Meet your LGBTBE peers

Posted: February 2nd, 2018 | #LGBTB2B, Columns, Featured | No Comments

Equator Coffees & Teas, a company with a conscience

By Michelle Burkart | #LGBTB2B

In our past columns, we gave you the background of the LGBTBE business certification movement, reasons to become certified, how to become certified LGBTBE, as well as other certifications, resources for success, and buzzwords to learn.

This year, we plan to introduce you to those LGBTBE-certified businesses from all over the world that are “working it” to help to grow their business.

With that in mind, meet the power trio at Equator Coffees & Teas, headquartered in San Rafael, California, just north of San Francisco. In 1995, Helen Russell and her partner Brooke McDonnell founded the company, and Maureen McHugh joined them three months later.

When I met them at the NGLCC Annual Supplier Diversity Conference in August 2017, I learned that when Helen and Brooke started roasting coffee in a garage in Marin County, it marked the beginning of a journey to build a high-impact coffee company focused on quality, sustainability and social responsibility. While their goals have remained the same — today they have more than 500 wholesale accounts, seven retail cafes, a team of more than 100 employees, and a commissary for food production —they still truly love what they do.

In the April-May 2015 issue of Barista Magazine, Helen explained that in 1995, there were no specialty coffee stores in the Bay Area. In their visits to the Northwest, they realized that coffee cafes were the meeting grounds for the social justice movement, a gathering place for community interaction.

Thus, the social consciousness of Equator Coffees & Teas was born, which still exists today in all seven of their café locations.

In speaking with Maureen, vice president of operations, in regard to why they became an LGBTBE-certified business, she detailed the analytical side of a business decision first.

They had opened a location in SF and joined the local LGBT chamber.

Why not identify with like-minded LGBTBE businesses and be counted nationally?

There was potential for expanded opportunities.

They had other business certifications including WBENC (women-owned), and B Corp (identified as “for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.”) and they were the first coffee roaster in the nation to hold this certification.

They had other product certifications to include Organic and Fair Trade.

Her responses correlated with the company’s mission of social responsibility since its founding, according to the Barista Magazine article. Back then, it was the “coffee as a social justice movement” that helped to start the business and now, it is the national “LGBTBE certified as a business movement,” which can help sustain and expand it.

I asked Maureen if the expanded opportunities had materialized by being LGBTBE certified and what experiences could she share with others that are considering it.

“There is no certification that will guarantee you will get more business,” she said. “However, we do feel that the intangible benefits have translated to more goodwill with our customers by taking this public stand to become LGBTBE certified. We have participated in the LGBTBE matchmaking events at the annual NGLCC conferences in order to meet Supplier Diversity representatives that may or may not be a good fit. We also had a booth at the conference Marketplace, which provided more outreach nationally.”

There are also two specific pending opportunities that Maureen said she can also attribute to Equator Coffee becoming LGBTBE certified.

“While we have not consistently measured quantitatively a ROI on our certification, we strongly feel that it has helped us to nurture our customer relationships, and to expand our company recognition in the Bay Area community, and nationally,” Maureen said.

This power trio has come a long way from roasting coffee in a garage.

In 2016, the company was awarded the Small Business Administration’s National Small Business of the Year award, becoming the first LGBTBE business to attain this honor.

Michelle Burkart

Their expanded team of employees remain passionate, not only while providing quality products, but creating community gathering spaces in their cafes and online store (

In talking with these business owners, it was apparent their certifications, whether product or business oriented, exemplify their company mission of social responsibility and sustainability.

Being true to your company’s core values is one key to success; by being LGBTBE certified, the principals of Equator Coffees & Tea continue to “walk the talk,” which keeps their customers coming back for more.

— Michelle Burkart is the principal at Diversity Supplier Alliance. Questions? Reach her at For more information on LGBTBE certification, visit

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