March 24, 2015, by Sara R. Brady
Dear Howard Shultz:
Without question, you represent the epitome of entrepreneurship. Through your Starbucks organization, you have created a new culture for socially conscious business as well as for coffee and conversation. It makes sense that you would want to spark a national dialogue about issues of significance and indeed, you have the platform to do so. You didn’t get to be where you are without risk-taking and innovation. And wouldn’t being the guy who changed the national discussion about racism contribute to your already positive image?
Clearly the idea was off the mark and has now spilled back on you like a poorly covered Grande cappuccino. In other words, it backfired into a negative public relations issue.
I do not patronize your stores for discourse with staff about their thoughts on racism, and I suspect they don’t really care what I think either. I would venture that no matter how nice you may be, it’s hard to imagine any front line worker feeling comfortable enough to say to you, the CEO, “This is a terrible idea and I’m uncomfortable doing this.” At the end of the shift, you’re still the boss; they work for you.
You missed a much more meaningful PR opportunity — the profound effort you made engaging internally with thousands of employees before you took the idea public. That, Mr. Shultz, is what should have served as your model for inspiring thoughtful dialogue. Showing that a leader took time from his uber-profitable business just to talk with employees about an important social issue is impressive and mindful.
But what I find most troubling is your presumption that we the people – those of us without a public platform — are not having those conversations. It seems as if you underestimated a shared national concern for social injustices, and never imagined that so many of us could be talking about it without being poked by you and a cup of condescension.
Even in my own small business, we informally discuss race, discrimination and a host of social, political and religious issues regularly over lunch or coffee. We are respectful, engaged, sometimes in disagreement and yet our discourse remains healthy and enlightening.
So maybe you were the one who needed to become more self-aware about adding diversity to your team and your choice of store locations, because that’s the conversation and image issue that has resulted from your slightly misguided campaign.
It would seem that you, not your customers, were the one who needed the lesson about changing your perception. I’m happy to chat more about it over a cappuccino with soy.