Meet LT Smith, who tries ‘to live through reciprocity and generosity’

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.

For most of her childhood, LT Smith didn’t want to be seen.

When her mother went to prison for armed robbery, Smith bounced between family members and the foster care system in New Orleans. She remembers making herself small and invisible.

“I thought if I wasn’t a burden or I wasn’t bothersome to anybody, they would let me stay,” Smith recalls.  

As she grew up, she was picked on, in part because of her height (“I was maybe 5 feet tall,” Smith says). She responded the best way she knew how: with her fists. A couple trips to juvenile detention slowed down the fighting, Smith says, but “at that point, my words became my weapons. I would cut people down. I would push them away before I had a chance to get close.”

What does it mean to be truly seen? Smith didn’t really know until she met a Starbucks store manager when she was 18 years old. She had just started her first year at an art school in Georgia after moving away from Louisiana, where she was born. To pay the bills, she got a job as a barista at a Starbucks drive-through store just north of downtown Atlanta.

The manager there, Malinda Petry, bonded with Smith in ways she didn’t anticipate. She became a mentor and a second mother, talking to Smith about her own family struggles and self-defense mechanisms.

Petry comforted Smith through the death of a close cousin and the devastating uncertainty of Hurricane Katrina; Smith’s entire family, including four older brothers, was still back in New Orleans, and an uncle drowned during the subsequent flooding. She helped Smith identify negative emotional triggers, handle conflict and stress more constructively, spend her paycheck responsibly and even save for retirement.

“She taught me to grab the future that I want,” says Smith, now 34 and a Starbucks store manager in Sandy Springs, Ga. “She opened my eyes to the possibility of my future.” From that relationship, Smith says she also learned what self-love looks like and “how to be comfortable in my own skin.”

“She was the first person that was able to get my attention in a way that caused me to pivot – everything that I was doing,” Smith says. “It was very simple, uncomplicated conversations that taught me a ton of interpersonal skills and soft skills that honestly I didn’t have. To say that I was less refined would be kind. I was kind of abrasive. She taught me to drop my armor. My armor wasn’t doing me any good.”

Petry, 43, herself grew up in extreme poverty, in a small town in Alabama, without regular access to running water and electricity. She spent 18 years at Starbucks, starting as a barista before moving up to store manager, district manager and field trainer.

“When you grow up like that, and you don’t feel seen, it helps you develop more empathy, and it made me want to be a person that gave the love that I was lacking,” she says. “I could see LT was a person with a lot of passion and integrity. Whatever part I got to play in her development, it was just by being a consistent person in her life, being the stabilizing force, who held her accountable, who raised the bar of what she was capable of.”

But becoming your best self – seeing who you truly are – also takes a lot of work. For Smith, that’s meant years of therapy, specifically, learning how to assess her feelings before reacting and making sure that her emotions aren’t overtaking her logic.

“Being able to face my past is also me confronting my future, being truthful, you have to deal with it,” Smith says. “There are still things that crop up that still feel too raw. But my most important thing is honesty and transparency.”

Starbucks is the only company Smith has ever known. And for 16 years, she’s climbed the ranks: from barista to shift supervisor to assistant store manager to store manager, a position she’s held for almost five years. Last fall, she was accepted into a company development program for high-achieving store managers and given a temporary trial run as a district manager in Atlanta.

Smith lives a block away from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home and the tomb where he’s buried; it’s “a wonderful reminder of my Blackness and being unapologetically Black,” she says. One of the stores she oversees is the Starbucks Community Store in Jonesboro, part of the company’s expanding initiative to be a good neighbor in economically struggling communities all around the country.

She hopes to increase literacy in her district by putting informal libraries in local Starbucks. She’s also planning a speaker series in her stores, trying to highlight local business owners.

Another thing she wants to do is honor what Petry did for her, by paying it forward, especially with the younger African American partners in her district. As a store manager, she’s noticed them struggling and hurting due to various issues.

She wants them to know: I see you.

“Because so many people have truly cared about me, I have this deep sense of gratitude and a deep sense of obligation to not give up,” Smith says. “That broken person who I was, you don’t see that person. I can’t allow myself to regress. There are others who are looking up to me. There are kids who are where I was. I’m now holding up a mirror to them. I’m letting them know there is life after (whatever struggles they’re going through).

“My purpose is to leave people and things better than I found it, to live through reciprocity and generosity. I make a very conscious effort at all times to see people for who they are and where they are.”

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