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THE JOURNAL OF PEOPLE + STRATEGY

Case Study of Crisis and Affirmation of Character

February 23, 2021

The History of Starbucks Coffee Company’s Anti-Bias Efforts

By Vivek Varma, Starbucks, and Keith Yamashita, SYPartners

This article was published in print in the Winter 2020 Issue of the Journal of HR People + Strategy.

This is a story of a business that has always tried to be a different kind of company. It’s a story of an incident of racial bias in one of the brand’s stores—and how that moment galvanized a national effort to confront racial bias, and reaffirm an intention to ensure all Starbucks stores are places that are welcoming of all. It’s told through a diverse set of voices: the Starbucks leaders and team members, critical advisors, and design partners who led the efforts over an 18-month period.

There are thousands of leaders at the core of this story, which touches almost 200,000 Starbucks partners, and millions of customers. Here are some of the people who appear in this article—leaders from various disciplines and backgrounds.

Howard Schultz, chairman emeritus, Starbucks

Kevin Johnson, ceo, Starbucks

Roz Brewer, group president and coo, Starbucks

Rossann Williams, evp and president, US Retail, Starbucks

Vivek Varma, chief transformation officer, Starbucks

Heather McGhee, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Demos

Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Keith Yamashita, Founder, SYPartners

Jennifer, partner, Starbucks

Arthur, partner, Starbucks

Jeremy, social media team, Starbucks

Rie Nørregaard, Principal, Creative Direction and Partnerships, SYPartners

Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General and Starbucks advisor

Jonas Nwuke, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, SYPartners

Kendra Cooke, Principal, User Experience, SYPartners

Zabrina Jenkins, vice president assistant general counsel of Global Litigation and Employment and interim ceco, Starbucks

 

Where Does This Story Start?

It begins on April 12, 2018, in Philadelphia with Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson—two black men who have come to a Starbucks store to meet a business associate. Minutes later, they are escorted out of the store by local police, in handcuffs, because they had not made a purchase and declined to leave. A video of the arrests went viral on social media and sparked a public outcry criticizing Starbucks. The incident made national headlines and prompted protests at some Starbucks stores. The arrests thrust Starbucks into the center of America’s national conversation about racism and implicit bias.

Kevin Johnson on the initial shock: My immediate reaction was that I did not understand how this could have happened in one of our stores. I also understood it was a big issue and that we had to respond in equal measure. When people see injustice, it’s too easy to sit on the sidelines and say, ‘Look what happened there.’ But it happened at a Starbucks, and we were accountable. And yet there is no playbook about how you handle a crisis like this. I got on the phone with [former U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder, an advisor to Starbucks, and he gave me helpful advice. He knew I’d be under a lot of pressure to answer questions before I had the chance to thoroughly and thoughtfully understand the situation. He counseled me to be intentional about our decisions. To move quickly, yes, but resist responding to questions until I knew in my heart I was ready to answer them. That advice confirmed for me that my larger responsibility was to review every aspect of what happened, then make an assessment, and then do everything I could to ensure it didn’t happen again.

 

Roz Brewer on those early tumultuous moments: We are all getting the news in real time—often at the same time as our employees and customers. It’s hard to know what is true. And, of course, every one of us as leaders brings our whole life experience to it. I am president of Starbucks, and this situation is happening in one of my stores. I am a black female professional who has long fought for diversity, equity, and inclusion in every organization I have led. And I was a Starbucks board member, which led me to my operating role, and so I was seeing the incident through the lens of the entire culture and system of how Starbucks works.

I have a 23-year-old African-American son, and when I saw the video, I felt everything from sadness to anger to fear, because what if one of these two young men were my son? For me, this was deeply personal because, as an African-American leader, I knew very well that the African-American community was going to be depending on me to address this and I felt the weight of the world, quite honestly. 

 

Howard Schultz on pain: When I saw the video, I felt sick to my stomach. It was like watching someone I loved do something despicable. I also felt shame. This incident was not who we were as a company, and yet we were accountable for two men being asked to leave the store. In the first two days after the incident, Starbucks issued statements. The responses were plain-spoken and neutral.

