The most significant moment in a young man’s career might have been receiving an award from Starbucks for being the company’s district manager of the year in China. But it’s what happened next that brought an audience of nearly 500 people to tears.
Like many of his peers, Marco Zhou left his rural village to pursue a profession in one of China’s major cities. He joined Starbucks as a store manager, opened several new locations for the company and was promoted to district manager. Marco’s skills and dedication were acknowledged during a 2011 Starbucks Leadership Conference in Shanghai when he was invited on stage to receive his award.
“We wanted to surprise him and say thank you,” said Jeff Miller, vice president of operations for Starbucks China. “We knew Marco hadn't traveled back to see his parents in a long while. The event emcee asked Marco to close his eyes. He then asked Marco what he would say to his parents if they were there.
Marco said a few words about how pleased his parents would be to see him happy and successful. As he spoke a man and woman slowly began walking down the center aisle of the ballroom toward the stage. He opened his eyes to find his mother and father standing before him. His parents – who had never been away from their village, had never been on a plane, and had never been to a city – were sharing their son’s accomplishment. They were also sharing tears with a roomful of Starbucks partners (employees).
“I can’t begin to describe the reaction on his face. It evoked such a deep and spontaneous emotional outpouring from the audience,” Miller said.
Everyone understood how special the connection was between Marco and his parents. Starbucks leaders also realized hundreds of other partners had similar stories.
Many parents in China don’t think service industry jobs are desirable careers, but Starbucks partners are discovering substantial career opportunities with the company. Partners wanted their parents to know Starbucks is “not a just another foreign corporation operating in China,” said Miller.
“We’re a company with deep culture and values,” he said. “We’re a part of the communities where we do business and we realized there was an opportunity to share this with the parents so they could learn about Starbucks.”
That desire led to the first China Partner Family Forums in 2012 in Beijing and Shanghai, which brought together hundreds of partners, parents and other family members.
“Parents leave with the knowledge that there is a depth and a soul to what we do. They share in the pride of our partners,” said Miller, who has been a Starbucks partner for 19 years.
On June 3 in Guangzhou, more than 1,200 Starbucks South China partners gathered for the third Partner Family Forum.
One of the most memorable and touching moments was the recognition of Elaine Xiao, a five year partner who started her career in Chongqing after finishing her studies at Chongqing University. Two years ago, as Starbucks opened stores in her home province in China’s remote southwest, Elaine had an opportunity to return and open the first store in Nanning and then one in her hometown of Liuzhou, Guangxi.
“One of the best outcomes of our growth in China is that it has enabled many opportunities for partners to return to their homes and continue their careers with us," said Miller.
Elaine was invited to tell her story on stage next to her mother who, just like Marco’s parents, had never been away from her village nor on a plane. She stood by as her daughter shared her story and accomplishments. To the delight of the audience, Elaine's mother took the microphone and told her how proud she was.
With tears in their eyes, they hugged and Elaine said, “I never say this to my mother so directly, but ‘I love you, Mom.'"
Elaine and her mother shared the stage with another partner, Lisa Wu, and her mother. Lisa, who is originally from Sichuan, joined Starbucks in 2005 in the southern city of Dongguan. In 2007 and 2008, her family home in Sichuan suffered major flooding and, concerned for her mother, she made the choice to move home.
Starbucks was able to help Lisa move close to home in the city of Chengdu, where she went on to become a successful store manager. As Lisa shared her story of returning home, her mother also stood beside her on stage. This experience was one of many firsts for Lisa’s mom who had never been on an airplane or in front of a large crowd of Mandarin Chinese speakers – a snapshot of the diversity of China.
Inspired by the Partner Family Forums in China, Starbucks will hold three similar events in the United States this month. The first will be on June 16, for hundreds of Starbucks partners and their guests in New York City. Similar forums will be held on June 18 in Washington, D.C. and on June 20 in Seattle.
"We wouldn’t be able to deliver our very best if it weren’t for the families who support each and every one of us,” said Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman, president and ceo.
In a letter announcing the U.S. forums to partners Schultz said, “Like family, Starbucks wants to support your dreams here and beyond."