‘I want people to feel like they belong’: Starbucks I&D chief Dennis Brockman focuses on ultimate goal

Dennis Brockman in striped sweater smiling, holding a coffee cup

Nearly a year into his role, Starbucks global chief inclusion & diversity officer talks about the company’s bold hiring goals, including at least 30 percent BIPOC representation at all corporate levels and 40 percent in retail by 2025, how his upbringing informed who he is today and what it takes to create a place where people truly feel welcome.

Her name was Mrs. Judy Brockman, but everyone called her Mama Judy.

To understand the mission and passion of her son, Dennis Brockman, the global chief inclusion & diversity officer at Starbucks, you have to first know about Mama Judy. You’ll find her at the center of it all.

“She taught me all the things that lead me into this space now. I saw her fighting for the rights of all. She wanted to make sure that everyone had a fair opportunity. She taught us to make sure that we treat everyone with respect and dignity, regardless of who they were,” said Brockman, a senior vice president. “I know she struggled but I didn’t feel it because of the love she showed us.”

Mama Judy raised seven children on her own after his dad left the family. Brockman, her youngest child, said he used to feel shame about not knowing his dad, but long ago his pride and admiration for his mother eclipsed that. You see, Mama Judy’s love and definition of family wasn’t bound by blood relations. She extended it to all who needed her – the children at the daycare she ran, their parents who couldn’t always afford to pay her on time, the young people who she took in who didn’t have anywhere else to go, those at the church she attended for decades. When she died at age 82 in January 2020, hundreds of people, including civic leaders, lawyers and PhDs who she’d mentored or supported when they were young, fought through a snowstorm in Kansas City, Kansas to attend her funeral. 

Every day of her life, “I saw her demonstrate love,” Brockman said. And today, her passion for the power of mentorship, encouragement and accountability flows through him, fueling the work he does.

This March will mark a year since Brockman took the helm of leading inclusion & diversity at Starbucks as a senior vice president. His role is a huge one, even without the political and social chasms that have formed in America, dividing people on topics like vaccines and masks. Even without civil unrest and the spike in hate crimes against people of color. Even without an ongoing pandemic that, so far, has killed more than 5 million around the world and disproportionally affects people of color.

In the midst of all of that, Brockman paused recently for a series of interviews from his Seattle home, where he and his wife moved from Chicago in July, to share his thoughts on where the company has been, where it is now and where it still needs to go. In the end, he chooses to focus, like Mama Judy always did, on what’s possible.

“There’s a quote about life being 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it,” he said. “I choose optimism and hope.”

More than numbers

More than 400,000 green apron partners are employed at Starbucks locations around the globe. I&D work applies to all of them.  

It could be tempting, or maybe simpler, to focus on the diversity numbers or the hiring metrics at a company of Starbucks scale. But Brockman wants to reach far beyond representation to something deeper – he wants all partners, everywhere, to feel like they belong.

“Diversity is about who or what is represented. Inclusion is an environment where people feel valued for all they bring – and that leads to belonging,” he said.

Starbucks does track numbers and statistics, of course, and releases them every year.

The U.S. partner base at Starbucks is currently 47 percent Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). But, as with many companies, the higher the job title, the more the BIPOC representation thins. According to an analysis published in October of 2020, 18.5 percent of all corporate senior vice presidents and above at Starbucks were BIPOC. Brockman and Kevin Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Starbucks, want those numbers to be higher.

Last year, Starbucks made a commitment to have BIPOC representation comprise at least 30 percent at all corporate levels and at least 40 percent of all retail and manufacturing roles by 2025.

“We need to have representation at every level,” Brockman said.

While progress in some areas has been modest, 50 percent of the Starbucks senior vice presidents hired in the last year are BIPOC, he noted. And it’s not just about hiring more BIPOC partners, but also about retention and lifting them up and developing them in their careers.

Brockman and his team have championed a number of programs designed to do that – in short to help them see through actions, not just words, that they truly belong.  

In a recent letter to Starbucks partners, Brockman shared some of the new programs and 2022 commitments to partners and the communities the company serves, including:

  • Launching the second year of a mentorship program pairing partners at director level or above who are BIPOC, people with disabilities or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) with senior leadership.   
  • Beginning a new leadership accelerator program for BIPOC partners, starting at the individual contributor level, that will focus on coaching. 
  • A commitment to increase the amount Starbucks spends with diverse suppliers to $1.5 billion by 2030.
  • Issuing the first round of funding – a total of $21 million – to recipients of Starbucks Community Resilience fund aimed at supporting small business and community projects in BIPOC communities. ​

There’s a lot to be done, and I&D work can be heavy and exhausting. It often means staring down racism and discrimination every day. The average tenure of chief D&I officers in 2021 was 1.8 years, down from 3.1 years in 2018, according to research by Russell Reynolds Associates.

Brockman meets regularly meets with chief D&I officers at other companies who help support each other in this work – and he knows that not all corporations are actually open to real change.

The desire and commitment to I&D has to be real, he said. What sets Starbucks apart is the work not only has support from the top – Johnson and the Starbucks Board of Directors – but Brockman has also been given the resources needed, he said. The team has tripled in size to nearly 30 partners during the time Brockman has been at the helm.

“It’s setting up the organization to really ensure that we have the knowledge, the ability, the skill set to scale this work,” he said.

Whether companies want to or not, they have to evolve, he said, adding that not only is it the right thing to do, but investors are requiring it and partners and customers are saying it’s one of the things driving their choices of where to spend their dollars.

“If companies are not doing the work today, in this space, I truly believe that those companies will not be in existence 20 years from now because they will not have the talent,” he said. “When my kids, my grandkids and the people I’m mentoring are asking me for advice on where they should go to work, I’m going to say, don’t take your talent to a company who wants it because they need (I&D numbers). I want you to reward your talent to the companies who are really doing this work.”

The power of one

There’s a YouTube video of Brockman speaking to a group of young people at The Chicago Urban League a few years ago. He’s quoting from memory “Be the Best of Whatever You Are,” a poem by Douglas Malloch that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. included in one of his speeches.

“…  If you can’t be a highway, then just be a trail.
If you can’t be the sun, be a star;
It isn’t by size that you win or fail –
Be the best of whatever you are,” Brockman encouraged the group.

No matter how busy he is, Brockman has always made time to mentor others. His pastor used to tell him, “I’d rather see a sermon any day than hear one.” Those are words he lives by.

He speaks often to young people and those early in their careers, sharing the principles his mom instilled in him from a very young age. He recalls how when he was 15, she made him wear a tie to his interview for a job at a fast-food restaurant, and “taught me the principles of working my butt off. When you go to work, you go to work. You don’t go to play.”

One reason Brockman is so passionate about mentoring and lifting people up is because of the impact on his own life. While he grew up without a father in a neighborhood with high crime rates, he said he always could rely on the adults around him. “The core of who I am is because of those individuals – my mother, my grandparents, my pastor, my community, my church and my school,” he said. “My mom always told me, you never know what people might be capable of if they are given a chance.”

The mentorship he received extended to his professional life – and its lessons are things that help inform the Starbucks mentorship program, which launched last year, pairing nearly 40 partners at the director level with senior leaders for regular meetings both one-on-one and in group settings.

While many companies may have professional mentorship program, the Starbucks one is designed to be unique. Senior leaders are not only expected to participate, but their pay is tied to it. At the conclusion, their mentee fills out a survey and the mentor has to be given a rating of at least three out of five to be considered to have successfully completed it. “We’ve never had that kind of accountability before,” Brockman said.

The first year of the Starbucks mentorship program helped prove that it can get to the deeper level Brockman is reaching for – making people feel like they belong. No mentors canceled even one session, he said, because they found it so valuable. At the start of the program, 92 percent of the mentees said they felt a sense of belonging at Starbucks, but by the end that number had risen to 100 percent, he said. The goal is that the program will not only help mentees be ready for the next steps in their careers, but that they will chose to stay at Starbucks and the company will retain their talent.  

The Starbucks mentorship program is a two-way opportunity for learning, he said. Mentors are given a view into the lived experiences of the BIPOC person they are paired with.

“It was kind of reverse mentoring for both,” he said. “One of the senior leaders (who was a mentor) told me, I didn’t realize how much I didn’t understand the experience of a BIPOC partner here at Starbucks. It opened up conversations.” 

Corporations like to talk about hiring people who are “culture fits.” But that also is a place where microaggressions and bias can manifest, Brockman says, whether it’s implying that someone needs to change their hairstyle or their personality to conform and be successful.

“There shouldn’t have to be any code switching. When I bring my full self to work, you get the best of me. I don’t want a culture fit. I want people to be a culture add.”

Owning mistakes and growing

Many of Starbucks I&D commitments and programs today have their roots in what was one of Starbucks most agonizing days. It also would go on to be a catalyst for change in the company and how it would move forward.

On April 12, 2018, two Black entrepreneurs were sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks waiting for a business meeting to begin when they were arrested after the store manager called the police on them for being in the store and not ordering anything.

Brockman, a 14-year partner who was a regional vice president for the Midwest region of Starbucks at the time, heard about it when a video of the incident went viral. “I thought, ‘How could that happen in a Starbucks store?’ I really did. And I questioned the company.”

In the days after, Johnson, Starbucks ceo, publicly apologized, calling the incident “reprehensible” and vowed to work for change in the company. It was one store – but it was also reflective of the bias – conscious or unconscious – that impacts people of color all across the country.

“We owned it,” Brockman said. “And, importantly, we said that we’re going to do everything we can to ensure this never happens in a Starbucks store again.”

Philadelphia led to some deep soul searching. A month later, the company closed all company-owned stores in the United States for an afternoon of anti-bias training. Starbucks partnered with Arizona State University to develop To Be Welcoming, a 15-course anti-bias curriculum, available for partners and customers for free. Starbucks began publishing an annual Civil Rights Assessment of the company, done under the leadership of former United States Attorney General Eric Holder, and his law firm, Covington & Burling LLP.

It also led, ultimately, to the creation of the chief I&D role held by Brockman. Brockman reports directly to Johnson. “It shows true commitment,” Brockman said. “It’s not for show.”

Johnson said he knows that Brockman is the right person to lead the work that needs to be done.

“I wanted a leader for Inclusion & Diversity who was grounded in our mission, lived our values and had the courage to challenge the status quo,” said Johnson. “Dennis embodies that kind of leader. I have known Dennis for years and he is someone I admire and trust. He is someone who will always do to the right thing.  And he is someone who looks at the world filled with optimism and, as a result, is able to make change gracefully and help us all learn and grow. He is the right I&D leader for Starbucks at this moment.”

The two men speak often and don’t shirk from difficult topics. The day that the verdict in the Ahmaud Arbery trial came down, finding all three accused men guilty of his murder, Johnson called him to check in.

“I shared my honest feelings. I said, ‘Well, this is the verdict but it’s not justice. Justice will be when an African American man could jog in any neighborhood and make it home safe,’” he said. “I’m thankful that Kevin called me and gave me the space and said, hey, how are you feeling about this?”

Starbucks regularly holds virtual “Courageous Conversations” with partners to talk about hard topics, such as the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“We need to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Brockman said. Part of that means acknowledging the realities BIPOC people face daily, such as having to be on guard every time they leave their homes.

It happened to him recently when he was with his 26-year-old son, D.J., at a sports event. They had tickets to a suite, but when they got on the elevator to head to that floor, a group of white people insisted they must have made a mistake and belonged in the general seating area. When they did finally reach the floor where the suites are, they were stopped by seven different security people asking if they were lost. “I thought maybe they are doing that to everyone and so I was watching and, no, I saw not one single white person was asked to show their ticket.”

He’s planning to share that feedback with the sports organization and recently used it as an example for other senior leaders of Starbucks as an example of why the I&D work is so important and why bias has to be addressed.

“We have to hold ourselves, and hold each other accountable,” he said. Around the country, I&D leaders “have a responsibility to make sure that we are speaking out and speaking up – speaking for everyone in the organization in every single part of the organization. It takes courage and you have to have some courageous conversations with executive leaders at times, but this is our moment and in this moment, we will create a movement.”

‘Inclusion doesn’t mean exclusion’

Pain can take on many forms – being excluded, being ignored, being targeted or profiled, being underestimated, mental health struggles, and, of course, physical pain.

Brockman’s work is focused on making the world better for others – making it more of a just and fair place. But some pain, even he can’t do anything about. He and his wife of 28 years, Evonna, have two children who were both born with Sickle Cell Disease, a genetic red blood cell disorder. One of the hallmarks of it is that it can cause pain so severe that the patient has to be hospitalized. He remembers having to step outside the hospital room sometimes so his child wouldn’t see him cry – and then he’d bolster himself and go back in.

Being truly present with someone in their pain, even when you can’t fix it, is its own kind of courage.  

Today, their son, D.J., is a 26-old music engineer who owns his own studio. Their daughter, DeVonna, 20, is studying film at college. “They have this attitude that nothing is going to stop them,” he says. “They have such passion for life.”

He and Evonna always wanted them to feel like they could do anything in life. They’ve always been there to advocate for their kids. Not everyone has that.

When people think about I&D work, they often think of people who are BIPOC, but it also includes people with disabilities, LGBTQIA partners – and everyone, Brockman stresses. There are 12 partner networks (business resource groups) that are partner led. All partners are welcome to join any of the groups, as a member of that community or as an ally.

“Something I say a lot, that’s important to understand, is that inclusion does not mean exclusion,” Brockman said. “This work is not only about our BIPOC partners. This work is about how we want every partner to have an opportunity to be included in this organization. We want that for every customer and every community.”

‘We’ll make a difference in this world’

Brockman’s smile brightens when he thinks about one of the best days of his life – the day he was able to buy his mom her own home. It was open and bright, with big windows that looked out onto her yard. From her window, she could see across the street, where a longtime friend from church lived. Another friend lived next door. For her, Mama Judy, home had never been just a place to live, but a place to belong and help others feel they did too.

“She loved to entertain so every time I called her, I was like ‘OK, whose over there now?’ Someone was always at the house,” he said. During her life, “she didn’t have much financially, but the love that she gave ….”

That love helped others feel like they could do anything. And in turn, those people could be there for others. While Mama Judy died two years ago, at home surrounded by love, the ripples of her life go on through Brockman and, in turn, to Starbucks partners and, ultimately to customers.

If Starbucks partners feel like they belong, they’ll help make sure customers do too, Brockman believes. “It’s the little things, like writing a customer’s name on a cup,” he said. “… We’ll make a difference in this world. We’ll be the company that shows what’s possible.”

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