‘I know why I exist’: Meet Belinda Wong, the woman leading Starbucks China’s skyrocketing growth
Shanghai, CHINA – It’s a busy Saturday afternoon when Belinda Wong arrives at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai. Partners wave from across the coffee bars or stop to greet her as she passes. Sometimes, she’s even asked for her autograph. She’s here often, but her presence always creates a sensation at the Roastery – and whatever Starbucks she visits.
Wong is the chief executive officer of Starbucks China, the coffee company’s fastest growing market with a new store opening every 15 hours.
She’s one of the most prominent women in China. But on this particular day, Wong, 47, is focused on being a daughter.
“I’ve just gotten back from walking my dad,” she explained, as she sat down in a corner of the Roastery, taking off her faux fur pink jacket. On this day, like every Saturday, Wong’s busy schedule pauses so she can go for a walk with her 79-year-old father, who has dementia. They stroll together as Wong, now the keeper of their shared memories, recounts stories to him or points out interesting things to distract him if he wants to stop, knowing how important the exercise is for him.
“In China,” she said, “family is everything. It’s deep in our hearts.”
In time, as his dementia has progressed and their roles have begun to reverse, the nature of their relationship has evolved – and so has her concept of family. At some point, during the 18 years she’s been with Starbucks, it stretched and grew from the family she was born into to include the thousands of Starbucks partners she now leads and feels responsible for.
“I’ve found my calling,” she said. “I’m here to take care of my people -- the 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 Starbucks partners -- and to do what I can to help. … And it’s not just them, it’s their families.”
During the seven years she’s been at the helm of Starbucks in China, first as president and for the last two years as ceo, she’s listened hard to what Starbucks partners said they needed and tried to find ways to do it. She introduced a pioneering health insurance benefit that covered the parents of partners; she implemented a housing allowance for Starbucks partners in China, which covers about 50 percent of their monthly costs to make it easier for them to live and work independently; in 2012, she helped to launch Starbucks China University to foster partners’ development opportunities.
At the same time, the business has thrived. At the rate the company is growing in China, “I need to promote a store manager every day,” she said. “I need to promote a district manager once a week and an area director once a quarter.” And in each of those hires, she sees her chance to make a difference. This, she said, is what really motivates her to accelerate store growth in China.
The company now has 3,300 stores across 141 cities in China and is serving more than 6.4 million customers a week, she said. Shanghai alone is home to over 600 Starbucks, more than any other city in the world. Now there’s a goal of having 5,000 stores in China by 2021.
With the company’s success has come acclaim. Wong regularly appears on Fortune China’s list of most influential businesswomen and on Forbes China’s top 100 businesswomen list. She was named by Foreign Policy as one of the 50 people shaping the future of the U.S. - China relationship. Last year, her profile on LinkedIn China was one of the most viewed for CEOs.
A life in three countries
The road to becoming one of China’s most influential people began in middle-class neighborhood of Hong Kong. Everyone knew each other, neighbor kids walked to the nearby school together, and Wong’s mother played Mahjong with other stay-at-home moms while her father ran a successful antique store.
Wong was the youngest of three daughters, soon to be followed by a little brother, and was given a lot of freedom. “On the third child, parents don’t worry so much,” said Margaret Wong, her older sister by three years. Besides, she said, school came easy to her sister and she never gave her parents anything to worry about.
“Belinda was the brightest child in our family,” Margaret Wong said. “It was easy for her to accomplish what she wanted.”
But when Wong was 12, her life turned upside down. Wong, her mother and siblings, moved to the United States to open a Chinese restaurant in Yakima, Wash., where the family had friends. Her dad remained in Hong Kong to operate his business, a sacrifice of separation from the rest of his family to help provide better future opportunities for his children.
The town in rural Eastern Washington, an area rooted in agricultural processing, was worlds away from bustling Hong Kong. That first year adjusting as a middle schooler was especially hard.
“It was a shocking year,” she remembered. “I had to take English as ESL student. Nothing there was similar to what we were used to, and it was a very small town.”
It was also a town divided. Refugees and migrant workers from Vietnam, Cambodia and Mexico were often the targets of racism. So was Wong. One day she went into a bathroom stall at her high school, closed the door and saw three letters scrawled on the back of it: FOB. “It meant fresh off the boat,” she said. “After a while you can just feel like you are a second-class citizen.”
Those years of living in a place where she often didn’t feel she belonged shaped her, she said. “From the age of 12 to 18, I had to test my inner strength to live in a place where it completely exposed me to a different culture. It threw me into a life where I had to adapt and survive, right?”
And it was there in her family’s restaurant, where Wong began to see the power of connection of people coming together over a cup of coffee, tea or a meal. It was where her life’s work would begin to take root. Regulars at the restaurant became friends she looked forward to seeing – or worried about if they didn’t come in.
