This Trio of Pioneering Women Have Climbed to the Top of Their Fields

Helen Russell (photo by Jordan Rosen Photography)

Helen Russell


It all started in 1993 with two coffee carts serving up dark roasts and large sweet espresso-based drinks; quickly grew to a roasting and wholesale operation in a Marin County garage in 1995; and has since become a world-class coffee business run by Helen Russell, Brooke McDonnell and their first employee, Maureen McHugh, who is now the executive vice president.

“Brooke and I were flipping houses in the Northwest and decided we wanted to get into the business of crafting something,” says Russell. “She has an incredible and worldly palate, and I knew I could sell anything she created. We thought briefly about starting a chocolate company, but found we were having these life conversations at our favorite cafes. Cafes are such incredible community hubs, and we were drawn to the atmosphere almost as much as to the product. So, we drove back to the Bay Area with a small business plan and opened two coffee carts, one in San Francisco and one in Oakland.”

The pair soon became disenchanted with the coffee they were able to source from their roaster (who wouldn’t tell them anything about the origin of the blends they were buying), and that’s when they formed their own high-impact wholesale coffee roasting company focused on quality, sustainability and social responsibility. Both in their early 30s when they started Equator, they knew that they were taking a big risk — as women business owners and romantic partners — but they jumped
in headfirst.

Today, Equator has seven cafes in the Bay Area, as well as a robust wholesale and online business with its award-winning beans culled from all over the world, along with its very own Gesha coffee from the Panama coffee farm Finca Sophia that the company co-owns with Willem and Catherine Boot of Boot Coffee. One of the company’s biggest successes to date was being the first certified LGBTQ-owned business to win the U.S. Small Business Administration’s “National Small Business of the Year” award in 2016. “It was an incredible honor to represent LGBTQ-certified businesses,” says Russell.

“We’ve won many awards over the years focused on coffee quality (the Good Food Awards and Best of Panama, to name a few), but to be honored for our contribution to the economy by the SBA was amazing. We are a Certified B Corporation [meaning Equator uses its business as a force for good in the world]. We not only showed how important small women-owned businesses are, but we’re proving every day we can make an impact by having a positive triple bottom line.”

Helen Russell (photo by Richard Wheeler)
Joanne Weir (photo by Melissa McArdle)

Joanne Weir


A fourth-generation professional chef, Joanne Weir was introduced to the wonderful world of food at a young age. One of her favorite memories is of her great grandfather’s dairy farm (named Bryant Farm, for poet William Cullen Bryant, who gifted him the property) in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, where he would make fabulous meals for summertime visitors from New York. Think farm-raised chicken, rolls from scratch and hand-churned maple-walnut ice cream. “That’s where it all started,” says Weir.

“My mother was a professional cook at a private school and made beautiful homemade food, and my great grandmother was a cook at Pilgrim’s Pantry restaurant in Boston. I have three siblings and all of us studied cooking, but I’m the only one who pursued it. There’s a love of food in my family; we all have super palates.”

Weir went on to earn a fine arts degree and teach high school art before studying (and receiving a Master Chef diploma) with cookbook author and teacher extraordinaire Madeleine Kamman in France, and then working at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley for five years. Fast-forward to today, and her lengthy list of achievements includes nearly 20 cookbooks (her first, From Tapas to Meze, was nominated for a James Beard Award in 1994 and recognized by none other than Julia Child as one of her favorites); culinary tours around the Mediterranean; a nationally televised PBS cooking show; and the modern Mexican eatery Copita, which she opened with restaurant industry guru Larry Mindel in Sausalito in 2012.

A trio of strong female mentors helped Weir get to where is now. “My mom being one of them, in that she was a professional cook, but also a great listener who gave great advice and encouraged me,” she says. “The second is Madeleine Kamman, who was brilliant, difficult and demanding all at the same time, but saw my potential and really pushed me, and the third is Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, which was an extraordinary experience for me.”

Weir’s advice for others interested in pursuing a career in the food industry? “You have to work really hard, and there are things you’re going to have to give up,” she says. “I’ve given up so many things when traveling and teaching around the U.S. (she once visited 70 cities in a single year), but passion and hard work keeps me realizing my possibilities. I have an insatiate drive to do more and see more … I’m definitely not a person who likes to stay put.”

Kara Goldin


In late 2020, Kara Goldin released her first book. Titled Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters, it’s the story of how she entered a field she had no experience in and wound up creating a highly successful beverage business. “When you don’t have industry experience, people count you out and think you’re not going to be able to accomplish anything. It ends up, you might be the one who has the idea to change the industry for the better,” says Goldin, who worked in media (at Time and CNN) and tech (for a Steve Jobs–idea startup and then AOL via an acquisition) before taking time off to figure out what she really was meant to do.

Then, 16 years ago, the Ross resident had an epiphany. “I felt unhealthy, had gained a bunch of weight, had no energy and developed adult acne,” she says. “That’s when I decided to pay attention to the labels on what I was eating and drinking.” After faithfully counting calories and checking ingredients, she swapped out her Diet Coke for plain water, which led to a 24-pound weight loss, more energy and clear skin.

“Once I figured out the diet sweeteners were wreaking havoc on my system, the lightbulb went on,” says Goldin, admitting she never drank water before because it was, well, just boring. She began putting sliced fruit in her water for taste, and then the idea to help improve health in others arose. “If an option for people like me who were bored with water was available, it could help people get healthy and change their lives,” she says. “It wasn’t just about launching a product or a company, but we launched a new category — unsweetened flavored water.”

Today, San Francisco–based Hint Water, founded in 2005, is the largest nonalcoholic private beverage company in the U.S., bringing in more than $150 million annually. While the main product is still water, each infused with one of 26 different fruit essences, Hint also sells carbonated and caffeinated versions, as well as other better-for-you products, which range from sunscreen to aluminum-free deodorant, and the company even introduced hand sanitizer during the pandemic.

In her spare time? In addition to being an author, she interviews other “disruptors” about their journey to success via her “The Kara Goldin Show” podcast. “At the end of the day, I clearly saw a problem, came up with a solution and kept moving forward,” she says. “Like many entrepreneurs, I had no idea what I was doing when I started, but I was curious and willing to try. People often say to me, ‘You took so many risks and you are so resilient,’ but more than anything I just tried, saw a way to change an industry for the better and I insist on living undaunted.”

Kara Goldin (photo by Chris Anore)