 

Kevin Johnson on getting to the core of the issue: I spent my time calling people and our partners in Philadelphia to understand what had happened. I also arranged to meet Mr. Robinson and Mr. Nelson in person so I could hear their perspective firsthand. We could not ignore the painful truth: Racial bias was at the heart of the incident, and it was reprehensible. I also flew to Philadelphia with other Starbucks leaders so we could be on the ground and meet with our people, the police, city officials and members of the community in person. We had a responsibility to listen to and communicate with everyone. A lot of people were angry, calling for us to do more than apologize. They wanted actions, not words. 

 

Howard Schultz on creating a powerful new beginning: In my heart, I believed that the incident had the potential to be a positive galvanizing moment. An opportunity for growth. How we responded would reinforce our core values, and make us better. Within 24 hours, I had an idea: Back in 2008, Starbucks had closed all its stores at once for coffee retraining to improve the quality of our beverages. We could close the stores again, this time for a more urgent and important reason, for a day of training about racial justice, conscious and unconscious bias. 

A few days later, on April 17, 2018, the company announced its plan to close more than 8,000 company-owned stores in the United States on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in its stores.

Some critics called it a publicity stunt. Others questioned how any single-day event could really make any difference. And, of course, there was mounting data about the ineffectiveness of many diversity training efforts. With a little over 40 days to pull it off, what could be done?

We are in new territory—like many companies—trying to navigate racial and systemic bias in order to build a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations. There is no one path forward—and there is certainly no standard path forward in business. Here is the path we’ve outlined for ourselves at Starbucks, based on what we know about what motivates our company culture to engage. We’re taking agile step after agile step, adjusting from every learning, action that worked and misstep.

Affirm mission and values.

As a purpose-driven company, our mission and values both define who we want to be and set the guardrails for which behaviors we cannot accept. So this work, like all meaningful work here, starts with our mission and what we value.

Start together, with powerful shared experiences.

At Starbucks, we work as a team, and we are all partners in our success. When we share powerful experiences, they shape our mindset, they give us shared language, they commit us to positive action. May 29—as a day when we closed our stores to begin a new conversation about racial bias—was the first of several shared experiences we will undertake.

Teach creating belonging as a life skill.

With a positive aspiration set, we now invest in all our partners to learn the life skills of creating welcoming, belonging and inclusive leadership. We will draw on mindscience. We will lean into experiential learning to help us all master new rituals and habits. This will be fueled by a gathering of store managers in late 2019 to practice and continue our learning—together.

Innovate with diversity and inclusion at the core.

Over our nearly 50-year history, Starbucks has advanced what it means to be a public company­—achieving the fragile balance between profit and societal impact. We understand that going forward, we must put diversity and inclusion at the heart of every innovation even more centrally than we ever have before. This is about all efforts that touch the business.

Transcend the hierarchy. Do the work together.

Representation matters. We must see the invention of the future through many different sets of eyes if we are to truly build a future that we all want to be part of. Starbucks has been on a path to diversify our board, our senior leadership ranks, our headquarters’ team and our stores’ teams. We are creating more conditions for many partners to participate in the making of the next Starbucks.

 

Create systemic inclusion in how we work, our policies and our beliefs.

As leaders, sometimes we fail to recognize just how much of our own thinking, behavior, decisions, policy-setting and responses are influenced by the greater society’s biases. At Starbucks, we are trying to become more conscious of such forces, and actively confront them in how the company is structured, how we lead, how we collaborate and how we make decisions.

A Bold Move Fueled by Critics, Believers and Partners

The temptation, of course, in any crisis is to deal only with extinguishing the pain of the crisis itself, and not deal with the core issue at hand. Starbucks leadership knew this could not be the case here.

Kevin Johnson on balance and what it means to the brand: Our stores have evolved into a microcosm of society, so all of society’s problems show up in a Starbucks. Our people are trying to manage that as best they can, so we have to strike a balance between supporting them in managing very complex human dynamics, while maintaining the highest standards of decency, and holding ourselves accountable for unacceptable behaviors—whether intentional or accidental.

Howard Schultz on seeking guidance: We needed counsel, so we reached out to people in the civil rights community. Some we had prior relationships with, and they knew we would never allow or tolerate racism. We wanted input from people who could tell us where we had gone astray, who could help us learn, and help us be better.

Many of them said yes.

Starbucks shared with them that they would develop the curriculum with guidance from national experts on confronting racial bias, including Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Heather McGhee, Distinguished Senior Fellow of Demos; and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The events in Philadelphia reverberated through the company, as partners watched the video and considered what it meant to them as people and as partners.

