Barriers overcome, Starbucks Youth Leadership Council offers advice and support

Growing up in foster care, Sokah Marrero shied away from forming relationships. It wasn’t emotionally safe because she was never sure how long she’d be sticking around.

When she landed a job as a Starbucks barista at age 19, she wasn’t prepared for the emphasis on human connections. She cringed each time she had to hand over a drink. “It wasn’t comfortable for me to look people in the eye and say ‘here’s your latte’ and smile,” said Marrero, of South Hadley, Mass.

Her store manager tried to coach her through her anxiety, but Marrero quit, too stressed out. Life spiraled out of control. She ran away from her foster home, drank too much and smoked too much and got arrested for driving with an open container of alcohol.

Desperate to turn things around, Marrero returned to Starbucks a year later and begged the store manager for her job back. Her life story spilled out of her — her parents, who fled Cambodia after the Vietnam War, were so traumatized that they couldn’t care for her and her seven siblings, resulting in her brothers and sisters being split apart — and she started to cry. So did her manager. “I’m not going to give up on you, but you have to promise you’re going to try,” her manager said.

A new start

That kind of support and leadership, encouraged at Starbucks, is exactly what Marrero needed to be successful.

And, it’s just what Marrero has been striving to pay forward over the last year as a member of the Starbucks Youth Leadership Council.

The council, established to hear the diverse voices of youth and use that input to shape the company’s social impact strategies, has 17 members representing each of the company’s 14 U.S. regions. It’s wrapping up its inaugural one-year term in December.

Starbucks is devoted to helping provide opportunities to more young people like Marrero. Last spring, the company renewed a commitment to hire 100,000 16- to 24-year-olds who aren’t working and aren’t in school by 2020. The aim is to help empower their future success and provide opportunities they’d previously been missing.

New opportunities in community stores

As part of that initiative to provide opportunities in underserved communities, Starbucks will open locations in 15 areas across the United States by the end of 2018. On Dec. 4, partners in Trenton, N.J., will open the company’s ninth such store.

The stores aim to boost local economic development through the creation of new jobs and by partnering with women- and minority-owned businesses and local nonprofits to provide job skills training opportunities for youth in the community. Each of the nine stores opened to date include a dedicated in-store training space for young adults to learn customer service and retail skills.

In Trenton, Starbucks is teaming up with Homefront NJ to train at least 100 youth each year, helping them connect with internships, apprenticeships and jobs. The Trenton store has hired nine partners who have participated in Homefront’s community programs.

One of the factors in shaping best practices for the community stores has been the input from the Youth Leadership Council.

“We want this group to be ambassadors of Starbucks from a youth perspective,” said Julissa McWashington, a Starbucks project specialist who helped establish and leads the Youth Leadership Council.

By sharing their own unique journeys with the company, council members are able to provide recommendations on potential recruitment and retention strategies. They also offer insight regarding support services ranging from mentorship to financial literacy to help develop Starbucks young partners.

Council members encourage, offer insights

Nearly 350 partners applied for a spot on the current council, which includes several Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP) scholars, a DACA recipient and at least one member — Marrero —who has since been promoted from barista to shift supervisor due to leadership skills she’s honed.

Over the last year, members have met monthly for 90 minutes via video conference to encourage each other and provide insights on key company strategies. The council proved so motivational that, while some turnover was expected, all of the original 17 members are still participating. “When you give these young adults the chance to become leaders and ambassadors, they take it and run with it,” McWashington said.

Marrera, once unsure of her future, is a shining example of what’s possible. Now a Starbucks shift supervisor, she is enrolled in Arizona State University through Starbucks College Achievement Plan, and readily shares her story with others to help encourage them. For her, what made all the difference was having someone believe in her and, then, in time, “it was about believing in myself.”

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