Meet Courtney Johnson, a district manager working to be ‘the catalyst for change’

This February, during Black History Month, Starbucks is proud to celebrate the unique stories of our Black partners. We honor them and we see them, and we encourage you to see them too. Move past the stereotypes, the assumptions, the misperceptions, the things you think you may know, the skin color. And get to know them as individuals. Learn the breadth and depth of their distinct lives.

Look closer.

In April 2018, Courtney Johnson wondered what Starbucks would do. Like many others, he was concerned after two Black men were racially profiled and arrested at a company store in Philadelphia.  

Johnson, a Starbucks district manager in Memphis, watched the company leadership apologize, launch an internal Civil Rights audit (the findings were released last year and updated in February) and recommit to diversity and inclusion by shutting down more than 8,000 U.S. stores for a day to train employees about unconscious bias.

Hoping to continue these hard conversations, Johnson is now facilitating meetings in his hometown, inviting Starbucks partners to the National Civil Rights Museum – on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated – to keep talking about race, identity and bias.

He organized his first event in March 2019 with Francine Hardin, another Starbucks district manager and co-chair with Johnson of the local Black Partner Network (an employee affinity group). Johnson organized another on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year through the company’s week of service campaign. Both events drew more than 100 partners from all over the country.

“I want to create the space to talk, in a professional, respectful way, and introduce you to what It means to be Black in America,” says Johnson, 38. “If we can take our learnings from this day, and our learnings from what Dr. King was trying to do, and we can bring that to life in our stores, with no judgment, no bias, then we can be the catalyst for the change that we’re trying to create for the world.”

Johnson grew up in the Mitchell Heights neighborhood in South Memphis, “a 100 percent Black neighborhood.” He didn’t interact with a white person until he was 14 years old. His mother earned undergraduate and master’s degrees despite difficult circumstances and “demonstrated to me early on in life what’s possible, that you can achieve anything,” he says. 

After he graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with a degree in economics, he went to work for a bank to analyze consumer markets. There, two different white mentors told him if he wanted to succeed in the finance industry, he’d have to change the way he talked and dressed.

And he did, putting on his self-described daily “armor” – suits and ties – so he’d be seen and respected as an executive. He made sure to say “ask” instead of “acts” (the way he’d grown up saying it) and became vigilant about his word choices, going so far as to put these language goals in his professional development plans at work.

“I am a results-driven individual, and if this was something that was going to hold me back in my career, I didn’t want that,” Johnson says. “If this is what it takes, I’m going to do what it takes.”

While Johnson felt he had to compromise who he was – “I knew it had to do with the color of my skin,” he says – he quickly advanced in the company, moving up to senior vice president.

When he joined Starbucks in 2016 as a district manager, it was a better fit in terms of his values and goals to develop young people. But not having to wear suits and ties and pocket squares anymore, that was the real culture shock.

“The way I was accepted in the financial industry and the way I carried myself, it was different,” Johnson says. “Now I get to wear jeans and button downs and still be accepted for who I am. Now I feel like I’m recreating a new image of the exterior. But what’s on the inside, that never changed.”

Johnson’s mother passed away in 2006, at the age of 42, from a rare form of lung cancer. Her death still weighs heavily on him and fuels a strong sense of responsibility, not only to his wife and three young daughters, but also to his six younger siblings.

“I love who I am and what I represent. I love the color of my skin and I’m proud to be an African American,” Johnson says. “My intentions are to always model for anyone who’s watching that what you may see on TV, what you may hear about who we are as Black men, is not the reality of who we are. I’m representing the African American culture by showing what’s possible.”

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‘See me as me’: Starbucks honors Black History Month