Partners with Disabilities Bring Creativity and Innovation to Starbucks

Corey thought it was normal to turn up the volume when he was listening to music at home. Who hasn’t done that? Each time he’d crank it up a little more.

Then he found himself lying on the floor next to a speaker just to hear the blaring music.

As an adult, Corey became deaf. He’s among the 17.6 percent of the U.S. workforce with a disability. That’s a percentage that might increase as more individuals voluntarily report their disabilities due to a policy change from federal government to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The law preventing federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating against people with disabilities has been in place for decades, but a revision passed last fall requires most contractors to actively ensure that at least 7% of their workforce is made up of people with disabilities. In order to work toward the federal target, Starbucks job applicants, new hires and partners (employees) in the U.S. can now voluntarily and confidentially disclose their disability status.

Starbucks has long been committed to recruiting, hiring and retaining people with disabilities and supporting inclusion and accessibility in the workplace. Partners with a range of disabilities enhance the company through their innovation, creativity and skills. Three partners share their stories:

Corey Lindberg – senior accounting manager

“I’ve been through a number of changes, some I wish never would have happened,” said Corey Lindberg, a Starbucks partner since 1996.

Lindberg, who works in Starbucks accounts payable department, has had eight promotions in his 18 years. Along with the highlights, there have been heartbreaks. In 1999 his partner died from a heart condition at the age of 38. Before his death, Charles mentioned to Lindberg repeatedly that he wasn’t paying attention and needed to have his hearing checked. When he finally did, doctors discovered Lindberg had significant inner ear hearing loss and fitted him with hearing aids.

Those hearing aids seemed to “stop working” early in 2002. He went to an audiologist to have them fixed and realized it wasn’t the hearing aids. It was him. He was completely deaf.

“This kind of life change rocks your world,” Lindberg said. “I became obsessed with ‘why.’ I was hell bent on identifying what was wrong so I could fix it.”

Over the next few months he faced specialists. While middle-ear damage generally has a medical explanation, that’s not the case for inner-ear damage. He faced reality too. His hearing was not coming back.

Frightened of being outside the safe environments of work or home, he began using a hearing assistance dog. Worried about losing his job, he tried to blend in at Starbucks hoping nobody would ask about the expense of having an interpreter in meetings.

“My fears were totally unfounded. Starbucks stood by me every step of the way,” said Lindberg. “I’ve also discovered a community of people I otherwise would never have known. Making the transition from a hearing person to deaf has taught me how to engage better with people in general and specifically with those who have a disability.”

Sevana Massih – district manager

Sevana Massih has been deaf since early childhood. As a toddler, she had meningitis – one of the most common causes of hearing loss.

Growing up as a deaf child, she learned American Sign Language and honed her communication skills, including lipreading. She completed her bachelor’s degree in business administration while working in the university’s student affairs department and began her career path with Starbucks 11 years ago, when she was hired as an assistant store manager.

“I fell in love with Starbucks because I felt like a business owner responsible for everything that happened within those four walls,” she said. “It was empowering to be in a leadership role, which is a perfect fit for me.”

Today, she’s focused on what happens within not four, but 44 walls.

Earlier this year Massih was promoted to district manager in Oakland, California supporting 11 Starbucks stores and about 400 partners. She’s the first deaf partner to become a district manager, and she plans to use her Starbucks leadership role to educate others about hiring and supporting people with disabilities.

“It’s important to focus on the person’s ability versus what a person can’t do,” Massih said. “Someone with a disability has much more to offer than you might anticipate. They’re often the partners who bring the most creativity and innovation to the company because they’ve had to be problem solvers their whole lives.”

Rhea Elsen – barista

With a bright smile, Rhea Elsen talks about how thankful she is that her mom and dad taught her to be independent and work for what she wants in life. She’s even more grateful they adopted her when she was five years old. She was in an orphanage with a disability caused by the polio virus.

During one of her many visits to a doctor’s office in the U.S., Elsen remembers hearing she could spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. That didn’t sit well with her.

“I saw everyone else walking and I had to figure out how to make this possible for myself,” she said. “I worked, and worked, and one day looked in the mirror around the age of nine and realized ‘I did it.’

Elsen had another rush of accomplishment when Starbucks hired her to be a barista after about 20 job rejections. She has since become a Starbucks coffee master, celebrated her 8th anniversary with the company and recently started working in the Seattle headquarters. Ultimately, she’d like to be a Starbucks job recruiter and offer support to others with disabilities.

 “Starbucks means everything to me. I want to do as much for the company as it has done for me. Starbucks has helped me become the person I am today,” Elsen said.

Kaycee Kiesz – senior diversity and inclusion specialist

Although some disabilities are visible, many are not obvious.

One night in December of 2001, Kaycee Kiesz felt dizzy walking down a staircase. At work the next day, her computer screen looked blurry.

A visit to the eye doctor ended in frustration. She was told to see a neurologist to determine what was causing her sudden vision problem. The eventual diagnosis was relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis – an incurable, unpredictable disease.

Her reaction: “Why me? Why now? I was 27 and in the prime of my life.”

After allowing herself to be angry and sad for a short time, Kiesz organized a team of 50 people to participate in a MS walk. They raised $10,000. Since then Kiesz and many of fellow Starbucks partners have raised more than $250,000 to fund MS research.

Because of the type of MS she has, symptoms are invisible to others. She’s only had three MS relapses since her diagnosis 13 years ago. Initially Kiesz, a Starbucks partner since 1992, didn’t want to tell people at work about her disability. She decided it would be worse to live in fear by trying to hide.

 “Never be too proud to ask for help or too scared to ‘come out.’ It’s not that hard and we are all connected to something bigger than ourselves,” Kiesz advised others who’ve been diagnosed with MS. “People will be there for you, and everything will be alright.”

Starbucks was recently honored as the US Business Leadership Network’s “Employer of the Year.” The award presented October 1, 2014 recognizes Starbucks leadership in disability inclusion. Later this month, the Starbucks Newsroom will feature a personal essay by the partner who accepted the award in Orlando, Florida.

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