One of the best conversations I ever had was not too long ago at a Starbucks near a community college in California. It was packed with students, profs, and community folk, not unlike most coffee shops. But on this evening, the routine of common greetings and small-talk was delightfully disrupted when a young man stuck his head out over the counter and asked me, personally, if I would like to talk with him about race. No one had ever asked me that question before. So, I said, sure. And that’s how I came to learn about the genius of Howard Schultz. Schultz advocated for lots of civic and social causes and he found a way to incorporate the do-good and respect-human-dignity ethos into his corporate marketing strategy.
After completing his shift, the barista joined me where I sat watching evening traffic flow up the boulevard. Together, we browsed the newspaper that Starbucks printed containing data related to race as part of Howard Schultz’s project to get people talking about race in the wake of tragic deaths of black youth. How often does one get the chance to have a non-superficial conversation with someone who, by all outward appearances is your exact opposite? Not often. And on the West Coast, it can be a challenge, for many reasons that have nothing to do with identity, per se, but a lot to do with logistics, economics, and desire.
Sometimes, people need motivation just to talk. Howard Schultz mastered the art of motivation.
Another reflection of his genius is the Starbucks app with the sparkly “star” rewards. I don’t know if he came up with the idea and the app, but he probably led the effort to get people excited about spending money on lattes. Sadly, with the recent change in the way the stars are now allotted, it’s much harder to a). spend money at Starbucks, b). have a great, and I mean great, conversation, and c).earn a star reward. I already miss this CEO. Not all change is heroic. My fingers are crossed.
Howard Schultz, whatever you do next, please know that your CEO-magic lit up my life.
My hope is that Starbucks will evolve into a revolutionary food company with a bright and strong social compact. Please do not succumb!