“It’s a true third place experience,” she said. “These people become a part of your life.”
As Wong’s sisters got older, they left to go to college. But as the youngest daughter, she stayed close to home and enrolled in Yakima Valley Community College so she could help run the restaurant. When she was 18, her father moved his business to Vancouver, British Columbia, and the rest of the family left Yakima to be reunited with him there. Wong enrolled in the University of British Columbia, graduating in 1992 with a degree in finance. She wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do with her life – but she knew where she wanted to be: back home in Hong Kong.
“I wanted to give back to Chinese culture,” she said. “I’m very proud to be Chinese and I wanted to come back to my home city and country and help.”
She took a job as the marketing manager of McDonald’s China Development Company. “Looking back, I realize we did a lot of things when I was helping my mom operate her Chinese restaurant that was marketing,” she said. “I knew when we had a new dish, you needed to tell people, so you would create signs.”
In 2000, Starbucks reached out. She was hired as marketing director for Starbucks Asia Pacific region. Since then she’s held a number of leadership positions including managing director of Starbucks Singapore, general manager of Starbucks in Hong Kong and president of Starbucks China. In 2016 she was promoted to chief executive officer.
“She’s led the evolution of a nascent brand in China to now being one of the most admired and respected multi-national companies in China,” said John Culver, group president, International and Channel Development for Starbucks, who has worked with Wong for 12 years.
For years, Culver’s day has started and ended with a ritual – a call with Wong at 6:30 a.m. his time in Seattle and another at the end of his day to discuss their plans for the growing business and partners. After all this time, they’ve come to know each other well. One thing that has never changed, he said, is her passion for Starbucks partners.
“By putting partners first, she has not only enabled them to grow and thrive with the business, but more importantly, she has put our partners front and center at the core of our success in China,” he said.
‘If you help others, you are successful’
It was 2012 and, sitting in the midst of a room packed with 2,000 people, Culver witnessed a sea change moment. It was the first Starbucks Family Forum, an idea conceived by Howard Schultz, executive chairman of Starbucks and then-ceo, and brought to life by Wong.
The idea was to help families, many of whom had never tasted coffee in a nation known for tea, understand why their children, husbands or wives had chosen to work at Starbucks, some despite having law degrees, teaching certificates and other professional skills. Eighty percent of Starbucks partners in China have college degrees, Wong said.
“A lot of parents may disagree because in the past it was a one-child policy in China and they may feel, ‘I give everything to you to finish your high school or get a degree. Why are you going to Starbucks to make coffee?’” said Wong. “We have a responsibility to tell their parents what is in this for their kids – and our intention is to help them be a very successful retail leader in the future.”
That day, Culver watched as Wong stood on stage – while her mother and some of her siblings sat in the audience – and talked about how much family meant to her. She’s single and doesn’t have children of her own, but she told the audience how she sees Starbucks partners as an extension of her close family. She told the parents gathered about her commitment to helping their children develop in their careers and about the mission of Starbucks.
“It was a defining moment for the company and for our partners in China,” said Culver, who added the response was overwhelming. “It was incredible to see the pride and tears of emotion from our partners as they shared their personal life stories about their parents and families and the personal dreams they had for making Starbucks a beloved company in China. It was an experience I will never forget.”
Since that first family forum in Beijing, others have been held regularly in China. They’ve also been replicated at Starbucks in the United States and other parts of the world.
Last spring, Wong and Schultz stood onstage together again in Beijing. This forum was different: Parents learned what Starbucks would do not just for partners, but for them.
Wong and Schultz announced the Starbucks China Parent Care Program, which offers critical illness insurance plans for the parents of its eligible full-time partners across company operated markets to complement the existing China Social Medical Insurance Program.
There were gasps and tears of joy, she remembers. Nick Ning, a shift supervisor who recently began working at the Teavana bar at the Shanghai Roastery, was there with his mother. “(My mom) was shocked that there would be insurance for her,” said Ning through a translator. “I just felt relief. It made me feel safe and like I had achieved something for my mom.”
Now, more than 14,000 Starbucks partners have signed up their parents for the benefit. “In China, we have to take care of our parents when they age to the point where you may sacrifice your own career, you sacrifice your own family to make sure your parents are well taken care of,” said Wong.
“(Partners) join an organization where they can learn how to be a good business leader, from a barista level to a shift supervisor and to assistant store managers and store manager,” she said. “You help them become a people leader and share with them the right way of doing business. If you help others, then you are successful. I’m able to touch the young generation of the Chinese leaders.”
Leading, failing and learning (or Kung Fu Leadership)
For Wong, the secret to leading a coffee revolution in a massive country known for tea begins with failing, she said.
“Small mistakes are the only way where you can grow this market so rapidly in the last seven years. Inside the number of stores we open every year are hundreds and thousands of mistakes, be it my behavior, my decision or materials (in the stores) we use that then prove to be wrong.”
