Beyond May 29: Lessons from Starbucks anti-bias training — and what’s next

Story by Linda Dahlstrom, photos by Josh Trujillo / Starbucks Newsroom

Jen Randle stood before a group of Starbucks senior leaders on a spring day in late April and delivered what could have been taken as either a warning or a challenge: “No one has done this on this scale ever before,” she tells them.

Randle, a principal with SYPartners consulting group, had helped companies with anti-bias training programs before. But not like this. Not for 175,000 people in more than 8,000 stores across the United States –  all on the same day. But the company was about to. It had to. It knew it needed to change.

A month earlier, on April 12, two young African-American entrepreneurs, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, had been waiting at a Philadelphia Starbucks for a business meeting to begin when a manager called the police on them after they did not order anything. The two were arrested and led out in handcuffs. It had been less than 10 minutes since they arrived. A video of the incident went viral, the latest example of people of color being arrested, or worse, for simply being in a public space in America.

Today, a report released by Starbucks advisors Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Heather McGhee, president of Demos reviewed the events of April 12 and the May 29th anti-bias training and offered recommendations for going forward. Starbucks is also announcing some of its plans, with many others in the works, for lasting change.

In the aftermath of the arrests, Kevin Johnson, Starbucks chief executive officer, released a video publicly apologizing. “This is not who we are,” he said.

But bias is insidious and Johnson and other company leaders began to wrestle with the fact that it could be part of who Starbucks was as a company – what we all are as a country. It was time, Johnson and then-executive chairman Howard Schultz decided, for Starbucks to look deeply at its own relationship with racial bias.

A month later, the company closed its U.S. stores to conduct four hours of racial bias training. Canada followed suit a few weeks later. 

What’s next

Later this summer, the first in a series of new trainings on a range of topics building on the May session will be released, with others to follow monthly. The first module, “Mindful Decision Making” will focus on elements including understanding the realities and impact of discrimination, being mindful of triggers and pausing to make thoughtful decisions that move beyond bias.

Like the previous training, 23,000 specially modified iPads will guide partners through the experience since it’s not feasible to have facilitators at all 8,000 stores.

“It’s not solely diversity training,” said Roz Brewer, Starbucks’ chief operating officer who had flown immediately to Philadelphia in the wake of the arrests. “We’re addressing issues around leadership. We're offering new tools. And ultimately, we hope to take our partners on a journey.”

Over the next year, 12 training modules will roll out – six targeted to managers and above and six for all partners. Some of the topics include cultural perspectives, engaging with empathy, gratitude, building diverse teams and more.  The new trainings are being developed in partnership with external experts. Like the May 29 curriculum, additional modules using elements from the training taking a deeper look at inclusion will be available to others who wants to use them.

“Starbucks is a microcosm of what’s happening in the United States,” Randle said. “We all have bias. It doesn’t matter your race or ethnicity.”

Creating transformation

Anti Bias Training

The roadmap for a company aiming to make a sea change of this magnitude is something Starbucks realized early on it would have to create itself, with advice and recommendations from a host of experts.

For more than a month leading up to the May 29 training, leaders at Starbucks, consultants from SYPartners, members of Starbucks Black Partner Network and other representatives from across the company crowded each day into what’s known as the Campaign Room at the Starbucks Support Center, the company’s Seattle headquarters. A number of national experts on bias including Ifill and McGhee, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, also offered their expertise. 

“We can look at this moment as a point in history – or as a transformation,” Brewer said.

Starbucks has long prided itself on three things, said Vivek Varma, executive vice president of public affairs for Starbucks – people, coffee and the third place, a place where people feel like they belong. Philadelphia changed everything.

“This is really about the third place, what happened in Philadelphia,” said Varma, who along with Johnson, Brewer and others have helped shaped the company’s response. “This is a moment to go back to the core values of the company and galvanize the entire company in this teaching moment.”

While it’s a lived reality for people of color, many white Americans have no idea what it’s like to walk out of their home and have to be on the defensive or be followed in a store, simply for the color of their skin. The training on May 29 was a first step toward awareness of what that means and of our own bias.

“It’s a horrible thing that happened to those two men,” said Randle. “This is happening every day, everywhere in this country now, not just in Starbucks. The fact that we get to be a part of a group of people wanting to do something systemically different is awesome. … This gives me hope there’s a way through it to change.”

What Starbucks learned from May 29

When the doors were locked and closed signs went up on 8,000 stores around the U.S. on May 29, many partners didn’t know what to expect. Would the format be conducive to discussion? What would it feel like for partners of color who might be the only ones in the group? Would the iPads all work?

“The goal coming out of this, is that no one feels alone,” said Randle, before the training. “Whether this is the first time you’ve thought about bias, or whether every day of your life you’ve experienced bias, how can we ensure this space can be for anybody and everybody?”

