A more sustainable company, one reality TV-style competition at a time


After 135 Starbucks partners submitted ideas on how to create greener stores, five were chosen to present to a panel of judges at the company’s new Tryer Center. The results? You may see some of them implemented at a store near you, part of ceo Kevin Johnson’s philosophy of taking an idea to action in 100 days.

On a recent afternoon, Ayako Wilson was standing next to a wooden pergola that hadn’t existed until the day before, in a center for innovation that hadn’t been built until a few months before, under a prototype for a solar panel that wasn’t real but could be, touting an idea that could change the future.

And she was wearing really big sunglasses.

Wilson was standing before a panel of judges in Starbucks’ Greener Stores Innovation Challenge – judges with the power to green-light – and fund — partners’ ideas to help make Starbucks a more sustainable company.

Her proposal? Solar panels installed on the roofs of Starbucks to power the stores. “I was inspired by how farmers use solar panels in Japan,” said Wilson, a native of Japan and a Starbucks store manager in Burbank, Calif.

At the end of the event, the panel of judges would vote on whether to approve – and fund – pilots for the ideas in a real-world setting. For Wilson’s team, the proposal was to fund solar panel installation at five Starbucks stores, with potentially more to be tested based on results.

Four other teams presented ideas such as a technology app that geolocates to help customers better understand what can be recycled or composted (including a way to contact local officials to advocate for more recycling infrastructure); reducing the carbon footprint by compacting trash created in stores, resulting in fewer trips by the garbage truck; making the operations of stores paperless; and a fee- or deposit-based reusable cup share program where customers can take their beverage home in a reusable cup and then return it on their next visit.

Connor Surdi

The goal, said Kevin Johnson, Starbucks chief executive officer, as he kicked off the competition, is “How do we put a stake in the ground with a bolder vision around sustainability? How do we make stores more sustainable?”

Idea to action in 100 days

The sustainability contest was designed to embrace a new way of working Starbucks is infusing throughout the company’s culture.

“Idea to action in 100 days,” is the concept Johnson evangelizes. Have an idea, develop it and try and test it quickly. And then, you adapt, iterate and learn as you go.

The physical embodiment of that philosophy is the newly opened Tryer Center, located on the ground floor of the Starbucks Support Center, the company’s Seattle headquarters. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings,” says a sign outside the entrance of Tryer.

Pass through the doors and you’ll see an open space with moveable walls, cardboard mock-ups of Starbucks stores, a 3-D printer, a space for fabricating and meeting and plentiful sticky notes for brainstorming. Tryer is home to idea development, iteration and dreams. The Tryer Center opened in November; some of the ideas born there are already being implemented in stores.

It’s in that spirit that the sustainability competition sprang from an idea by Suzanne Tedrow. She is the program manager for energy and sustainability at Starbucks. So, she spends a lot of her time working on how stores can become more sustainable; and who better to help to help think about that question than those who are in the stores every day? She decided to invite partners, both in the stores and at the Starbucks Support Center in Seattle, to submit their ideas via online portals. But then what?

One day in December she was talking to Janice Waszak, director of the Tryer Center, about how the decision would be made about what might become reality. Waszak had an idea: What if it was done in a reality TV-style competition where judges voted on which ideas to fund? And what if they did it in the Tryer Center?

“It’s a symbol of so much we are doing at Tryer,” said Waszak. “We’ve never done anything like this.”

The five were flown to the SSC for four days last month and paired with a cross-functional team and a mentor who could help develop the ideas into a five-minute presentation to be given at the Greener Stores Innovation Challenge on the final day.

A total of 135 ideas submitted, said Tedrow, who then grouped them into themes and socialized them with different business groups who helped assess how feasible they were and whether they’d make significant impact. Five were selected, including Wilson’s. Four other store managers were invited to participate based on their submissions or their engagement in the challenge: Alexa Stuck, from Littleton, Colo.; Gina Dullanty, of Ontario, Ore.; Anny Shepard, of Jacksonville, Fla.; and Haley Herrera, of Lacey, Wash.