At a Partner Open Forum at the Starbucks Support Center in Seattle four days after the arrest, partners shared their thoughts with the company’s senior leadership and each other.

Three Starbucks partners react: When I watched that video and saw a huge anxiety spike [that] those men’s lives could have been very much in danger. For those of us proudly part of the Black Lives Matter movement, when I saw that I thought ‘Danger, Will Robinson. Save them!’ It’s not just the situation where the police were called—people were arrested and taken out. When the police are called, it escalates the situation, and when people observe that, it’s scary. 

I speak through the lens of my 12-year-old son who unfortunately was on the premises when I was watching the video and asked me what it was, and I walked him through it. He asked me if it was real. I said, ‘Why do you think it isn’t real?’ ‘Because the men look calm and relaxed.’ He had seen the consequences of the option of having it being more strained or being uncomfortable with what was happening. My attitude is that we celebrate the actions of those two men much more than anything—because it was the action of those two men that were the teaching moments to my young son. Their action is the most courageous thing I saw on that video.

We need to acknowledge that we have become another data point in the discomfort that makes black people fear to exist. 

A Massive Design Effort

The team was materializing, and only six weeks remained before almost 200,000 Starbucks partners from 8,000 stores across the nation would gather for a half-day training session to confront bias together. The early work sessions were dispersed, confusing, and chaotic.

Vivek Varma on the early collaborations: We had to confront that every person was in a different place. Some people were getting their heads around the events in Philadelphia. Some were on the ground where there were daily protests. Others were trying to figure out the massive logistical details of this all-store training—anything at a 180,000-person scale is an undertaking. Others were trying to get their heads around what kind of expertise we needed to pull this off. And all of this triggered hot buttons about race and where we each think we stand on being a part of the solution rather than part of America’s problem.

Certainly one compounding factor: the daily experience of partners in the Starbucks stores and the operations teams that support them was not necessarily the daily experience of partners on the headquarters team. The conversations taking place at the head office were also revealing the lived experiences of employees of color to senior leaders.

At the Partner Open Forum, a partner shared this experience: I want people to realize that this isn’t an isolated incident in our stores or in Philly, it happens in this building a lot. I walk through the building going to meetings and get asked so often: ‘Are you sure you’re in the right meeting?’ Or I’m asked: ‘Do you know where you are, or do you need some help?’ Though I completely understand the difference when someone is being helpful. The training that we’re calling for doesn’t need to happen just in the stores, it also needs to happen here. I go into my store and have to show my partner card; I shouldn’t have to do that and shouldn’t have to explain in the building that: ‘Yes, I am in the right room.’

Solving for the future and addressing the event became a microcosm of the interactions we encounter in society at large. It led to profound sharing, as employees of color talked about their experiences of racism and micro-aggressions that transpire on any given day in their lives, leaving their white colleagues at a loss. White fragility also surfaced in these conversations, with white partners feeling a combination of dread, shame, curiosity and guilt.

Color Brave, Not Color Blind

Early on, Starbucks board member (now vice chair) Mellody Hobson was filmed to share not just her support for the effort, but why she thought it was critical for the brand. As a black member of the Starbucks board, she had long championed diversity as a core mandate of the corporation. She introduced the challenge of “color brave, not color blind” to the team.

Vivek Varma on the design challenge: The phrase “color brave, not color blind” became a ‘design brief’ for the team. How could we design our day of training in a way that helped all who attended walk toward the topic rather than shy away from it? How could it build confidence to engage? How could we open hearts as part of the effort? How could we break down the topics into ones that were about the everyday acts of people?

Shared Experiences Are the Motivation and Common Language

While the idea of closing down Starbucks stores for anti-bias training was made swiftly, without all the details worked out, a deeper understanding of its logic unfolded in the days after Schultz and Johnson committed to building a curriculum.

Kevin Johnson on shared experiences as the change lever: If you are going to evolve a company culture, you have to share new experiences together: create a new bedrock of something you participated in, create something you confronted together, share deeply about what matters to you. As we began to shape what this day of anti-bias training would become, I started to see and talk about it as an experience. Not just what we could learn, but how we would feel and what new language it would give us, as a culture.

