One week ago today Starbucks chairman, president and ceo Howard Schultz held an impromptu meeting in the company’s Seattle headquarters that many partners (employees) said was “the most emotional, powerful discussion” they’ve ever been a part of.
Although all-company meetings, called Partner Open Forums, are regular occurrences for partners who work in the Starbucks Support Center, the topic of last week’s conversation was uncommon in a corporate setting – racial tension in America.
“Like many of you these past weeks, I have watched with a heavy heart as tragic events and unrest have unfolded across America, from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City to Oakland, California,” Schultz said in a letter distributed to all U.S. partners. “Despite the raw emotion around the events and their underlying racial issues, we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about them internally. Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.”
Partners were not silent.
For more than an hour, Starbucks employees representing various ages, races and ethnicities passed a microphone and shared personal experiences.
“The current state of racism in our country is almost like humidity at times. You can’t see it, but you feel it,” said one partner.
“I’m very touched, moved, and inspired by this conversation,” said a new partner, fighting back tears. “This is the forum to say I may not agree with you. I may not understand you. You may not agree or understand me, but I have value, you have value, your perspective matters and we will hash this out in a safe space.”
Schultz intends to continue the conversations across the country through a series of partner-only forums beginning in January. The meetings will be held in Oakland, St. Louis and New York City.
“We do not claim to have solutions to our country’s complicated social issues. However, doing what is right for society and doing what is right for business cannot be mutually exclusive endeavors,” Schultz said. “While it is always safer to stand on the sidelines, that is not leadership.”
In announcing the internal partner forums, Schultz echoed statements he made to the Starbucks investor community earlier this month – the rules of engagement for a public company have changed and companies now must do more for their people and the communities they serve.
Starbucks launched several initiatives in 2014 to create pathways of opportunity for its partners and communities:
The Starbucks College Achievement Plan empowers thousands of U.S. partners to complete a bachelor’s degree with full tuition reimbursement through Arizona State University’s top-ranked online degree program. ASU pioneered a new education model focused on inclusivity and degree completion.
Starbucks and the mayors of five cities held town hall events in their neighborhood Starbucks stores. The Solutions City™ meetings, which continue next year, will work to identify and tackle civic challenges on three key issues: providing access to education, supporting veterans, and empowering youth
Starbucks, the Schultz Family Foundation and YouthBuild USA expanded the Retail Excellence Training Program. This national program gives young people who are disconnected from education and employment the opportunity to learn customer service skills - based on the same training Starbucks store partners receive - through classroom and on-the-job experience in retail or café settings.
“I’ve always believed that core to our success has been our commitment to achieve the balance between our social conscience and responsible commerce,” Schultz added.