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

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.

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