Whole-Human Design: The Only Hope

In developing the curricula for the big day, SYPartners sought the expertise of The Perception Institute, a non-profit dedicated to helping organizations reduce discrimination linked to race, gender, and other identity differences. A consortium of researchers, advocates, and strategists, The Perception Institute was critical to the legitimacy of the work. Co-founders Alexis McGill Johnson and Rachel Godsil collaborated closely with the SYPartners team throughout the six-week journey to shape the training modules and overall partner experience.

Rie Norregaard on a new approach: Given the challenge, we had to invent a new way of working. My idea was to do daily prototypes, based on all the knowledge these interviews were uncovering: conceive of the shared experience people would have, design it, make the tools, articulate the exercises we’d send people. Then every evening test those prototypes with Starbucks partners—in a local store or wherever we could get them. We’d work with ethnographic researchers—neutral parties that were trying to uncover real problems with the prototype and then give input on how they could be improved. Their recommendations would come in the next morning and we’d repeat. We were essentially running an around-the-clock design process with multiple teams in multiple time zones so we could get all the work done in time. We had to both listen deeply and pave the path forward at the same time.

Realization #1: The role of Starbucks as a welcoming ‘third place’ needed a serious examination. 

As insights emerged, Starbucks took swift action, and a policy change was declared: a “customer” would henceforth be defined as anyone who crosses the threshold of a Starbucks store, whether they were buying something or not. The company would respect and honor people being there, even when they didn’t buy something. This policy was announced on May 19, 2018, and implemented across the United States.

Heather McGhee and Sherrilyn Ifill on the third place: The formational identity of Starbucks is centered around the creation of the “third place”—not home, not work, but a public space where all are welcome and people can share the Starbucks experience. But the “third place” cannot exist outside of the history and reality of racism in public accommodations. Indeed, the ambitious vision of Starbucks’ founder to create a “third place” in which all are welcome engages, by its very terms, the history and contemporary struggle of African-Americans for dignity in the public space. Thus, the awful, humiliating experience of Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson in the Philadelphia Starbucks provoked a necessary discussion within the company about the need to confront the full dimensions of what it means to steward public spaces in our country. It is our hope that the willingness of Starbucks to engage this difficult reality will inspire other corporate actors to do so as well.

Realization #2: Leaders are learners, too.

Rie Norregaard on vulnerability: One thing we were trying to prototype was how discussions would be led. Store managers were in pivotal positions at Starbucks, so they were the natural candidates to lead these sessions. Sometimes, prototypes prove assumptions wrong. In session after session, managers pushed back. They didn’t feel qualified to lead. They felt that they would be asked questions they could not answer. They didn’t know enough about their own biases to know how to confront them. One manager said, “Don’t put me in that position—I know a lot about a lot of things, but on this topic, I am also a learner.”

This shifted a mandate: Groups were going to have to be self-led and self-guided.

Realization #3: Building a sense of goodwill would be vital—we had to create a safe space.

Kevin Johnson on authenticity: Very early on, I reached out to Rashon and Donte, who had been escorted out of the store by police, to see if they would be willing to meet me in person. I wanted to offer Starbucks’ true apology, and I wanted to know what I could personally do to right the wrongs of the situation. While much of our conversation is confidential, one thing I do want to share is a big lesson these men taught me. We spent about an hour talking about how sorry I was and how Starbucks wanted to make amends. We got to the end of the conversation, and Donte looked me in the eye and said essentially, ‘Kevin, I think this meeting was helpful. But you really didn’t share anything about you. I felt I got to talk to the CEO of Starbucks today, but not to Kevin.’ It was a stunning moment for me, and one that opened me up. So concerned about making the wrong move, I failed to put forth the real thing that was needed—my authentic self. That one comment unleashed a much more open conversation in that room, and ultimately guided them to share how Starbucks could truly make amends.

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were invited to contribute to the company’s ongoing efforts to ensure such a thing would never again happen at a Starbucks store. Johnson would also provide mentorship to support their entrepreneurial endeavors and financial aid towards the completion of their bachelor’s degrees, if they so wished.

Realization #4: Representation has to become our modus operandi.

Roz Brewer on inclusion:  As we worked toward May 29th, we cut across team structure, silos, race, gender, generational labels. We started working as a distributed team with inclusion as a key tenet of how we collaborated. People of all backgrounds were building trust to voice their views, opinions, and lived experience. In a way, the making of May 29 became a test drive of how Starbucks would need to evolve to become a more inclusive and welcoming company for all.

Realization #5: When given the chance, humans rise to their best selves.

