Lucy Helm didn’t take what one would consider the prescribed route to Starbucks, but she’s come to realize it was the right course for her.
Helm, head of Starbucks Global Law & Corporate Affairs department, oversees 210 legal and compliance partners (employees) in 16 offices around the world. Executive vice president, general counsel and secretary since 2012, she also serves as a member of Starbucks senior leadership team and supports the company’s board of directors.
The Kentucky native grew up in a large family that, despite its modest means, emphasized giving back, including fostering children and doing volunteer work. Helm’s mother, who recently passed away at 92, delivered food to the bereaved and visited hospitals until she stopped driving a couple of years ago. Helm received her Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the University of Louisville, where she is a cum laude graduate of the Brandeis School of Law.
Away from work, she’s on the boards of the global humanitarian agency Mercy Corps and the Washington YMCA Youth & Government Program. Helm is also involved with Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, Parkview Services in Seattle and the Campaign for Equal Justice.
A passionate music fan, she recalls watching bluegrass legends Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs perform as a youth and has been a Bruce Springsteen devotee since high school.
We spoke with Helm at her office at the Starbucks Support Center in Seattle, where a basketball signed by Denny Crum, the head basketball coach of the Louisville Cardinals during their 1980 and 1986 NCAA championship seasons, holds a place of honor.
You’ve been with Starbucks for 15 years. What brought you here?
I was a litigator at a law firm in Seattle. I enjoyed the practice and the work. I did not enjoy being a law-firm lawyer -- the sales pitch part of that. Several years before I came here, I met the general counsel at Starbucks. She was a pretty dynamic woman - Shelley Milano - and when she met me she said, “Maybe you ought to think in-house, and Starbucks might be a fit.”
I followed Starbucks and started learning about the company in that interim when I didn’t know if there’d ever be a job. I really thought my next job would be going for perhaps an executive director of a small nonprofit or something in the charitable sector. So it surprised me that I was even interested in Starbucks and that it had so many of the characteristics of a good employer that I would have considered it.
From the first day I realized this is where I belong. I was given creativity within the scope of using my talents and skills to solve problems for a company in the right way. I always knew from the very beginning that my job was to do the right thing for the company. It was also intellectually enjoyable to solve the challenges that Starbucks was growing into as a company.
What would you describe as ‘characteristics of a good employer?’
Providing inspiring and challenging work. Having a clear mission and values and living up to them. Having leaders who lead by example, with integrity, clarity, authenticity and purpose. Embracing diversity and inclusion. Having strategies for the future that encourage both excellent performance and leading “through the lens of humanity.”
How did you go about familiarizing yourself with the ins and outs of Starbucks?
Unlike my law firm experience, here I have one client, so I have the luxury of learning everything about it and being deeply immersed in learning what makes it tick. Even if I didn’t think I’d be involved with a legal problem with, say, global supply chain, I wanted to know how our supply chain worked. This company is so relationship-based that people are very willing to take the time to teach you and immerse you in what they do. My shtick is to ask partners for 15 minutes: “Can we get a cup of coffee and you can tell me a little background?” And they are always willing to do it. That’s how I learned.
What fascinated me from the very beginning about Starbucks is how complex this company is. It wasn’t just a coffee company. It wasn’t just a café. It was all of the parts that made it what it was. Even back then, before it was very global. We had stores, a supply chain, manufacturing assets, marketing, public affairs. All of those things that you take for granted when you’re here, but when you’re outside you have no idea how complicated it is. So I just wanted to learn about it to help me be a better decision-maker and leader.
You have a diverse background. You were in education, a trial lawyer and are involved in nonprofits -- advocating for people with disabilities, for example. How have those experiences served you in your role at Starbucks?
When I come to work every day here, I never know what problems or issues or challenges are going to confront the day. So having a breadth of experience just enables me to think differently than some. I’m glad I didn’t have a narrow path because this isn’t a narrow place. So having worked in nonprofit sectors, education, business and law all contributed to, I think, broadening my thinking.
One has to assume your time is limited. How to you go about selecting the nonprofits you’re involved with?
I am very deliberate about those organizations I might support financially and those that I will give my actual time. From the time I entered law school, I’ve done pro bono legal work because I think it’s important that people who can’t afford legal services have access to them. But in terms of my other nonprofit or volunteer involvement, I’ve always tried to select nonprofits and volunteer work that are different from what my job is. I’ve prioritized issues and causes that I am passionate about.
Who knows where my initial interest in people with disabilities comes from, but since I was young, the people I knew with disabilities and their families had a deep impact on me. I didn’t want to sit on boards and shuffle papers that would technically support people with disabilities. I wanted to get in and get to know people with disabilities -- their issues and struggles. Socialize with, help and advocate for them personally and really be involved in peoples’ lives. For example, one week each summer I volunteer as a camp counselor for adults with developmental disabilities. We swim, do arts and crafts and sleep in the wilderness - all the typical camp activities. So that is a different way to energize me than my work. It’s how I choose to spend my time.
I try to build my time and life into something I can do in the future. I knew that I wanted to know about more world issues and the problems of poverty and injustice around the world. I just didn’t know much beyond what I experienced in the United States. So I picked a couple of organizations that I was most interested in, one of which was Mercy Corps, and I slowly but surely convinced them that I would be a great member of their board. I kind of created a campaign, because I so much wanted to be part of that organization. I’d like to do more service work in the field in international areas. I also thought it would help me in my job here because I would learn more about global challenges and how the world works.
You’re a Kentucky colonel. (Commissions for Kentucky colonels are given by the Governor and the Secretary of State to individuals in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to a community, state or the nation.) What does that get you?
If you live in Kentucky pretty much everyone gets that designation. [Laughs] You don’t get one thing for it. I’m certainly a Kentuckian at heart. It’s a beautiful area of the world and quite a unique place to grow up. I have deep roots there. I grew up in Louisville and lived there until after college and law school. I have five brothers and sisters. Many, many, many cousins and aunts and uncles. My mother is one of seven; my father is one of seven. I go back quite often.
You’re a live music fan. Can you describe your most memorable concert experience?
Any Bruce Springsteen concert is a joy for me. I love him so much! I like to say he’s my imaginary boyfriend. One of my friends and I went to his concert in L.A. on his last tour. We were an hour and a half early and there were not many people in the Staples Center. Bruce was onstage warming up. He took a moment with nobody on stage – just him and his guitar – and he played a song he rarely plays called “For You.” He just sang it in this empty auditorium and there were probably 30 or 40 of us there. My friend and I both walked up closer and closer until we were practically on stage, and the experience made us cry real tears. It was just so beautiful. It was this fortunate thing that we got to see. I’ll never forget that.
Finally, you’ve been a part of tremendous growth at Starbucks in the past 15 years. Do you have any advice for someone who is considering joining the company, or a new partner who’s just getting started?
I recently re-read Howard’s first book, "Pour Your Heart Into It," first published in 1997. I was inspired to realize how much we’ve grown since then but how little we’ve changed in our values, commitments and aspirations. I really believe that there’s never been a better time to be a Starbucks partner. I feel so fortunate to work for a company whose mission is to be the world’s most trusted and respected company, and to redefine the role of a public company.
My advice for all partners, those who’ve been here for many years and those who’ve recently joined, is to be “all in” – be passionate about the coffee, our partners and the third place experience we provide to so many. And never stop learning.
This Q&A with Lucy Helm is part of a quarterly Starbucks Newsroom series featuring the company's leaders. See also: Tech Leader Kevin Johnson's New Role as Starbucks president and coo