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Business Advice From the Gay Coffee Queens of the Bay Area

Business Advice From the Gay Coffee Queens of the Bay Area


Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell's Equator Coffee just became the first LGBT-owned company to be named the nation's Small Business of the Year. The ladies share the secret of their success and how they deal with homophobia at work.

From the beginning, the fact that we are a couple has never been a part of Equator's story. We've been together for 26 years and led Equator for 21 of those, but our mission as a coffee company is primarily customer-focused: to serve people who love coffee and to respect the people who grow it. We succeeded in building a wholesale business from the ground up because our business is about the customer and because we've always led with product, not our personal lives.

But in the past two decades we've seen some changes. Since we began opening retail cafes a few years ago, we've begun baring our soul a little more because that's the nature of retail -- to be seen out in the open. To operate your own cafe is to be more deeply in touch with the public drinking your coffee, and with consumers who are curious about you.

We never expected to catch the spotlight like this, but suddenly, journalists and business associations began seeking us out as progressive role models, thought leaders, or activists, especially since we made headlines as the first LGBT business to win the Small Business of the Year in California from the Small Business Administration -- and just this week we learned we became the first LGBT-owned business to be named the U.S. Small Business of the Year. We're asked to speak on panels, and to write op-eds like this one. But why now? We've been doing this for 20 years, and we've been gay our whole lives.

Certainly, the attention is greater in part because talking about gender and sexuality is so much less taboo than it used to be, but this issue strikes a chord because we are at an important turning point for women in coffee (and business). Being a women-led business has always been radical in specialty coffee, where -- despite being a more progressive industry -- most corners are dominated by men.

Right now women are finding their voice in our industry, and our leadership at Equator has a uniquely deep bench of three women who happen to be gay, and we've grown our business from scratch into a sustainable, quality-driven enterprise with a high impact and a conscience.

We are the same as we have always been, but we're surrounded by a new generation -- the millennials -- for whom gender and sexuality is a straight-up nonissue. Young people seek opportunities to work with us because we are growing, and because they are looking for companies that welcome anyone, exactly as they are. Two of our employees recently transitioned, and for the first time I can remember, I heard lively conversations about gender-confirmation surgery at the lunch table. Times have changed, and we're glad of it.

In the 21 years we've been in business, we've been lucky to have never experienced discrimination. We've had some awkward phone calls with early wholesale accounts who wanted advice on where to go in San Francisco to avoid gay people, but when that happens, we've just hung up the phone (a little bit stunned) and gotten back to work building our business. And truly, it didn't happen often.

As a coffee company that sources coffee directly, we deal with farmers in a lot of countries with regressive, dehumanizing views on sexuality. A while ago, we tasted a coffee from Uganda, a country with an Anti-Homosexuality Act (eventually struck down in court) that is both surreal and horrifying. We debated: Should we boycott the coffee? And the principles of the country's government? But it came down to this: Why would we penalize hardworking farmers in the countryside who are more or less isolated from the government and its choices? In the end, it felt senseless to boycott them. We now carry a coffee from Yemen that we chose for the same reason.

Northern California is a unique bubble of tolerance and radical acceptance, although we still have a ways to go, even in the coffee industry. This year Lem Butler became the first black male to win the National Barista Championship, and the fact that it was such a remarkable novelty makes it clear: There is so much work to do before our industry is truly inclusive. We won't be happy until a black lesbian takes home first place and to everyone watching, it's no big deal. When that's the new normal, we'll be satisfied.

We've been thrilled with the energy and support pooling around us since we won the SBA award, and at the end of the day, it's still about building a good business. To anyone looking to us as LGBT entrepreneur role models, remember this: Building a sustainable business is about owning the information you know and fielding support. Get some financial foundation under your feet, and as long as you get your customers' needs met, your company's needs will be automatically met as well. In the end, it won't matter who you are. If you own what you know and stand on your feet, it's a win-win for the LGBT community.

Equator Coffee & Teas is a coffee roaster, tea purveyor, retail operator, and coffee farm owner headquartered in San Rafael, Calif. Founded in 1995 by Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell, Equator has a commitment to a sustainable, transparent approach that spans two decades.

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Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell