A Better America

Published: October 18, 2017

By Jim Lichtman
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Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz is my kind of leader. He’s responsible to the bottom line, sure, but he’s also cognizant of the many issues facing the country.

In 2013, at the company’s annual meeting, a shareholder stood up to criticize Starbucks support of marriage equality, declaring, “In the first full quarter after this boycott was announced, our sales and our earnings, shall we say politely, were a bit disappointing,” said the shareholder, Tom Strobhar, whom the Huffington Post identifies at the founder of the anti-gay marriage Corporate Morality Action Center.

“Not every decision is an economic decision,” Schultz responded. “Despite the fact that you recite statistics that are narrow in time, we did provide a 38% shareholder return over the last year. I don’t know how many things you invest in, but I would suspect not many things, companies, products, investments have returned 38% over the last 12 months. Having said that, it is not an economic decision to me. The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company and we want to embrace diversity. Of all kinds.”

“At that point,” Forbes writes, “the audience interrupted in cheers and applause. Then Schultz concluded, ‘If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much.’ More cheers.”

I’ve written about Schultz before. His public statements and company policies have gone beyond politics to demonstrate America at its optimistic and common-sense best.

In October 2013 (Sign Here…), Schultz asked customers to sign a “Come Together” petition to motivate Washington to work together. Not a long document, but direct and clear-headed:

To our leaders in Washington, D.C. now’s the time to come together to:

  1. Reopen our government to serve the people
  2. Pay our debts on time to avoid another financial crisis.
  3. Pass a bipartisan, long-term budget deal by the end of the year.

In 2013, I chose Schultz a second time as Ethical Hero for two principled stands he took: banning smoking within 25 feet of his stores, wherever its leases allowed regardless of state laws; and a respectful appeal to patrons not to openly carry weapons in his stores despite state laws.

In part, the statement read:

“…we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas – even in states where ‘open carry’ is permitted – unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel. …

“First, this is a request and not an outright ban. Why? Because we want to give responsible gun owners a chance to respect our request – and also because enforcing a ban would potentially require our partners to confront armed customers, and that is not a role I am comfortable asking Starbucks partners to take on.

“Second, we know we cannot satisfy everyone. For those who oppose ‘open carry,’ we believe the legislative and policy-making process is the proper arena for this debate, not our stores. For those who champion ‘open carry,’ please respect that Starbucks stores are places where everyone should feel relaxed and comfortable. The presence of a weapon in our stores is unsettling and upsetting for many of our customers.”

Voters supported Schultz’s request 66% to 23%, including 52% to 35% in gun-owning households.

Last Tuesday, on CBS This Morning, Schultz took another dive into American issues with the launch of the second season of Upstanders, a series that features individuals taking action to make their communities better.

Schultz explained the series to CBS Morning Hosts Charlie Rose and Nora O’Donnell.

“ ‘The goal is there’s a better side to America than what’s coming out of Washington. Those stories are not being told,’ Schultz said. ‘I think the sense of humanity, compassion, empathy that’s going on in every city and every town around the country has to be told and we had so many stories. We picked 11, we could have had a thousand and I think people are longing for truth, authenticity.’

“That ‘false narrative’ from U.S. leaders, according to Schultz, is that America is politically divided. Schultz said they met a woman in Missoula, Montana, who, with no training and against the mentality about immigration in her state, brought refugees in from Syria.

“ ‘The divisiveness, the polarization and dysfunction, the lack of leadership, it’s not America,’ he said. ‘It’s going on in Washington, but the divisiveness is not how people act every single day. You know, we have so many stories that we’ve shown and there are differences of opinion on a number of issues, but people come together.’

Schultz made clear that the ‘Upstanders’ project isn’t about changing Washington’s disfunction.

“ ‘I don’t think Starbucks is in the business of changing behavior in Washington, but I think we have an opportunity, a really important opportunity to demonstrate that the country needs a more compassionate society and a more compassionate government and, in fact, it is going on every day,’ Schultz said

“ ‘…Washington does not define our behavior,’ he said. ‘We define our behavior.’

“While there have been many stories of humanity and compassion in the aftermath of recent hurricanes, Schultz believes catastrophe isn’t the reason they’re happening – it’s human kindness.

“ ‘People coming together in Houston is wonderful, but that’s happening not because of a catastrophe, it’s happening because of human kindness and that’s going on every day in America,’ he said. ‘We don’t need a hurricane to demonstrate the values and humanity of the country.’

“But Schultz isn’t placing particular blame on President Trump for the tone in Washington.

“ ‘No, I think I’m putting it – I mean listen, we’ve had polarization and dysfunction in Washington for a number of years,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately it’s gotten to a boiling point now where it’s almost impossible to wake up every day because you’ve got a different episodic situation and it does place a cloud over our society and I want to offset that by saying there’s something else going on – a better America.’ ”

And that’s the real point.

“We have an opportunity,” Schultz says, “to demonstrate that the country needs a more compassionate society and a more compassionate government, and, in fact, it is going on every day. I know there’s a better side to America and we have an opportunity to show it.”

You can be a part of the Upstanders project by posting your own story.


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