Howard Schultz has a way of making a believer out of you.
I first found this out in 2008, when I was writing the Talking Business column for the Business Day section of The New York Times. With Starbucks floundering, Schultz, who was then the company’s chairman, had fired the chief executive and retaken the position, which he hadn’t held since 2000. The question I asked, in a somewhat snarky column, was whether he was still “the right guy to bring Starbucks back.”
Not long afterward, Schultz asked me to meet him in New York. Instead of berating me, or even arguing with me, he simply told me his story, a story that began in the housing projects of Canarsie, Brooklyn, where he grew up poor, and ended in Seattle, where he bought a tiny coffee chain and turned it into, well, Starbucks.
What I remember most about that conversation was Schultz’s insistence that Starbucks could not be just another faceless corporation. It had to be a company with values. Hence his insistence that part-time employees get company-sponsored health care. Or the company’s early stance in giving benefits to same-sex partners. Or granting stock options to baristas. Listening to him, there could be no doubting his sincerity - or his passion.
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I turned out to be completely wrong in questioning his ability to return Starbucks to financial strength; its market value today is around $72 billion, up from $5.3 billion in 2008. And I admit, as I’ve gotten to know him better, I’ve lost much of the skepticism I might have once had about his powerful sense of social mission.
In recent years, he has tried to use his voice – and Starbucks’ footprint, as he likes to call it – to help not just his employees but the country. In 2011, fed up with political polarization, he called for a political contribution boycott until the two parties began to work together again. With the economy stagnant, he began an effort to make small business loans, partly with money from the Starbucks Foundation and partly with customer contributions.
Last year, his concern for the plight of veterans led him to co-author a book about veterans with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who covered the Iraq war for The Washington Post; make a $30 million contribution toward veterans’ efforts from his family foundation; and vow to employ 10,000 veterans. (Chandrasekaran became such a believer that he left The Post to start a media company, in association with Starbucks, that will use storytelling to tackle important social issues.) Some of these ideas were stronger than others, but they were all genuine attempts to make a difference, rather than corporate gimmicks.
All of which brings me, inevitably, to his latest initiative, on race relations. Last month, Schultz started something he called Starbucks’ Race Together campaign, suggesting that baristas write #RaceTogether on coffee cups, and see where that led. It backfired.
“Honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I’ve had my morning coffee, it will not end well,” tweeted Gwen Ifill, the co-anchor of “PBS NewsHour.” And that was one of the tamer tweets. Schultz was mocked for, essentially, being a middle-aged white guy who was tackling a subject that was beyond his ken – or that was inappropriate for a corporation.
But I think that, despite the mistakes with Race Together, Schultz’s actions over the past few years have earned him the benefit of the doubt. He is the rare chief executive who is willing to stand for more than quarterly profits, and isn’t that what we want from our corporate chieftains? And whatever mistakes Starbucks made in rolling out its campaign on race, it will learn from them.
So will Schultz, who says he has no intention of turning back. So far, he has held 10 forums for employees to speak their mind on race relations; I watched a tape of a recent one in Atlanta. It was raw, visceral and, at times, deeply moving. He has promised that Starbucks will hire 10,000 youths who are neither in school nor in the workforce. He is going to open stores in disadvantaged neighborhoods, including in Ferguson, Missouri. All of his initiatives are geared toward one ultimate goal: to re-establish the American dream, “not for a select few, but for everyone,” as he put it to me in an email. He wants future generations to have the same chances he had.
“I view this effort as being quintessentially Howard,” said Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments, who sits on the Starbucks board. When I brought up the criticism of Schultz, Hobson, who is African-American, replied, “If he wakes up one day and decides he wants to help improve race relations, what’s wrong with that? He could be doing something else. Or nothing.”
Sounds like Hobson’s become a believer, too.
Nocera is a New York Times columnist.