I was at my local Starbucks on E. Fort Avenue in the Federal Hill area of Baltimore when I heard that Howard Schultz was leaving his position as CEO. I thought, Schultz would be proud of this place. While not all the stores are like this one, I have to say, “my” Starbucks is the real deal — a welcoming, eclectic community, run by a diverse group of kind, positive, and competent baristas. I decided to write a note of appreciation to Mr. Schultz and the folks at Starbucks.
As a diversity and inclusion specialist who advises organizations on how to build inclusive work environments, I know how powerful these cultures can be, and how difficult they are to achieve. It is an especially hard task during this time in our country and world — in which fear, isolation and division seem to be at an all-time high. We are in such desperate need of leaders who are conscious, courageous, and compassionate. So I am taking my hat off not to perfection, but to a leader and a for-profit company that have worked hard to walk their talk — and to create some amazing opportunities and spaces for diversity and inclusion to thrive.
Dear Mr. Schultz,
Thank you for teaching me to care more about and be more respectful of those behind the counters of our lives. Of course, Starbucks has created the new millennium’s version of Cheers — not only do the baristas know your name, but they also know your drink and your kid’s name. Turns out, we cannot ignore that kind of attention, kindness, and professionalism. It has a mirroring effect. Our behavior changes. We smile and say “good morning,” more often. We remember our baristas’ names and something about their lives too. We are nicer and more patient because you taught your employees to bring their “A” game, with kindness and respect. Now, I am more apt to notice when they have been absent from work or look exhausted. And now, I ask why — and I learn that he’s going to school at night, or that her little boy never sleeps through the night. The difference between being relational and transactional is significant ; thanks for reminding us that relational makes all of us happier and better humans.
Thank you for knowing and showing us what real diversity looks like. I wish more businesses knew that talent comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and hairstyles. And that customers like seeing themselves reflected in the places they frequent. It’s been exciting for me to see a company make sure its front office is so multi-cultural. Many organizations insist they want diversity, but when it comes down to it, the decision-makers choose talent that reflects their preferences and biased ideas of what competence looks like. No matter the job, they have a very limited idea of who’s capable of doing it. All over the world, and right here in the neighborhoods of Baltimore, you have found folks who are capable, positive problem-solvers — who act like owners. You’re short 10 cents? “No problem.” You don’t like your drink? “No charge.” You said the wrong size? “That’s fine, we’ll start again.”
So let me pause here and also thank these fabulous employees for being so good at what they do. I hope that other employers will take note of what Starbucks has done. I hope they can see that talent doesn’t just come in one complexion. I hope they will go looking for and give opportunities to all the folks they’ve been missing.
And to Mr. Schultz: Thanks for not forgetting where you came from, and for allowing the difficult times you and your family suffered to soften rather than harden your heart toward working people. Your decision to provide health care to all your workers, including part-time employees, shouldn’t have been earth-shattering, but it was. You understand how hard it is for working people to get anywhere when a health issue, no matter how minor, can wipe out years of hard work and their hope for a better future. Empathy is a powerful leadership tool. Even when it’s good business to have healthy employees, many businesses don’t seem able to make the connection that Starbucks does. Plus, I love the idea that the baristas at my Starbucks have a path to a college education! When people have a sense of future possibilities, they are happier; they put down roots and contribute to the economic and social stability of our communities. There are veterans and refugees, too, whose life possibilities are being changed by your willingness to walk in another’s shoes.
Thank you for expanding my comfort zone and respect for “strangers.” Starbucks has created a space where absolute strangers share tables and electrical outlets and become trusted guardians within minutes (“Hey, can you watch my stuff while I go to the bathroom?”). How did Starbucks know that right here in my city, introverts and extroverts, the troubled and the burden-free, men and women, minorities and majorities, stay-at-home parents and big busy executives, immigrants and fifth-generation Americans and the retired and the newly employed would be willing to sit down all together for hours? How does this happen? I mean, not only in my Starbucks in Baltimore, but also the one on 4th and Seneca in Seattle and the one near the W Hotel in San Francisco on 3rd and Howard? As far as I can tell, it’s because you have created a silent norm that everyone is welcome — and we have, sometimes begrudgingly, agreed. I marvel at the kindness and respect shown to everyone who comes here, especially those who are homeless or down on their luck. And because you said they were okay, we all have had to get with the program. We sit side by side: the banker and the homeless, those with more than enough, those with just enough, and those with very little. Because of our proximity, many of us have learned to inquire after the “strangers” among us — and gradually, we become less strange.
Thank you for helping me check some of my judgments of people who share this Starbucks space with me : the bleary-eyed parent with the early-rising, rambunctious and loud toddler who clambers happily on tables with her dirty shoes; clumps of teenagers drinking coffee and chatting knowingly about “grown-up” subjects; students taking up lots of space at tables as they study; tutors paternalistically coaching their students; and couples on awkward first dates. You have accepted them, so I have, too. Well, I’m trying.
Thank you for fearlessly weighing in on the social justice causes and the political issues that have deeply affected my life, my city, and this country. Thank you for speaking to your employees about the importance of understanding and talking about race; I loved the intent of your “failed” idea of giving us permission to talk about race in the stores. Just to let you know, I am willing to help Starbucks revisit that campaign! I watched video of the conversations you convened with employees and appreciated your statements about the “Black Lives Matter” movement, police violence, and criminal justice.
I distinctly remember the week after the unrest in Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death. The curfew had just been lifted, and I saw three police officers in full uniform come into my Starbucks for coffee together; I was startled and unsure how to feel, but I was forced to remember them as a part of our community, too. In fact, I was in a Starbucks in Harlem a few weeks ago and learned that the conversations being hosted there between the community and police are helping to heal and repair relationships in that neighborhood. So thank you for not being afraid to lend your voice and resources to these important social justice issues that affect us all.
Finally, thank you, Mr. Schultz, for your bold stance during and after the contentious presidential election season, knowing that we sit, work, and live together — the Trump supporters and Trump despisers, and those who are too disenfranchised to care. While other leaders were hiding and freaking out, you were steady and clear. You reaffirmed your belief in the tenets of diversity and inclusion while reminding us to walk and work in compassion and understanding with each other.
I hear that you are stepping back from the CEO position to focus on building Starbucks’ Reserve-branded coffee bars. So, I just wanted to say thank you for your brave and values-driven leadership. So much of what we do in this world is not about perfection (Starbucks and all of us can do better), but it’s about the connections we make with other humans and the possibility for good those connections create. I am looking forward to your next act, and I encourage you to take this experiment of creating inclusion to an even deeper level. I wish you much success as you go. But for now, I’m going to get back to writing my book, fueled by my Venti Royal English Breakfast tea and my diverse and welcoming Starbucks community in South Marketplace in Baltimore.