It's fair to say that the Starbucks campaign to bring racial dialogue to a coffee shop near you is off to a rocky start. The announcement Tuesday that it has encouraged its baristas to discuss race relations with customers attracted a mix of incredulity, scorn, and mockery. And worse.
But Wednesday, the company will put a little more of its money where its mouth is, announcing a new hiring plan focused on what CEO Howard Schultz says are the millions of young Americans, mainly African American and Latino, that are both unemployed and out of school. The plan is a sequel of sorts to a previous commitment to hire 10,000 veterans and their spouses, which was first announced in 2013.
"We're going to make another hiring commitment, for disenfranchised and disconnected youth," Schultz said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. "One thing we can do is recognize that these young people need a sense of belonging, they need self-esteem. And one of the things we all know that gives someone self-esteem and belonging is a job."
Schultz plans to outline details of the hiring plan at the Starbucks annual shareholder meeting Wednesday, which he said will be themed around race relations. At the meeting, Starbucks board member Mellody Hobson, the president of investment firm Ariel Investments and one of the most prominent black financial executives in the country, will present a version of "Color Blind Or Color Brave?," her 2014 TED Talk.
The 15-minute presentation, which made the case for diversity in corporate hiring and more open conversations about race, has been viewed online more than 1.5 million times. Wednesday, it will get a reprise in front of Starbucks shareholders, management, and staff.
"Of the thousands of publicly traded companies today — thousands — only two are chaired by black women," Hobson said in the talk. "And you're looking at one of them. The same one who not too long ago was nearly mistaken for kitchen help."
Schultz is a big fan of Hobson's talk, which suggests he should have foreseen at least some of the response to his company's announcement of racial dialogue in its stores. Bringing up race, Hobson said in the talk, "is literally the conversational equivalent of touching the third rail. There is shock, followed by long silence." But in the case of Starbucks, the silence part hasn't quite played out.
Americans will be seeing a lot more of the campaign later this week. Beginning Friday, Starbucks will publish an eight-page newspaper supplement in USA Today, which will also be distributed in its stores. According to USA Today:
The supplement includes race relations "conversation starters," including one fill-in-the-blank question that simply asks: In the past year, I have been to the home of someone of a different race ___ times." It also encourages readers to tweet responses to questions at #RaceTogether such as: How have your racial views evolved from those of your parents?
Schultz's motivation for the new campaign was "the dramatic events in St. Louis, New York, Cleveland," which he said "dramatically affected" him. The police killings and protest movements that followed made him consider how Starbucks, where minorities make up 40% of the staff, could "elevate the national conversation" about race.
"I've been a very active voice in the past couple of years stating my disappointment and concern with regard to the dysfunction and polarization in Washington," Schultz said. "As a result of that, I have said as business leaders, as businesses, and as citizens, we can't continue to wait for Washington. We have to do more ourselves. As businesses we need to take care of the communities we are serving, and do more for our people. So the one thing we can do is elevate this conversation and the critical importance of it and try and influence as many people as we can."
Aside from conversations, the company's practices as an employer can also set an example, he said, citing policies including comprehensive health insurance, a stock option program, and 401(k) matching, available for part-time and full-time employees. Last year, the company announced it would contribute to the tuition costs of employees who enrolled for online degrees via Arizona State University.
The interest in running a company that engages with social issues comes in part, Schultz said, from growing up poor, in public housing in Canarsie, a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. The way Starbucks treats employees, he said, is the result of "trying to build the kind of company my father never got the chance to work for."
The most visible part of the company's new campaign — baristas writing "Race Together" on coffee cups — is not the first time Schultz has used a Starbucks cup as a kind of minimalist campaigning platform. During the fiscal cliff budgetary showdown of 2012, the company encouraged baristas in Washington, D.C., to write "Come Together" on cups, in an appeal against the political dysfunction Schultz so derides.
Schultz has long maintained that Starbucks sets an example for social responsibility in the food and drink business, and the company has gained some high-profile fans in the industry. Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer recently told BuzzFeed News that he sees Starbucks, along with Whole Foods and Chipotle, as "a tipping point in terms of America having highly successful chains that speak to consumers, care about their communities, care for their employees, and make money for their shareholders."
Tom Gara is the opinion editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Tom Gara at email@example.com.
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