Keith Yamashita on the safety risk: In the final days before the event, I met with Howard Schultz at his request to ensure he knew every aspect of the day and program. One topic we talked about was security, and the possibility of violence within the stores. Though many precautions had been taken, there was the chance that the tender nature of the conversations could result in conflict. Howard summarily dismissed it, ‘There will be no violence. Starbucks people are going to bring the very best of the best to this. They will honor each other. And there will be heated debate, but there will be no violence. We will rise to this.’ Frankly, as much as I wanted to believe him; I didn’t think the day would go as smoothly as he did.

May 29: A Day of Conversation, Personal Reflection and Peace

The sign outside every Starbucks store said,

WE’LL SEE YOU TOMORROW

At Starbucks we are proud to be a third place—a place between home and work where everyone is welcome. A place where everyone feels they belong.

Today, our store team is reconnecting with our mission and with each other. We are sharing our ideas about how to make Starbucks even more welcoming. 

We look forward to seeing you when we reopen at ___________.

The training called for small breakout groups. Every partner became a learner. Corporate leaders participated in their own breakout sessions at Starbucks headquarters. Store managers integrated into their own store’s small-circle groups, not expected to carry any heavier a load than baristas.

The day proceeded.

“It was an eye opener. I know people are treated this way but never think about it. I never think about how someone may feel uncomfortable because they deal with it every day.” —Hailey, barista, Clarksville, Tennessee 

“I hope that each and every last partner had their eyes opened to what’s going on in the world and that they’re thinking in their mind what they can do differently after today.” —Annette, shift supervisor, Seattle 

Several partners said that while they were initially skeptical of the training, and questioned whether it was anything more than a response to criticism after the arrests in Philadelphia, they found the training to be useful.

Many partners shared stories about how they approached disruptive behaviors differently after the training. For example, one store manager said that she noticed a young man walking back and forth from his seat to the packaged food area of the store, and that she anticipated he might be considering stealing something. She explained that before the training, she would have quickly asked the young man to leave the store. Instead, she sat and talked with the young man and his friend. They told her that they were residents in a nearby homeless shelter, and that while they were grateful to have taken a bath that day, they were hungry. The manager gave the young men a hot breakfast and told them that they could stay as long as they wanted, as long as they were respectful in the café. Other partners told similar stories, noting that the training taught them the importance of focusing on a customer’s behavior, and whether it was truly disruptive or inappropriate, rather than on a customer’s appearance or other characteristics.

Multimedia Training to Guide the Groups

The materials for the in-store training sessions, including a guidebook, an iPad and a package of notebooks, were intentionally designed to flow between moments of individual reflection, partnering and group collaboration.

The guidebook opened with Starbucks’ mission and values statement, which one of the circle’s partners read aloud. It also included ground rules for how to show up for each other in the moment. Should anything escalate beyond the groups’ ability to address it, a toll-free number was provided. Other sections of the guide include:

  1. Why we are here today

Kevin Johnson and celebrity host Common set forth the intent of the day in two short videos. The first exercise was called “What makes me, me? And you, you?” and was executed in pairs. By openly sharing their differences, partners found they had more in common than they initially expected.

  1. Starbucks: The third place

Partners were grounded in the foundational definition of the third place. After a few minutes reflecting individually on times they felt a deep sense of belonging, they were given a moment to share these memories with each other. An in-depth explanation of cognitive bias, developed by The Perception Institute, was then shared, followed by a reflective exercise that explored what it takes to go from color blind to color brave that they recorded in their personal notebooks.

  1. An update on policy 

A video interview of Kevin Johnson and Roz Brewer discussing systemic bias and policy at Starbucks prompted the next group exercise. Partners explored barriers to belonging and envisioned policies, practices and behaviors that would nurture belonging.

  1. Creating a more welcoming Starbucks

To continue the journey of co-creating an inclusive environment, partners watched a video with Rossann Williams, who leads a roundtable discussion about what it means to wear the green apron. Partner training participants observed these shared stories and also listened to audio stories from more partners. They were then asked to pick one or two that resonated and consider alternative approaches that would make the customer feel seen, respected and uplifted.

  1. Planning the journey ahead

Partners then made a personal commitment to future behaviors that supported the sense of belonging among their colleagues and customers. It concluded with a video of Kevin Johnson making his own commitment to the way forward.

