Meet Co-Founder And CEO Of Equator Coffees: Helen Russell

Most of us wake up every morning thinking about our first cup of coffee. For CEO and co-founder of Equator Coffees Helen Russell, she thinks about the love and hard work behind each cup every day.

In 1995, there were about 30 roasters in the United States. Now, there are over 300 roasters. And the California-based coffee company, founded in 1995 by two women, has become a fast growing coffee brand. How did Helen create that brand with competitors like Starbucks? Through authentic storytelling.

“It's about education, it's about transparency, it's about story. You know, it's about helping other people's needs, meeting other people's needs and helping them be successful.”

It’s Brewing

Ever since Helen’s childhood, she wanted to start her own business. But, she had no reference because my parents were both blue collar workers.

For Helen, it was almost taboo to bring up entrepreneurship. Her parents that had worked at the post office and local phone company had the aspiration for their children to go off to college and pursue a life of security.

“I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I remember my mom said, ‘What's an entrepreneur?’ I said, ‘That's someone who has their destiny in their hands.’”

Nonetheless, after graduating college, when Helen got the  first chance to move to California, she did. Not too long after, Helen met her life and business partner, Brooke McDonnell,  in March of 1989.
Helen’s dreams were coming true. Living in California, finding a life partner, and now she wanted to start her business not knowing what she wanted to pursue.

It wasn’t until Helen and Brooke were grabbing a cup of coffee one morning where the CEO realized their collective love for the hot beverage.

“You love coffee. I love business. We should do something.”

While Brooke was drinking her espresso and Helen sipping her mocha piled high with whipped-cream, her idea of pursuing the coffee industry started brewing. On their way back to the Bay Area, Helen started designing her business plan for Equator Coffees.

“You love coffee. I love business. We should do something.”

A Story Plus A Cup of Joe

As one of five women starting out in the coffee industry, the odds were stacked against Helen. How would they compete with other giants like Starbucks and Folgers? Household names that have integrated their ways into so many hearts.

For Helen, the answer was quite simple: Share the story behind each cup of coffee.

That meant sharing all the details that went behind a story. From the coffee source, the farmer workers, who their children were, the elevation of the soil, just about everything. The idea was to make each Equator Coffee an experience for the consumer. And to make that experience you had to bring them along the journey.

“We're going to travel and meet with the roasting team and create our blends and understand. So when someone asks about our coffee, we can communicate what that is.”

“Being a woman, being transparent, being the first coffee roaster to become Fair Trade certified, being the first roastery in California to become a B-Corp, having more things in our quiver to differentiate ourselves.”

The Takeaways

Part one: late morning. For Helen, her advice is to conquer the days in two parts: late morning and early evening. “Late morning is attention to detail, massive focus, and persistence.” The key to productivity is starting your day with clear intentions. Helen finds that motivation to take on her daily tasks with determination and grit, she’s able to make clear decisions and truly live life on her terms.

Part two: early evening. In terms of the second half of the day, Helen is about “learning to let go through mediation.” What does that exactly mean? It’s about living in the moment and while also allowing yourself to catch up on the day. When Helen and Brooke were in the early stages of Equator Coffees, she realized that she didn’t allow herself to enjoy life, it was always about the next thing. Now the CEO takes every evening to unplug and enjoy the small moments. “Life is about joy and freedom.”

There’s no later, there’s only now. Helen, like many of us, always made excuses about pursuing hobbies and interests. I’ll take that trip after I raise this amount of money or I’ll try joining this club after I open my first store. The Equator CEO didn’t have a reference to fun or what it meant to take a break. It was all about the grind. “I really put off everything that was the part of the joy of being alive.” That’s when Helen started cycling. What seems like a small hobby became the foundation of self-care, living in the moment, and just have fun.

Get To Know Helen

At the end of every interview series, we ask our guests a series of rapid-fire questions to get to know them better as a leader. Their quirks and habits that have led them to where they are today.

Q: Who are one to three leaders you look up to?
A: Kamala Harris and Dominique Crenn

Q: What’s your go-to beverage that’s not coffee?
A: Hint Water

Q: Night owl or early bird?
A: Early bird

Q: What are you currently reading at the moment?
A: Erasing Institutional Bias

Q: What’s one thing you’re looking forward to in 2021?
A: Herd immunity

Q: If you could go anywhere right now (pre-Covid-19), where would it be?
A: New York City

Conversation Starters

  • Coaching: Four key pieces of advice for small business owners of color from a coach with clients like Google. (Source: CNBC)
  • Women Leadership: Meet 10 women who have staked a claim in industries like agriculture, science, finance, and technology. They’re pioneering work and building a path for the next generation. (Source: New York Times)
  • Resilience: It's been one year since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. Take a look back on the pandemic's impact on the global workforce. (Source: CNN)

Now’s Your Turn

Giving feedback to your peers starts with signing up with Matter and a cup of coffee.

​>> Go to Matter​ <<

For You Overachievers

From our blog to your inbox, check out our latest professional tips and advice. All under three minutes with things you can try with your team immediately.

Matter’s Experts is the must-read newsletter for growth-minded professionals. Every week, hear directly from the source as our editors sit down with leaders you admire and respect.

These titans, trailblazers, and experts will share everything they know from the best feedback they’ve ever received to their biggest career regret. Looking for more inspiration? Check out our past features.

Cover Photo: Equator Coffees

Matter: The Future of Feedback

Matter is trusted by thousands of professionals to gather 360-degree feedback on over 30+ professional skills. Feel confident at work, get feedback on your own terms, and grow skills that matter. Amazing feedback starts with Matter (pst, it's also free forever!).