Small businesses don’t always start in a garage, as urban legend would have you believe. But Helen Russell’s and Brooke McDonnell’s did.
In 1995, the couple set up shop in their San Francisco-area home after witnessing firsthand the specialty coffee boom going on in Seattle. Their initial plan was to open a coffee bar, but Russell and McDonnell quickly realized the product they were selling via coffee vendors didn’t match their expectations of sustainability, quality, and social responsibility. So they went into the coffee roasting business themselves, and Equator Coffees & Teas was born.
“In the beginning,” Russell said, “our suppliers would say, ‘We get our coffee from East Africa, Indonesia, and South America,’ but Brooke really wanted to know about the microclimates, the bird populations, and how the farmers were treated,” said Russell. “When we couldn’t get that information, we decided to sell our two coffee bars and roast our own coffee in the garage.”
Today the wholesale coffee distribution business is SBA’s 2016 National Small Business of the Year. It has 450 wholesale customers, nearly 100 employees, and recently returned to the retail side of the business, with five coffee shops around San Francisco and two more in the works. The company also continues to invest in its coffee suppliers around the world, providing micro-loans to support local farmers in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
‘Everything we do is about impact’
Russell said, “Our original plan was to start a mail order business, but we quickly realized the limitations of just selling one pound of coffee to one person. So I said, ‘Let’s sell a hundred pounds to one person,’ and that’s how we got into wholesale.”
McDonnell adds, “We’ve always taken a holistic approach to our business by considering the impact of our decisions — not just the bottom line — but on our employees, suppliers, community, farmers, and the environment. We are proud of our designation as a Benefit Corporation, a third-party certification for companies like us that want to use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.
“Everything we do is about impact. That means finding something and leaving it better than how you found it. It’s not about marketing or storytelling, it’s about what appeals to our hearts and minds.”
At Equator, Devorah Freudiger saw an opportunity to shine as a young female in business — in part, she said, because of the example set by Russell and McDonnell: “I saw a great opportunity to be mentored by strong, experienced women,” said Freudiger, who runs retail sales at Equator. “I feel like I can go to Helen about any business question I might have, and I’m not afraid of trying something new and failing, because I know they will still support me.”
A dedication to Equator’s inclusive culture is also what Nate Breckenridge, a coffee buyer for Equator, finds compelling. “I started here on the production line filling coffee bags for shipment, and Helen and Brooke have continually given me opportunities to move up and learn more about the coffee business,” said Breckenridge. “The people here care about each other, and we also care about the world as a whole.”
Not surprisingly, Russell and McDonnell’s commitment to working with companies that reflect their shared values extends to their business relationships as well — including where they bank, which is how they found Wells Fargo.
While attending an awards banquet honoring San Francisco small businesses, they heard Mark Ng, a marketing leader at Wells Fargo, discussing the bank’s support of the LGBT community. They decided to explore the stagecoach.
“Wells Fargo understands that LGBT people are part of the fabric of this country,” said Russell. “All of us need a bank, somebody we can work with and that understands our needs.”
Now Russell and McDonnell look to expand their retail offerings, continue to manage the wholesale business, and explore international opportunities. And they’re working with Wells Fargo to manage their increasingly complex financial responsibilities.
Stephen Ward, Wells Fargo business segment manager, said, “Working with small business owners means understanding that there are different stages of growth for a company, and what they are trying to accomplish changes over time. So taking the time to understand Helen and Brooke’s current goal to take Equator from a wholesale provider of coffee and grow its retail business is how Wells Fargo builds a successful banking relationship that helps our customers succeed.”
As Equator’s business comes full circle, returning to the retail shop setting that first brought Russell and McDonnell into the world of coffee more than 20 years ago, the company’s success reflects the importance of building culture. And Equator’s culture prioritizes being a good partner for each community it works with – from the farmers cultivating the coffee to the employees helping to grow the business.
“It’s not that we’re women business owners, or that we’re LGBT,” said Russell. “It’s that we have a great product, and we have great people. Businesses succeed because of why they do it, not what they do.”