentor future business leaders, implement environmentally sustainable practices, they are philanthropic all while managing a successful business that operates on a globally.
How did they do it?
Brooke and Helen took their coffee dreams in Portland back to the San Francisco Bay Area and turned into Equator Coffees & Teas in 1995. Brooke roasted coffee in the couple’s San Rafael garage while Helen and Maureen McQue, who is vice president of operations for Equator Coffees & Teas, were in the kitchen with Helen on the phone selling and Maureen invoicing clients, they tell Girls That Roam.
Doing well was roasted into Equator Coffees & Teas from the beginning. Brooke was enamored with the café lifestyle she experienced in San Francisco’s Castro and North Beach neighborhoods and the activists, artists, and people working for a better world in their communities, nationally, and globally.
Early on, working with farmers high in the mountains along the equatorial belt between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn they realized the farmers were simply struggling to support their families and women were very much a part of the coffee farming. They had no connection to their governments’ politics.
“We feel a particular attachment to the producers and we really feel that we don’t want to penalize them,” says Helen.
The couple also learned how to bring their personal feminist and social justice politics to the farmers they partner with and their own employees on Equator Coffees & Teas’ coffee farm, Finca Sophia, in Panama.
Their first attempts educating local coffee farmers and migrant workers on women’s and LGBT equality and rights failed miserably, admits Brooke.
However, they found small success taking each issue on a case-by-case by region and country as it arises, such as a discussion limiting child birth with their farm manager at their coffee farm in Panama and building housing for the migrant workers.
The manager and his young wife already had five children. The couple had a conversation about responsible family planning, resources, and birth control with them. They weren’t sure if the information got through to them due to the cultural imperative to have families, but they haven’t had any more children, the couple says.
“We’ve learned in coffee to bring our sensibilities into other cultures it doesn’t always translate because we come with a certain point of view,” says Brooke.
However, their actions have worked. When they decided to build housing for the migrant workers on their farm, they brought in Brooke’s sister-in-law who is a builder. They held a community meeting with the men and the women on their farm to find out what their housing needs were. It was clear that the genders were segregated throughout the day with the men in the fields and the women at home with the children.
After listening to the men – who wanted bigger rooms, locks on doors, and more – and the women, who wanted a bigger kitchen, Helen stood up and says, “Guess what you are going to get a larger kitchen because this is a woman-owned business.”
“They were like oh my god,” says Helen talking about the state of the art stoves and powering the house with solar power and the women chose the colors they wanted. “We created this beautiful space for them.”
The couple also has been successful partnering on many other philanthropic and community-based projects around the world where they have suppliers, the couple say.
Back home in the Bay Area, the couple is focused on jobs hiring locally and from the LGBT community, growing the business; developing the next generation that will carry Equator Coffees & Teas into the future in the U.S. and at their farm, and continuing to work toward bettering the coffee business overall.
“The specialty coffee industry is very progressive. There’s a lot of ongoing discussions,” says Helen talking about the first coffee producers’ conference in the late 1990s was focused on quality, sustainability, and social justice. “I think that we are all trying to be good partners and trying to understand what it means to be a responsible coffee partner.”
“They do a lot in their own community as well as globally,” says Barbra. “I think that’s pretty unique that they have such a local sort of footprint and influence in the community and also globally. That’s quite amazing for a small businesses…to have such an impact.”
During Equator Coffees & Teas first 18 years, the company focused on being roasters selling to fine dining establishments, such as Chefs Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in New York, and Traci Des Jardins’ Jardiniere in San Francisco, boutique hotels, like Joie de Vie Hospitality, as well as to companies, such as Google.
Similar to seeing the coffeehouse movement emerging, the couple sensed people’s tastes for coffee evolving and the craft coffee movement growing. They decided it was the right time to bring their high quality coffees and teas to the people by selling it online and opening their first shop in Mill Valley in three years ago. It was a hit. They followed up that success with another location in downtown Mill Valley before venturing into San Francisco last year.
After more than two decades in business and the awards rolling in Brooke and Helen are really just getting started. This summer is already going to be exciting for the coffee company.
Equator Coffees & Teas is celebrating the one year anniversary of opening its first San Francisco cafe next to concert The Warfield on Market Street this month.
Also in May, they kick off of a string of café openings this year around the Bay Area. On May 1, Equator Coffees & Teas will open its third North Bay location in Larkspur followed by its second San Francisco location in the new LinkedIn building June 1. By the end of the year the company will have a café in Oakland, the women tell Girls That Roam.
“It’s really great, especially with all of the things that are going on within the country to be able to stand up there and say, ‘Look this is how business can be run,’” Helen says.
“Everything that we do is to layer the company for the next generation to really create a platform for them to stand on,” she continues.
“This is what business is about, business for us is about impact,” says Helen. “At the end of the day it’s about people. Beautifully layering the company for the next generation making sure that our impact and our legacy is about jobs, education, and running a business in a way that we can be proud.”
Updated May 6, 2016: This article has been updated to include statements from a press conference at Equator Coffees & Teas in San Francisco on May 6. It also has been updated to reflect the passing of Golden Gate Business Association’s president Jon Paul “JP” Leddy, who died suddenly April 26, reported the Bay Area Reporter.
Originally published by Girls That Roam.
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