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In Schultz’s view, the bully pulpit belongs in the corner office. But taking stands also makes you a target. A few weeks ago, John Oliver joyously sent up Schultz for Starbucks' “Race Together” program, which had baristas, in part, writing that phrase on coffee cups as a way to stoke conversations. “I think it’s pretty clear that no one has said 'No' to this guy in 25 years,” said Oliver.
When I asked Schultz his reaction to Oliver and the legions of online critics, he gave a pained smile. Then he launched an impassioned take on why he’s not giving up. “We expected that there would be a blowback,” he says. “I don't think we expected the social media and the Twitter thing to get this loud, but that's not going to deter me or the company from what we believe is our responsibility to try and make the country better and to try and heal.” (More on that part of our interview later this week.)
Race Together came from a top-down decision by Schultz that Starbucks had to be a healing force. The college program came from bottom-up demand. When Starbucks asked its employees for the one benefit they’d like to add, 70% named access to college.
It’s not surprising that Schultz would see this as a perk worth accommodating — and not just with vouchers. Going big on education could start a shockwave, not just boosting employee engagement scores. Offering education to everyone would solve workplace issues (making Starbucks a more in-demand employer); political ones (Starbucks could fix the growing student loan crisis in a way that Washington couldn’t); business ones (making customers proud to buy there) — and even societal ones.
“My mother drilled into me that ‘you are going to college,’” says Schultz, who grew up working-poor in the projects of Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood. “So there was no way I wasn't going to college in some way. Second, she instilled in all of us this level of self-esteem that our station in life was not going to define us. That’s the promise of America and the American dream was and is real. And I believe that today. That's why I fight so hard for the things that I believe threaten it. That the American promise, the American dream has to be available to everybody.”