Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell made history by becoming the first-ever openly LGBT business owners honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration as “National Small Business of the Year.”
The couple in business and life, who own Equator Coffees & Teas in San Francisco, Calif., were honored along with 54 small businesses representing the 50 states and four U.S. territories at the White House earlier this month.
It’s an achievement that neither of the women could have imagined on a fateful day 21 years ago, when Russell proposed her coffee idea to McDonnell on the steps of Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Ore.
“You love coffee and I love business,” Russell said at the time. “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?”
It was a dream come true for McDonnell. During the days of Harvey Milk in the Castro, she slung back espressos at Café Flore alongside activists, artists, literati and other thought leaders. It was the late ‘70s, and she imagined one day opening up her own San Francisco café.
It took two decades to see that dream become reality. The pair launched Equator Coffees & Teas in Marin County in 1995, and last year, finally opened their first San Francisco outpost next to the legendary Warfield concert hall on Market Street. It was their third craft coffee shop, but not their last. The company is in expansion mode, with plans to open another shop in San Francisco June 1 and in Oakland by the end of the year.
Equator Coffees & Teas was already winning accolades when they learned that the state of California would recognize them for their work this year. Then, on May 2, they headed to the White House to receive the historic national honor.
“Only in this country could this happen,” says Russell, 55. “We are blessed. [We are] so fortunate to be a part of being recognized and making history.” McDonnell, 58, agrees.
“It’s pretty intoxicating. I think it’s taken a minute to sort of trickle through our consciousness,” she says. It finally 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.”
The path to becoming the first-ever openly LGBT-owned business to be recognized at this level by the SBA was paved with high standards, hard work and a vision for social justice and responsibility.
Soon after Russell pitched her idea to McDonnell, the couple started roasting coffee in McDonnell’s garage. Meanwhile, they traveled the world to visit small coffee farms high in the mountains along the equatorial belt, where they sourced the best quality beans they could find. They bought their own coffee farm, Finca Sophia, in Panama. All the while, they worked with farmers on sustainable farming practices, built quality housing for migrant workers and their families at their farm, created jobs, mentored their employees and gave back to the communities they worked in.
They turned the beans they sourced into exquisite roasts that were only available at high-end restaurants—such as Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in New York and Traci Des Jardins’s Jardinière in San Francisco—at boutique hotels and in the corporate kitchens of Google.
In 2013, the couple decided it was time to bring their high quality craft coffee to the people and opened their first café in Mill Valley. It took off, and they opened their second Mill Valley shop. Now, they have ventured into San Francisco.
Praise for Equator
McDonnell and Russell are well known for their business acumen among lesbian entrepreneurs beyond the Bay Area, who credit them with breaking a barrier with this historic federal recognition.
“It’s a milestone that we are thrilled to have crossed,” says Barbra Blake, CEO of the Greater San Diego Business Association, that region’s LGBT chamber of commerce. Blake met McDonnell and Russell last year at a National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce event.
“They just represent the best of small business and why small business still drives this economy and the impact that it can have,” Blake says. “They make me very proud to be working with the LGBT community and small businesses.”
Dawn Ackerman, the lesbian owner of OutSmart Office Solutions, which has offices in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, agrees. “It’s a victory for all LGBT businesses, not just for Equator Coffee. What a great example for all LGBT [people] and women to see.”
For more information, visit equatorcoffees.com.