Learn about three women who are redefining leadership every day for themselves, their families and their communities – and for women everywhere.
Women’s History Month, observed every March since 1987, is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society. International Women’s Day, on March 8, recognizes the achievements of women and marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. This year, we recognize three Starbucks partners who have stepped up – by choice or by circumstance – and are redefining leadership every day for themselves, their families and their communities, and for women everywhere.
Latoya, N.Y.: ‘I’ve got to make sure my community is OK’
As a single mom, caretaker, Starbucks barista and community leader, Latoya is no stranger to responsibility. She spends her days juggling roles, putting the needs of others ahead of her own.
“I learned responsibility at an early age,” Latoya says. “I was the oldest, so I had to help take care of my family. My mom taught me I always have to be strong, that I always have to make sure that my family is good.”
Latoya, who is trained as a chef and worked on a cruise ship and in restaurants, started working at Starbucks three years ago. She made the change so she could be home nights and weekends with her daughter, Chloe, who is 5 years old and just started kindergarten.
When Latoya’s mom, Lamour, was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she also became her mother’s caregiver. While she strives to be a rock for her mom through treatment, it isn’t always easy. “It can get kind of rocky, there are a lot of emotions involved. It can feel like a rollercoaster,” she says.
On the particularly rough days, Latoya finds support through a community-service group she created called the Mermaid Mafia. Run by eight women across New York City, the Mermaid Mafia aims to “educate, empower, motivate, and uplift each other and establish a support system through a strong bond of trust loyalty and understanding within our sisterhood and neighboring communities,” Latoya says.
The group of women, which includes one other Starbucks partner, meets on a monthly basis – in person pre-pandemic and now, virtually – to hang out, plan volunteer events and donation drives, and provide support for their broader community and each other.
“Most of us are single moms. We understand what it is to receive help and to help other people,” she says. “We understand what each of us is going through, because for us, it’s personal. We can turn our personal experience into a community service.”
The women sometimes contribute resources or donate from their own finances to support the community events they host. Last March, the group organized a food drive to address hunger and food insecurity, which has worsened as a result of the pandemic. The women networked and gathered “vans full of food,” Latoya recalls. “It was right after things shut down. People were still scared to come outside, that’s how fresh it was.” On the day of the event, a line formed around the corner. They ended up serving about 200 people.
Other events have focused on distributing warm clothes, back-to-school supplies, baskets at Easter and hand sanitizer and masks.
“Everyone has something going on right now,” Latoya says. “You’re struggling to feed your family. You’re struggling to be a parent. Remote learning and work. A lot of people struggle with things, like food, or maintaining their sanity, or having to stretch their meals for all their kids. People need help. I just feel like I need to give back.”
She’s carrying on the legacy of generosity started by her father, who was in and out of jail when she was younger, but now works in the city providing services for people experiencing homelessness. “We used to have block parties, and he was the one who bought all the food to grill,” she says. “If someone needed help, they would come to him. He always was about the community and the kids. He didn’t want to see people struggle.”
As she’s become more involved with her community, she’s also learning how to lead, whether it’s being better organized or stepping out of her comfort zone. She says she used to be afraid to talk to strangers, but as the leader of the group, she’s had to, for the good of others.
“My communication has changed, and I’ve grown that way,” she says. “I have a soft tone. My voice is kind of low. Sometimes I try to practice talking louder and clearly – practicing the details I’m going to share and the talking points. I’ve grown a lot.”
Latoya is also keenly aware of the opportunity she has to instill in the next generation a commitment to community service. Her daughter accompanies her to the Mermaid Mafia events.
“She wants to be involved in everything,” Latoya says. “I bring her to the events with me so that she sees the fortunate and less fortunate. There was a point in time when we weren’t in a good space, we’ve come a long way. I want to teach her to always be grateful. You have to be grateful.
“My daughter, she’s the reason I keep going. I’ve got to make sure she’s OK. I’ve got to make sure my community is OK.”
Photos by Tanya Bindra
Narmada, store manager, Hyderabad, India: Striving to empower young women
When Narmada was 17 years old, she signed up for a job training program run by a local non-government organization. After three months, she was selected for a big next step: leaving her small village in southern India to start work at a fast-food restaurant in a nearby big city.
“You are a girl. Why do you want to go out and work? Your husband can work,” Narmada remembers her relatives saying, after she’d told them about the opportunity. “They were angry at me. It’s pretty common, that attitude in the rural areas.”
Most of the girls she knew were only educated through the 10th grade, and were married by the time they turned 18. The only work available to them was in the nearby fields, tending crops like rice, tur dal (pigeon peas) and urad dal (black lentils).
“My mother used to say, ‘I don’t have a son, who will take care of me?’ Why can only sons take care of their parents?” Narmada recalls thinking. “I made up my mind. I can earn. I can be capable of doing anything. From childhood, I decided, I can help my mother.”
Encouraged by her mother, who understood her desire for independence and pushed her to embrace education and employment, Narmada, 29, is now a Starbucks Coffee Master and currently the only female store manager in her city, a bustling urban hub. Narmada’s journey mirrors the growth of the company in India, where Starbucks first opened in 2012 through a 50/50 joint venture with Tata Consumer Products.
In 2014, only 16 percent of Tata Starbucks partners (employees) were women. Women now make up 30 percent of the workforce, with the goal being 40 percent gender diversity by the end of 2022. In 2019, Tata Starbucks achieved 100 percent pay equity for women and men, part of the company’s continuing work to address systemic barriers impeding equal pay for equal work.
Last year, Tata Starbucks opened five stores in India operated entirely by women – to reaffirm its commitment to female leadership – and announced the Empowering Girls and Young Women initiative to support those in both rural areas and underserved communities in urban areas through education, skills development, economic aid and mentorship.
Narmada still feels the enormous impact of her first paycheck. She paid rent, bought groceries and started saving for a cell phone. She was also able to start sending money home to her mother and two younger sisters, an especially important moment for her as her father had died when she was younger.
“Taking that amount in my hand, I can’t express how happy I was,” Narmada says. “It’s been 12 years, but I can still remember that first salary. That was a proud moment.”
She worked that job for six years before being recruited to Starbucks in 2014 as a shift supervisor. She’d never tasted coffee before. Narmada quickly learned the importance of making a personal connection as she greeted the regulars every morning, and she carried that lesson with her, as she led in-store coffee seminars and started to manage people and understand the business.
Narmada aspires to be the first female district manager in her area to be promoted internally from the shift supervisor level. But while attitudes towards working women are changing, women in her city are sometimes discouraged from working late at night for safety reasons, and some in her community still have a hard time with women in leadership.
“Sometimes I get that from the vendors, one or two instances weekly,” Narmada says. “They come in, and say, ‘I want to see the manager,’ and they expect a man. Whenever I hear that, I say right away, ‘I’m the store manager. I’m a lady and there’s no sir here.’ We need more females in higher positions.”
Narmada thinks back to the things she used to worry about: holding tightly onto her mother’s hand as a child while crossing the street, the only one in her village, afraid of the occasional car passing by; being the first in her entire extended family to leave home to work in a big city; calling her district manager every night after she first became a store manager, double-checking the decisions she made.
“My employment has given me confidence and independence. Whatever comes, I can overcome. Whatever comes my way, I have to face it,” Narmada says. “I believe I’m an inspiration for the younger girls who are starting now. That’s a thing that is inspiring for me, that maybe I have inspired some of them.”
Photos by Swarat Ghosh
Isadora, Starbucks Support Center director, Seattle: Leading in her own way
About three years ago, Isadora was leading an e-commerce team for a global health and fitness company. She was getting good results and felt ready for a promotion, but it never came.
Upset, stuck in her career, but not wanting to feel like a victim, she remembers working through an important question: What am I projecting to the world, and why?
“I was showing up with frustration and discontent, putting up barriers that were not helping me,” says Isadora, 41, now Starbucks director of engineering for mobile and web. “I was trying to protect who I really am at my core. That’s when I started making a concerted effort of being vulnerable and finding power in being myself, in the feminine and the soft.”
Redefining herself and her leadership style over the last few years has meant ditching the tough, stern exterior she thought managers were supposed to have – an approach she saw many male leaders embody throughout her career in tech, an approach she thought she had to have as a woman working amongst mostly men.
For Isadora, “finding power in the soft” means focusing on empowerment, inclusion and nurturing a culture of growth, safety and continuous self-improvement. It’s become the foundation of her work at the Starbucks Support Center in Seattle, where she directs the teams responsible for the Starbucks app, website and UX orchestration API.
“With more intentional effort, I’ve seen my career flourish,” Isadora says. “And I’ve been able to really be myself.”
Born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, Isadora started coding and programming while attending vocational school. She loved math and played the piano, and coding fit naturally. “It made sense, it had patterns, and my brain could get in the flow and I could build solutions,” she says. “Coding is very fun. My brain was happy.”
At the Universidad de Monterrey, needing a thesis to graduate with a computer science degree, she and a friend met the owner of a local travel agency who had a vision for making travel easier for corporations. Isadora and her friend converted a closet into a workspace and built a computer system that navigated different rules and regulations and allowed companies to enforce travel policies in an automated way.
It worked so well that a company in the U.S. bought out the agency and launched the program throughout Latin America. That helped her secure a visa to the U.S., where she earned a master’s degree in business administration, and eventually led to a job working for a large online travel agency, where she designed and built websites for airlines.
She credits her parents, who let her define her own path, and her grandmother, who impressed on her the importance of education and inspired her to travel.
At Starbucks, Isadora is trying to encourage other women to find their own voice. The winner of the inaugural Starbucks Women’s Impact Network Leadership Award, in 2020, she started a monthly breakfast club about a year ago for women who work different technology and engineering jobs in her group. Part networking, part support group, they give each other career advice and talk about self-confidence and mental health. During the pandemic, with so many working from home, the group is listening to podcasts and reflecting on leadership.
She’s trying to change perceptions about technology externally as well.
“Being in STEM should be perceived as both cool and inclusive,” Isadora says. “It is our job to continue to educate young women by being role models, creating welcoming spaces and reminding them as much and as often as possible that they can do anything.”
Specifically, she hopes to host more public-facing events for younger women interested in STEM jobs – “day in the life” experiences – and wants to try and change job descriptions to feel more comfortable for women. For example, what would happen if hiring managers asked for “dedicated” instead of “determined,” “developing” instead of “managing” or “creates meaningful change” instead of “drives results?” Might those small changes connect with more women? Isadora thinks so.
“If I think about my younger self and read some of the job descriptions that are up for engineering jobs, I would have said, ‘I can’t do that’,” she says. “We’ve made a lot of progress in this space, but we still need to closely examine the language we use to describe our open roles. How do we modernize our artifacts, so that the language is more inviting to women?”
Isadora recognizes that while 2020 was a crisis, it’s also an opportunity – a chance to use digital tools to enhance the human connection, especially as customer routines change, and create that simple sense of comfort that a cup of coffee can still provide. She learned that lesson back in Mexico, when she’d sit with her mother and grandmother after school, sharing a little cup of café de olla, talking about their days, growing their bonds.
“I feel extremely lucky. Starbucks is a place that I can truly call home. This is the first time I feel seen, heard and nurtured in a way that allows me to be my authentic self, highlight my strengths and help others succeed,” Isadora says. “The most important part of this job is bringing together technology and our values, framing every problem and everything we build under that lens.”
Photos by Connor Surdi