By Linda Dahlstrom / Starbucks Newsroom
Howard Schultz stood before the audience at the Atlantic Council’s Leadership Awards Thursday evening and gently placed a stone on the clear podium before him. Contrasted with the formality of the event – the executive chairman of Starbucks was receiving the Distinguished Business Leadership Award from the international think tank – the rough, heavy rock seemed a world apart.
In a very real way, it was. Schultz has had the rock for more than two decades, ever since he picked it up from the ground at during his first visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Standing in the place where an estimated 1.3 million were killed, he was so moved he had to cancel the rest of the day’s planned activities. Since that day, the rock has sat on his desk as a reminder and a motivating force.
“I wanted you to think about this stone as something more than a rock,” he told the audience. “I want you to think about it in terms of allied forces, the character of America, the valor, the bravery and what it took to liberate millions of people and to create freedom around the world and to literally save the world from tyranny. I’ve had that rock on my desk to constantly remind me not only to never forget, but in an age of uncertainty, especially the last couple of years, to remind me of the best of America.”
Schultz, whose own life trajectory has carried him from growing up poor in the housing projects of Brooklyn, N.Y., to being honored by the Atlantic Council alongside former Pres. George W. Bush, Grammy Award winner Gloria Estefan and Gen. Curtis Scaparotti, said he is an example of “both the promise of America and the American Dream. It can only happen in America. And it can still only happen in America.”
His father was a World War II medic who returned home to work for a company that didn’t support him in the ways he’d hoped. When he broke his leg and lost his job, the family nearly became destitute.
Rooted in those experiences was Schultz’ dream to someday create the kind of company he wished existed for his dad and others: “A company that would achieve the balance between profit and conscience, a company that would demonstrate that not every decision is an economic one, a company that would demonstrate success is best when it’s shared,” he said. “And do things that were unheard of – ownership for every employee, comprehensive health insurance over 20 years before the Affordable Care Act, free college tuition for every employee.”
Schultz called upon those in the audience, those in positions of power and influence, to take action to provide opportunities for others during a time where there are “real questions and real concerns and real doubts about the strength and conviction and moral courage of the United States of America.”
It’s a time for working together, he said. “This is a time, as we face this crucible, for cooperation. This is not a time to build walls. This is a time to build bridges.”
It’s a time when businesses must act, he said. “I feel so strongly that today businesses and business leaders must understand that we are living at a time where the rules of engagement for a public company are very, very different than they’ve ever been, because we must pick up the slack and, unfortunately, the lack of responsibility of the political class.”
Medal of Honor recipient Master Sergeant Leroy Petry, who introduced Schultz, noted that Schultz embodies that kind of commitment. He recounted visiting Starbucks Support Center, the company’s headquarters in Seattle, five years ago, talking with veterans who work for the company and seeing the wall honoring Starbucks partners who are veterans.
Shortly after, the company announced a commitment to hiring 10,000 Veterans and Military spouses by 2018. After meeting the goal early, Starbucks increased it to 25,000 by 2025.
“(Schultz’s) support of his Starbucks family and his family’s foundation support of so many globally has impacted numerous lives,” Petry said. “His impeccable vision of what right should look like and his continued engagement to, like Starbucks, serve so many is the reason why, like an Airborne Ranger leads the way, he continues to lead from the front and set the example for others to follow.”
In the last year, Schultz said he’s traveled across the United States and abroad to better understand the human condition. He’s visited the border of Mexico and Texas to better understand immigration issues. He’s visited the battlefields at Gettysburg. And recently he visited Normandy, France, and walked among the 9,000 headstones; there, he met a Frenchman kneeling at the grave of an American serviceman and cleaning it.
“The call to action for all of us is to understand that we are a country that is not entitled to our success,” he said. “We have to earn it. And it’s been earned many, many times by people who have come before us. And we have an awesome responsibility not to be desensitized by the time we are living in, not to accept the status quo of a lack of dignity and a lack of respect, but to rise above it and to do all we can – like the man kneeling in Normandy – to once again respect and honor the history, the tradition, the valor, the bravery and, most importantly, the love of the United States of America.”