“I fail so many times a day,” Wong said. “But that’s the only way to learn.”
To make lasting change, you have to be willing to take risks.
“In China, we are not born with coffee right next to us,” she said, “so there was a whole bunch of coffee education to be done and learning how to communicate coffee for the first time.”
Wong and her team created and developed the very first Starbucks Reserve bars, an “experience bar” where customers can see different brewing methods – and the concept and experience has spread to other Starbucks markets around the world, Culver said.
And, for the first time, at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai, Starbucks customers can order Yunnan Reserve Coffee – the first coffee to not only be grown in China, but also be roasted and served at the Shanghai Roastery. The Roastery, which opened in December 2017 as the highest grossing Starbucks, still has lines out the door.
The success of Starbucks in China in many ways is due to Wong herself, say those who know her.
“Belinda has worked at Starbucks 18 years, so coffee runs through her veins. Yet what impresses me is, she’s always hungry to learn,” said Emily Chang, chief marketing officer for Starbucks China. “I think her combination of experience and curiosity is the secret sauce to our success here in China.”
Wong has been celebrated as a woman in business, particularly in China where only around 2.5 percent of chief executive officers are women, according to a 2014 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. (The percentage for female CEOs in the United States and Canada in the same period was 3.2 percent.)
But being a woman at the top is something that Wong said she doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about. She has too much work to do: The ability to lead isn’t innate, she said. It’s something that has to be learned, practiced and honed.
Wong is known for being a passionate leader who can be demanding and tough on those around her –but also herself.
A critical element of leading is stopping to reflect on what worked, what didn’t and why, she said; it’s crucial to take time to grow quiet and practice the skill of reflection without ego or pride.
“It can be a painful process. Sometimes it ends up being an apology to people, right?” she said.
“She has a lot of personal pride in what she does,” observed Culver. “She sets a high bar for herself and for the partners she leads. She pushes herself and pushes others and leads through the lens of Starbucks’ mission and values.”
Margaret Wong said she sees that whenever she’s at a Starbucks event with her sister. “They always come up to me and say, ‘She is so good, I love working with her.’ That really tells me something. People respect her,” she said. “And I know sometimes she can be very fierce.”
Taking time to self-reflect also shapes the kind of leader you want to be, Wong said. “That is your fundamental 101 Kung Fu Leadership you need to have,” she said. “Once you possess that you can mold yourself.”
Innovation, four Pomeranians and a cat named Muffin
As Wong sits at the Roastery and sips her coffee, she pulls out her phone to show photos of some of the creatures closest to her heart, her four white Pomeranians.
Her passion for taking care of those who need support doesn’t end with people. All of her dogs are rescues. So is her cat, Muffin, whom she found as a kitten outside of a park in Shanghai one day, wet from the rain. To be one of Wong’s pets is to know true luxury. Her dogs have their own rooms and a dog sitter to care for them when she’s working. Muffin, who doesn’t fully appreciate being with the dogs, spends her days with Wong at the office on furniture specially made for her.
As a longtime animal lover who sees how many are without homes in a country with few animal shelters, Wong is advocating for more people in China to embrace having pets in their lives. To do this, she’s trying another innovation: stores designed to help people integrate pets into their lives that feature specially designed areas for dogs. The patios feature smooth wooden benches with places to tie leashes and hold dishes for fresh water. Some feature areas where smaller dogs can take a seat right next to their owners to get away from the bigger dogs. The idea is to not only make it easier for those who have dogs, but to also expose others to them as pets.
She began with one in Shenzhen, next to a lush, grassy area. Now there are four being tested at stores in different cities with a plan for 10 by the end of the fiscal year. Her goal is to have at least one in every city in China that Starbucks serves.
Wong came up with the idea two years ago when she was challenged to do a venture project as she started a fellowship with the Aspen Institute, a non-profit think tank for values-based leadership based in Washington, D.C.
A year ago, she visited the Aspen Institute and contemplated a very different project – herself. After 18 years with Starbucks, she began to wonder what was next in her life.
As she took a walk, she mulled what was most important to her and what she still wanted to accomplish.
In that instant, Wong, said she felt God spoke to her. The answer, she said, was that she was already doing what her heart most desired.
She knew she wanted to spend her time helping those around her, especially those who needed support and a chance to develop and grow. At Starbucks, she knew, she can do it at a massive scale.
“Did I have those values to start with or did Starbucks shape me? It’s kind of inseparable now. Starbucks is a part of me, my mom and dad are a part of me and God is a big part of me. … I’m very blessed,” she said.
As she looks to the future, she’s doing it these days with a renewed sense of purpose.
“I can touch so many people to help them build the right values and help themselves,” she said. “I finally know why I exist.”