The entire day transpired without a single incident of reported violence. The hotline that had been set put to deal with escalation got only a handful of calls, and was mostly used for easy-to-resolve issues surrounding the materials of the day.

The Making of a Much-Deeper Curricula

As Kevin Johnson stated, May 29 was “just one step in a journey” for Starbucks to grow as a company that elevates inclusion and equity. In the subsequent months, Starbucks engaged Covington & Burling, LLP, under the leadership of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to “review and evaluate Starbucks’ multifaceted approach to creating an inclusive and equitable work environment for partners and a welcoming third place for customers.”

Holder and his team produced a comprehensive Civil Rights Audit, which provided a set of recommendations to strengthen Starbucks current program, policies to help sustain the third place, foster an internal culture of equity and inclusion, deepen community engagement, and share what the company have learned with industry and other leaders. Starbucks released the full report publicly at: stories.starbucks.com/uploads/2019/01/Covington-Report-to-Starbucks-Jan-23-2019.pdf.

As part of the commitment to continual training and education, Starbucks implemented The Third Place Development Series: “an investment in our partners, designed to create moments of learning and inspiration. With videos, discussions and real-life scenarios, the Third Place Development Series is centered on topics that help us create a warm, welcoming and inclusive environment in our stores and our corporate offices.” A new topic in this series is shared every six weeks, each with two types of content.

  1. Pour Over Sessions.

Inspiring talks from thought leaders that generate insights for how partners can create the third place for their colleagues and customers. Each session includes a short video delivered via iPad, a discussion guide to foster rich in-person conversations within the team, and a question-and-answer video covering questions from Starbucks partners.

  1. Third Place Discussions.

Partners gather around an iPad in groups of three to five to hear from an inspirational speaker and work through real-life scenarios to facilitate the application of key concepts for creating the third place environment.

To date, 11 topics have been filmed and delivered. Between the Pour Over Sessions and Third Place Discussions, Starbucks reports one million views and approximately 20,000 interactions via Workplace, their internal social channel. Here is a sample of some of the topics covered:

  • Creating an Inclusive Environment with Sinéad Burke
  • Be a Community Builder with Cleo Wade
  • Leaning into Discomfort with LB Hannahs
  • Courageous Leadership with Brené Brown
  • Mindful Decision Making with Mel Robbins
  • Sharing your Story with Shonda Rhimes
  • Conversations on Mental Health with Esme Weijun Wang

These modules are hosted in stores every six weeks—guided by many of the design principles established on the May 29th day of training.

An Open Source Approach

As Starbucks continues its journey, it has made a commitment to share its lessons, insights, and methods. Starbucks made the full May 29 material available for others to use at: stories.starbucks.com/stories/2018/thethirdplace.

In partnership with Arizona State University (ASU), Starbucks expanded its efforts to address conscious and unconscious bias in public spaces by creating a new curriculum, “To Be Welcoming” (https://tobewelcoming.com/). Over 15 in-depth courses, the curriculum explores bias toward groups that have been marginalized at both the individual and system level, and covers topics including race, gender, religion, political culture, disabilities, sexuality, nationality and age. The course content was developed by a team of more than 50 subject-matter experts and a curriculum and learning specialist at ASU, drawing from industry-leading research on topics related to bias and empathy.

While the curriculum was designed for partners, Starbucks made the curriculum fully available to the public at no cost to learners. The goal remains to help many organizations undertake their own work—and certainly, and, especially, organizations that serve as a public accommodation and shared space for many people or even the public at large.

The 2019 Leadership Experience

Some 15 months after the Philadelphia incident, Kevin Johnson and Rossann Williams led a four-day intensive leadership experience in Chicago, with diversity and inclusion woven into every aspect of the experience. At the conference, Starbucks released the To Be Welcoming curriculum.

Rossann Williams on why convene now in this large-scale manner: Having the courage to reimagine our future is going to require all of us to be the bravest we’ve ever been… Together we will reaffirm our mission and evolve the way we inspire and nurture the human spirit, our own and that of every partner and customer. As we build our future, we will completely reimagine what’s possible. 

