Recognizing Small Business Growth with SBA Awards

December 27, 2016 • 5 min read
Ahmad El-Najjar

Ahmad El-Najjar


Every May, during National Small Business Week, the Small Business Administration (SBA) awards are announced, recognizing trailblazing entrepreneurs from across the country.

The SBA awards are given out to small business owners based on a rigorous nomination process. And, with the January 10, 2017, deadline fast approaching, communities and individuals are finalizing their nominees for the National Small Business Person of the Year award.

The awards are open to any small business owner, but the small business owners who typically walk away with an award exemplify some of the greatest qualities in entrepreneurship such as:

  • Longevity
  • Employee growth
  • Innovation
  • Financial growth
  • Response to adversity
  • Community contributions

To get a better sense of what National Small Business Person of the Year awardees look like, look no further than last year’s 2016 National Small Business Person of the Year recipient, and Townsquared San Francisco members, Equator Coffee and Tea’s Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell.

Helen and Brooke got their start twenty years in a garage in Marin County with a coffee roaster and a business plan. These partners in life, as well as in business, took the idea of making great coffee and turned it into three retail cafés, 350 retail partners, and nearly 90 employees. Oh, and did we mention they also have a coffee bean farm now, too?

Twenty years in business certainly meets the longevity criterium mentioned above. They also check the financial growth box, not to mention having built their very own roasterie. However, it’s not just the business success that sets Helen and Brooke apart, it’s how they continually overcome adversity and consistently give back to their communities, whether at home in San Francisco or on a coffee farm in Ecuador.

courtesy of Mighty Travel

Women in business continue to face challenges of inequity. When the Director of the Small Business Administration, Maria Contreras-Sweet honored Equator last year, she pointed out that in 2014, “the New York Times ran a headline about the CEOs of companies in the S&P 1500. It read: ‘Fewer women run big companies than men named John.’ That’s right: More men named ‘John’ run our leading companies than women named anything.”

Women like Helen and Brooke are helping to change the status quo. Not only is Equator a women-owned business, it’s also a certified LGBT-owned business, and the first LGBT business to receive the Small Business Person of the Year award. Helen’s and Brooke’s success with Equator is an inspiration to diverse communities and women entrepreneurs around the world.

Helen and Brooke don’t just want to change that status quo for themselves, though. It was the first coffee roaster to become a Certified B Corporation, meaning that all their business decisions are geared toward the public good. As part of being a mission-driven business, Equator also offers full health coverage to their employees, a rarity in the small business world.

Equator’s care for their staff is reflected in their care for their communities. This is particularly evident in the community work involved in opening their latest retail shop, in the Tenderloin, a challenging neighborhood in the heart of San Francisco with high rates of homelessness and inequity.

To ensure they’re supporting the Tenderloin community, “Equator hires ‘ambassadors’ and employees that live in the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels in the community, and they’ve made an effort to hire people of color to represent the local population. Many of the café’s customers are workers in the blossoming tech community, and new to the neighborhood. Making both communities feel welcome in the space is a unique challenge, but Equator practices the most inclusive of models, and a retail cafe is perhaps the most exciting opportunity to provide a welcoming place.”

Equator knows that their community isn’t just local, it’s global. Coffee is a global industry with far-reaching economic and social impact. Equator is the first California coffee business to sign on with Fair Trade USA. And, to encourage ownership amongst coffee bean farmers, Equator uses their success to make micro-loans and lines of credit available to equatorial farmers to buy land, equipment, irrigation technologies, and any of the other accoutrements necessary for a successful coffee farm.

Given their care and investment in their global partners, communities, and staff, it’s little wonder that Helen and Brooke were awarded the National Small Business Person of the Year award.

Don’t forget! Nominations for this year’s SBA Awards close on January 10, 2017. You can find out more information about the awards, nomination, and selection process on the SBA’s website.

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