Rodney Hines, One of the Most Creative People

Rodney Hines grew up in a neighborhood where “if I did something wrong on one end of the block, by the time I got home, Mom and Dad knew about it,” he said.

Community was strong in his West Philadelphia neighborhood where neighbors hung out on their porches and everyone knew each other. At church, the Sunday school teachers and other adults guided him. His father, a meat packer at Oscar Mayer, and his mom, a seamstress at a local factory, surrounded him and his two older brothers with love and support. Even when money was tight, he was never aware of it, he said.

“My life was rich with lots of people watching out for me and mentoring me,” he said.

He knows that not everyone has that kind of community – but his life’s work is helping to change that.

Hines is the director of social impact for U.S. operations at Starbucks. His job today is to launch stores in underserved communities that could benefit from economic development. The stores are built by women or minority-owned contractors, staffed by partners (employees) from the community, carry food made by local diverse vendors and offer free training programs to help people between 16 and 24 who aren’t in school or working to develop job skills.    

They also serve as gathering places – communities where people know each other and can come together for conversations.

“I struggle with saying we are going into ‘communities with need’,” he said. “We are going in to be a resource to elevate what’s going on in these communities.”

Hines was recognized this week by Fast Company as one of the Most Creative People in Business of 2017 for his leadership of “Starbucks’ social-good initiatives.” During his 11 years as a Starbucks partner he’s touched many community initiatives including disaster relief, the Global Month of Service, and various hiring commitments, including Starbucks pledge to hire 10,000 refugees globally in the next five years. The Fast Company piece cited his work in in bringing stores to economically challenged areas including Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; Queens, N.Y.; Phoenix and the Chicago southside neighborhood of Englewood. More are slated to open later this year, said Hines, who is in Long Beach, Calif., in advance of the opening of a similar Starbucks there this week.

Each store has its purpose statement proudly posted: “This store stands for this community. Local contractors. Local partners. Local love.”

The last part, local love, was inspired by Ferguson, he said.

A few months after black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer, Hines accompanied Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz and others in St. Louis for a Starbucks partner forum on race. They decided to visit nearby Ferguson. It looked like what he remembered seeing in some New Orleans neighborhoods after Hurricane Katrina – burned out buildings and decimation.

“I had an emotional response. This was not because of a natural disaster,” he remembered. “And in later visits to Ferguson, I was struck by conversations with locals – they said what the world saw isn’t what Ferguson is about. They talked about a deep sense of community and love.”

It sparked a discussion about what Starbucks could do to help restore the pride of Ferguson.

A year ago, Starbucks opened there, staffed by locals and serving baked goods by local small business Natalie’s Cakes and More. Since then, 41 other business have also opened in Ferguson, he said. He recently returned for the store’s one-year anniversary.

A young woman he met there stands out to him. Amber had been going to the Urban League of Greater St. Louis for job skills training and the organization suggested she participate in Starbucks’ six-week training program which teaches not only barista skills but also customer service.

She has sickle cell anemia, as do other members of her family, she shared. Her dream is to someday open a health clinic in a community that’s underserved. Hines asked her if she wanted to be a doctor and she said no, she wanted to run it – she aimed to be the connective tissue in an organization designed to help others.

“She said that the training program at Starbucks had helped her answer the question of how do you run a clinic with respect for those you are serving. These young people are coming in rich with assets. We’re helping develop them.”

Those who know Hines talk about his passion and commitment to his work and to community. "He really lives the values of the company," said Cliff Burrows, the group president of Siren Retail, who has known for Hines for years both through their work at Starbucks and also Seattle's arts community, where both men serve in various volunteer leadership roles. "He wins friends and influences things through his quiet and determined style. He has great curiosity and listening skills."

Hines knows that some of the store managers are juggling the extremes of running a business and being a compassionate leader of people. Some of them are in stores where family members of partners have been afflicted or killed through gang violence, or are struggling in other areas.

That’s where Starbucks can especially serve as a community hub. In addition to the training program, some stores have “coffee with cops” events where police meet the citizens, others bring in community colleges and other nonprofit organizations to talk about their programs. Store managers can encourage partners to sign up for the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which reimburses full tuition for those who attend Arizona State University online.

“We think about how we deepen what we’re doing through economic development – buying baked goods from local minority businesses, hiring women and minority general contractors. The training of youth in our stores is also aimed to help break the cycle of poverty.”

The vision he hoped for when the stores first opened is now a reality. In a way, it’s a fulfillment of his own destiny. His mother raised her children to help others, he said. 

It’s something she demonstrated all the time. In fact, she is still quietly showing him. She turns 87 next week and Hines said a few years ago he learned that she regularly delivers food and groceries to neighbors in need – or “volunteering with senior citizens,” as she put it, he said.

“I was raised with a sense of service and the expectation that you give back to your community.” 

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New Starbucks merch collaboration celebrates togetherness and joy in the everyday