Partner Feedback Has Been Decidedly Positive

“Most of our lives is looking for a likeness in something or someone else in this world. A feeling of home. Of being at ease in the company of others. We search for our people. Our team. A significant other. Or sometimes, we search just to find ourselves. I cannot fully explain my feelings on this because it is something I’m experiencing for the first time. Let me make it clear, this is the first time in my professional life that I saw something or someone I could truly identify with as such an essential part of who I am. I am so proud of this company. We’re being socially conscious and responsible. We’re acting and taking risk. As a non-binary QTPOC [queer and trans person of color], I struggle to find representation in the world around me. So to be able to view something so astounding to me and that my company also felt was important enough to share…well, that has made me feel a way I’ve never ever felt before in my life. I feel seen. I feel validated. I feel like I’ve found my third place. More accurately I’ve found my home.” —c.d., Cleveland Heights, Ohio

“Just completed the Summer 2 Third Place training with my shift supervisors. When I asked how we currently act with empathy when creating the Third Place for guests in our stores, Strawberry shared a story about one of our regular guests, Patricia. Patricia is a houseless woman who comes to Starbucks because it’s the closest thing she has to a home. Here, she’s able to connect with the people she loves, enjoy interaction with our partners, and spend some time out of the heat. One day, Patricia came in without shoes. Strawberry approached her and attempted to inform and educate, by letting her know that we love to have her as a guest in our store, but that shoes are necessary in order to enjoy our space. Patricia was obviously upset, expressing concern because she didn’t own a pair of shoes. Strawberry waited for her break, and then went to CVS to buy Patricia a pair of flip flops so that she could continue to be welcome in our store.Strawberry never brought this up to anyone until our meeting, because from her perspective it was just what you do for another human being. I’m constantly humbled by my partners’ capacity to care for those who come into my store but this one blew me away. I’m immensely proud of my team, and of Strawberry for continually pushing herself to create a warm environment for all customers, whether this is their third place or their only one.” —Iri, St. Petersburg, Florida

Additional de-escalation training was implemented in Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago and Portland—at the request of regional leadership who recognized a greater need for this type of education in their particular urban markets. This protocol includes a discussion of empathy as the basis for approaching customers. Partner behaviors are guided using the ACT Model, which asks store partners to:

  • Assess any given situation,
  • Consider the implications and possible outcomes, and
  • Take action to maintain their third-place environment.

The training concludes with a discussion around partner care and how to cope after escalated situations. It is now fully digitized and available for all partners to access via each store’s iPads.

Zabrina Jenkins on an open system: A number of companies came to us and asked for our playbook. We were happy to share, because these are society issues that affect us all. We have also been engaging in open and productive dialogue with other institutions that serve as third places. In particular, we have had conversations with public libraries that offer many of the same amenities that we do and that have recently had to deal with surges in incidents. Our best hope is to learn from each other.

 

Heather McGhee and Sherrilyn Ifill on the future of American business: It is our hope that the willingness of Starbucks to engage this difficult reality will inspire other public-facing corporate actors to do so as well.

With all that has been invested, with the hours of training and development that have been poured into the effort, could another Philadelphia incident happen again? Racial bias—and other biases—arise every day in our lives. And certainly for the millions of people who cross the threshold of a Starbucks store each day. Customers and Starbucks partners alike—every single one of us has bias, involuntarily activated in a micro-second.

The point is not whether Starbucks can ensure that another incident will never occur. Rather, it is to acknowledge incidents are possible when millions of people are involved.

What Starbucks can do is to create workplaces where bias is confronted and the awareness of bias becomes the norm, not the exception—where, in as many interactions as possible, it nurtures the human spirit.

 

Eric Holder on paving the way: Starbucks cannot mend our country’s safety net on its own. But it can lead by example, challenging those in positions of public leadership and in the business sector to join Starbucks’ efforts to build communities—and ultimately a nation—in which all are welcome.

Starbucks’ efforts following the arrests demonstrate that companies can play an important leadership role in addressing racial bias and, in doing so, help realize equality in public spaces for all Americans.

Creating lasting change will require a commitment from the entire business community, the government and others in the public sector, and every one of us as individuals to recognize and address the socioeconomic and racial challenges facing our communities, and to examine—and confront—our own biases, regardless of the color of our skin.

Starbucks aspired to live its mission—not just in theory, but in truth. And to be a brand that earns trust not because of gloss or image, but because of its core character. That is an everyday act. And this is their ongoing story.

Vivek Varma is Chief Transformation Officer at Starbucks. He can be reached at vvarma@starbucks.com.

Keith Yamashita is Chairman and Founder of SYPartners. He can be reached at kyamashita@sypartners.com.