The day before the challenge, as workers hustled to move Tryer’s walls to create a stage for the event, assemble walkways and position chairs, Wilson’s team cut and painted wood to build into a patio structure where the mock solar panel would be mounted. Other groups met in makeshift rooms working on PowerPoint presentations and putting together prototypes.

Connor Surdi

Solar panels are something Wilson, a 12-year partner, had been thinking about for a while, inspired by work her brother-in-law does for a non-profit bringing solar energy to places in the world without access to electricity. But figuring out how to take an idea and bring it to action in a feasible way that could potentially scale across thousands of stores is the real challenge.

Finding that magic formula is in Wilson’s DNA – or rather the DNA she married into. “Did I tell you my husband is a magician?” she asked during an interview. In addition to her husband, Greg Wilson, her in-laws, Mark and Nani Wilson, are pioneering magicians who created the first magic network television show in the 1960s. Now 90 and 88, until recently they taught magic at Los Angeles’ famed “Magic Castle,” an exclusive club for magicians and magic lovers.

When people learn that about her, they often ask her if she knows the secret to how the magic is done. It’s the wrong question, she said. Sometimes the secret of the trick is actually simple, but the way it’s executed, solving the problem of how to pull it off, that’s the hard part. That is where the magic actually happens.

“Problem solving is a key part of our house,” said Wilson. “How do we present things to people with a different perspective? That’s how we think.”

Connor Surdi

Recently, when her 3-year-old niece was visiting, Wilson noticed her looking at the recycling mark on a plastic bottle and the two of them talked about taking care of the environment. “We have to keep the Earth for kids,” Wilson said. “They have to have an Earth to live on.”

Wilson was inspired and knew that she wanted to be involved in helping sustainable solutions. But she needed a way to help pull it off. The Greener Stores Sustainability Challenge might provide the magic to make that happen.  

‘Part of something bigger’

On the day of the event, each of the groups took turns presenting their ideas to the standing room-only audience of several hundred, Starbucks ceo Johnson and the panel of judges: Roz Brewer, Starbucks chief operating officer; Andy Adams, senior vice president of store development; Hans Melotte, executive vice president of global supply chain; John Kelly, senior vice president of global public affairs and social impact; and Sheila Bonini, senior vice president of private sector engagement of the World Wildlife Fund.

After each presentation, the judges asked questions and then made their decisions. When Wilson and the solar team presented, they asked the judges to get up to look at the pergola and mock-up solar panel up close. Projected across the front of it were the words, “Part of something bigger.”

Connor Surdi

The competition “is an illustration of a cultural shift – and it’s happening in real time,” said Kelly, the judge. “We’re moving at a greater speed of urgency to resolve pain points for partners. Partners are on the front lines of doing the day to day work. This event at Tryer is a moment of listening intensely and then acting with urgency. It’s having the partners in the store coach and teach us.”

After Wilson and the solar team presented their proposal, they waited nervously for the judges’ decision. It was a unanimous yes. “It was really exciting because I knew it was a good idea but at the moment they said OK and there was no question they were going to do it, I thought, ‘Are you sure?’”

They were. The solar panels will be installed on the first store in California early next year. The small pilot could lead to bigger things later.

One by one, after each of the other groups presented their ideas, the judges deliberated while Starbucks volunteers tossed shark socks to the audience. As word of the event spread through the building, the crowd began to grow, spilling out past the allotted area.

In the end, each of the ideas were green-lit, evidence of the company being willing to back bold ideas with real funding to test them.

“We have the unique ability to do things at scale,” said Kelly. “It’s a real opportunity to make a difference. We’re looking for adaptability – can this work outside Starbucks and inspire others to do the same? We’re going to pressure-test it. Does it have a measurable impact or just feel and look good?”

Wilson said that everyone coming together and offering their own expertise is what makes the ideas doable. “Everyone has a passion in this big organization but to bring everything together was a really interesting experience. We are all part of something bigger,” said Wilson, “beyond what we can even think of.”

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Honoring connection among the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities