‘Resilience defines me’: Incoming Starbucks ceo meets partners at open forum, shares personal journey

From left to right: Laxman standing with smiling Howard inside Starbucks Reserve store

By Linda Dahlstrom, photos by Joshua Trujillo and Taylor Kelliher

It wasn’t what you’d typically expect from a letter of congratulations.

Last week, a former professor of Laxman Narasimhan’s reached out after hearing that he’d been named the incoming chief executive officer of Starbucks to say it was great news – but wanted to remind him that, all things considered, the probability of it was “practically zero,” said Narasimhan on Wednesday.

“I probably shouldn’t be here,” Narasimhan told a crowd of thousands of Starbucks partners who gathered virtually and in person at the company’s headquarters, the Seattle Support Center, to meet him. “I should not be here but I am. The world has handed me some really tough things, but resilience defines me. We win from within.”

Narasimhan, 55, has a hugely impressive resume, including nearly 30 years of leading and advising global consumer-facing brands. Most recently, he was ceo of Reckitt, the multinational consumer health, hygiene and nutrition company. He has degrees from a number of universities including an MBA from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

But before all of that, Narasimhan was a boy growing up in Pune, India whose family struggled with grief so deep that it can rend the heart. His sister died before he was born and his older brother, Ram, died at the age of 8 when Narasimhan was only 6. He remembers waking in the night at neighbors' houses to discover that his brother’s health had taken a turn and his parents had left him in the care of others while they focused on his brother.

The family had spent their savings on health care for Ram and so after he died, his father devoted himself to his career. Narasimhan's mother, meanwhile, decided to go back to school to pursue teaching. For her, becoming a grade school teacher was a way to be around children, and also to serve the larger community.

When he was 19, his father had a heart attack and the cardiologist told Narasimhan he should drop out of school to go to work for the family since his father couldn't any longer. His mother wouldn’t hear of it. “She said there is no way you are doing that. We’re going to live off my salary as a primary school teacher,” he said.

His father died when he was 22. In graduate school, Narasimhan sometimes struggled to make ends meet, as many students do. While studying in Germany one summer, he sometimes wasn't able to afford to eat three meals a day, but he persevered and found solutions. Eventually he went on to earn multiple degrees. After all, that determination to keep going was something he’d seen many times from his parents.

“I’m an extremely positive, optimistic person," he said. "It’s not about what happens to me but how I react."

‘An innate understanding of humanity’

When Howard Schultz, Starbucks ceo, introduced Narasimhan at the event on Wednesday, he said that “the leader of Starbucks, the future of the company, must be steeped in humility and must have an innate understanding of humanity.” As he got to know Narasimhan, he said he was stuck by his experience and leadership qualities, but that it’s his heart and respect for others that made him “know we're going to be in great hands and I can promise you is going to make us a better company.

Narasimhan will officially join the company on Oct. 1 and will spend the next six months as an apprentice to Schultz as he learns the business and the company culture. But he’s going to start by doing a multi-day barista training, he said.

On a visit earlier this week to the original Starbucks store, located at Pike Place Market, he made his first beverage (“It was stressful!,” he said) and held the camera to take photos of tourists posing in front of the historic store. Sara Kelly, executive vice president and chief partner officer, who led the Q&A with Narasimhan said she wondered if later the tourists will reflect back and realize the significance of who their photographer was.

Narasimhan describes himself as “relentlessly curious” and said he's eager to learn from partners. He said he's fallen in love with Starbucks, especially as he watches partners serve customers in the stores. “The humanity, the warmth. (Partners) make them feel special in that moment and that’s really what this brand is about.”

‘People really matter’

Narasimhan is relocating to Seattle with his family, which includes his wife of 29 years and his mother, who became somewhat of a celebrity at his last company when she would inadvertently crash Zoom calls he was leading, including one where she told him to take out the trash. He and his wife also have two adult children who live in the United States, meaning the family will all be back in the same country after many years of traversing the globe.

He said he’s looking forward to getting to know his new extended family of 400,000 Starbucks partners around the world who serve 100 million customers a month. Each cup served, said Narasimhan, is an opportunity for connection. It shows “the magnitude of the impact that we can have in driving connection in a world where we are often unconnected,” he said. “It just goes to show you the potential we have is enormous and there’s a lot of humanity in connecting over a cup.”

At the heart of it all is the Starbucks mission, to nurture and inspire the human spirit, one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time, he said. As he leans into his future, he’s thinking about all those who helped him get where he is, against so many odds, his family’s belief in him and all that’s ahead he has to learn and experience alongside Starbucks partners.

“One thing I’ve learned is that, miraculously, when you open yourself up to destiny, all the people you’ve connected with along the way come and aid you. People really matter.”