The Most Important Wisdom From The Starbucks CEO’s Recent Interview

Starbucks Holds Annual Shareholders Meeting
Getty Image

Howard Schultz, the big boss at Starbucks, wasn’t a founder of the company — he didn’t join the company until the 1980s — and yet his mark is indelible on the brand’s products, mission, and ethos. According to a new Forbes profile, which tracks the businessman’s stratospheric rise since taking over, he’s turned Starbucks into an incredibly profitable company. Mistakes? He’s made a few — everyone remembers the debacle that was last year’s “race together” campaign — but he’s also brought on amazing initiatives that help Starbucks give back and allow baristas to go to college. How does he do it? In part, it seems, Schultz’s success is due to the fact that he never allows himself to forget “the time when he was a nobody.” In fact, he sometimes likes to go to the original Starbucks location — never modernized, according to the profile — in the middle of the night to give himself some time to think and center himself. Is that where Schultz decided that this year’s holiday cup was going to be just plain red instead of offering a message of good cheer?

Who knows, but it was a huge win for the company.

The Forbes profile, which details both Schultz’s momentum as well as his missteps offers up a lot of wisdom. For instance, he’s not here to sell people on the idea that you have to go to college to become a success. He didn’t go to business school, and he’s a billionaire. But that’s because he was able to take his early bad fortune and turn it into something positive, instead of becoming embittered:

“I’m still this kid from Brooklyn who wanted to fight his way out,” Schultz says. He grew up in the 1960s in subsidized housing, steeped in the anxieties of a father who suffered workplace injuries and couldn’t hold a job. “I didn’t go to an Ivy League school,” Schultz reminds me. “I didn’t go to business school.” Instead of resenting those early deprivations, he treasures them. Schultz has discovered that America–and, in fact, the whole world–loves an up-from-hardship story. His candor about his beginnings in the gritty Canarsie section helps him strike a rapport with everyone from other chief executives to young black and Latino adults trying to find their first jobs. “Even though I don’t have the same color of skin,” Schultz explains, “I was one of those kids. I could have today been one of those kids.”


And he hasn’t given up on those ideals now that he’s insanely rich. While some might recline in their luxury penthouses content to watch the money roll in, Schultz is taking an active part in the 2016 elections, wanting to make Starbucks a place where people can gather to discuss issues not often associated with Starbucks, like race, religion, and who we’re all voting for.

More than anything, Schultz wants to become America’s conciliator-in-chief. He’s troubled by the angry tone in politics and everyday discourse, which makes him think that, as a country, we’ve ” lost our conscience.” Searching for inspiration, he’s traveled everywhere from veterans’ hospitals to an Indian ashram in the past year, asking people to share their stories and their beliefs. Now he wants Starbucks to be the place where people can get excited about voting again, where people can courteously discuss tough issues such as gun rights and race relations–and where “ we can elevate citizenship and humanity.”

The race discussion, of course, was a mistake, but that hasn’t stopped Schultz from innovating. He regularly speaks at events where managers and baristas come together to be motivated, and he’s taken a personal interest in the personal interests of not just the top-level management of his company, but of those people on the front lines. He’s trying to get their voices heard, their ideas to happen, and their education to flourish. While some CEOs might be upset by employees who question why they’re not getting vacation time after working so long, Schultz is willing to make some concessions to the fact that he, and not human resources, can sometimes make a major difference.

When one part-time employee wanted to know why he wasn’t getting much paid vacation time, Schultz started to lob the question toward a human-relations specialist in the audience–and then caught himself in mid sentence. “You know what?” Schultz declared. “You’ve been here 16 years. You deserve a vacation. We’re going to get you one.” The room burst into applause. Schultz came over to give the barista a hug, and someone snapped a picture.

Of course, there are those that believe that Schultz’s posturing is all public relations. His college initiatives, Ethos bottled water (it costs $1.80 and only 5 cents goes to charity, Bryant Simon points out), and other attempts to turn Starbucks into an experience of goodwill rather than just coffee could all be clever marketing. But people are getting degrees. And Schultz doesn’t seem like the type of guy who would openly lie to people just to make himself look good. Not if his stories of growing up poor and having to scrabble up are to be believed.

And there’s one more piece of wisdom that’s important here. Schultz always wanted to give back, but he tells junior execs, those who also want to make a difference that they “have to earn the right.” You don’t just roll into a board room and start discussing how much money’s going to charity and how you’re going to send all the employees to school. As the profile points out, Schultz spent years being a success for investors in order to gain their trust and make sure that when he did start pulling initiatives to give back out of his briefcase that people were on board.

The entire profile, if you have the time on your lunch break (you may even be at a Starbucks!) is worth a read. It may not change your entire outlook on life, but it will remind you that underdogs sometimes win and that even the richest men may come from the humblest of beginnings.