Anti Bias Training

The training is focused on behavior change and transformation that often can take years, said Randle. “We believe you are about to embark on a very long journey of transformation.”

Before the May 29 training and after, Starbucks surveyed participants on core concepts about racism and more. The findings, based on responses from 9,000 baristas, shift supervisors and store managers, are helping shape what’s next.

The survey found most felt very positive about the training, reported significant increases in their awareness of bias and were inspired to use what they’d learned to make a difference. Others said the format of small groups in their home stores, talking about things they often wouldn’t talk about together, helped deepen their connection. And while it also showed an increase in partners feeling like they had the tools they needed to handle difficult situations, it pointed to the need for even more training.

“It was important to assess where our partners were in their journey – in their thinking around diversity as well as their leadership abilities,” Brewer said. “We realized we needed to look at both aspects to create an environment rich in diversity and inclusion and the additional training modules are designed to help get us there.”

For many, everything that followed the arrests of the two men, including the training, helped reveal in personal ways how insidious inherent bias can be.

Rossann Williams, executive vice president of Starbucks and president of U.S. retail, said she’s lived her life thinking she was fairly aware. “I didn’t know how grossly naïve I was,” she said.

She was among the Starbucks leaders who went to Philadelphia immediately after the incident to meet with community leaders, store partners and others. She was also in the store where the arrests were made when protestors arrived, and she found herself face to face with anguish.

“I saw so much pain,” she said. “I didn’t know there was so much pain. I was bearing witness to my own white privilege. I had to realize that I’m the problem.”

More than training: Revised policies, future plans 

Anti Bias Training

Many of the national experts on bias who advised Starbucks offered suggestions going far into the future, including some in the report. Starbucks is already acting on many of them, such as revising and clarifying its restroom policy and plans for ongoing trainings, noted Varma.

“We want to thank the advisors and all of the people who offered their counsel, recommendations and advice,” he said.  “We’re listening and reflecting. We’re open minded and have more to do.”

In May, the company announced anyone who came through the doors of Starbucks would be considered a customer, regardless of whether they purchased something. In turn, Starbucks has requested customers support the policy by acting respectfully in the stores. The company has said it won’t tolerate disruptive behavior that could put customers and store partners at risk and is training partners to appropriately respond. 

“We put the idea of welcoming first, and we need the help of our customers to use our third place as intended,” Varma added. “We’re giving our partners more training and development and tools and resources to de-escalate disruptive situations.”

The company is also in the early stages of planning a conference next year for more than 15,000 store managers and leaders to continue conversations about bias and look for ways to be more inclusive.

Starbucks is hoping to effect change not only inside itself, but also to motivate other companies to think about the role of bias. To that end, it’s working with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to bring together other groups and businesses later this year for a working session on creating a more inclusive work culture.

At the heart of everything is the memory of what happened in Philadelphia and the image of Robinson and Nelson being led out of Starbucks in handcuffs.

In days after, company executives went to Philadelphia to talk to local community leaders. Johnson met with Robinson and Nelson both young entrepreneurs, to apologize.

Brewer said she and others are spending time in conversations and listening to representatives from various communities in Philadelphia about areas for investment and partnership – particularly around helping young people succeed and engaging with local, diverse suppliers.

Those are issues close to the company, she added. Since 2015, Starbucks has been committed to hiring Opportunity Youth, young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who aren’t in school or working. In the last three years, more than 50,000 have been hired, with a goal of 100,000 by 2021. The company also has Community Stores, typically located in underserved areas, with rooms available to groups and non-profits to meet and where local youth can sign up for in-store job skills training programs.  

“There’s no doubt this is a historic milestone and moment for the company,” said Varma. “This is just the beginning.”

Investing in partners, committing to a true third place

Anti Bias Training

“In the past, when we’ve talked about investing in partners, it was usually in terms of wages and benefits, such as health insurance and tuition-free college,” Brewer said. “But now, Starbucks is focusing on development in a deeper way. Closing every one of our U.S. stores so thousands of partners can participate in this type of training shows we’re deeply committed to our people and the communities we serve. We’re out in front, making bold moves to build a more inclusive third place.”

It’s not only the right thing to do, and a step in trying to help bridge the racial divide in the U.S, but it’s also good for business, she added. “The conversations that happened May 29 and the additional training modules are helping to create a sense of belonging among our partners. And by creating a family environment, it would follow we’ll also see a reduction in attrition.”

In the final video of the May 29 session Johnson had promised, “In the coming weeks, months and years, we will address many other facets of what makes us truly human. … We will continue to go deeper. We’re all in this together.”

That commitment isn’t only to store partners but also to customers. “In a time where people are increasingly isolated and divided, it’s more important than ever to have a third place where people can connect,” Brewer said.  

“I’d love to say to our customers, ‘Welcome home’ with everything that encompasses. When someone’s in your home, you want to lean over and really talk to them and find out what you have in common. There’s something we all share in common at the same place at the same time.”

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