America Is Divided. Starbucks Really Wants to Help.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If Howard Schultz were running for president, I would vote for him.

He wouldn’t have a prayer, of course. As competitive as he is as a businessman, he lacks the cynicism, the ruthlessness and the willingness to say whatever you have to, to get elected. The Starbucks Corp. executive chairman is 64, and he’s built the coffee company into one of the most recognizable brands in the world — yet he has an innocence about him, an unironic sincerity, that I find both endearing and ennobling.

In 2011, angered by the partisan conflict in Washington, and fearing that the American Dream was becoming ever more out of reach for most Americans, Schultz called on business leaders to withhold campaign contributions until Congress and President Barack Obama came up with a bipartisan plan to get the country back on track.

About the same time, he set up a program to make small-business loans to companies that were having trouble getting credit. Customers could even participate.

In 2015, after the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida and Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, Schultz began his “Race Together” campaign, which included long, heartfelt meetings with Starbucks employees as well as a proposal to encourage conversations about race in Starbucks stores. This latter aspect, you may recall, was lampooned mercilessly, and the program was viewed as a flop — but Starbucks now has coffee shops in Ferguson and other areas of the country rarely served by upscale stores.

Concerned about the plight of veterans, Schultz hired the great Washington Post war correspondent, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, to co-author a book titled “For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism and Sacrifice.” Schultz also pledged to hire 10,000 veterans — a number he raised to 25,000 last year.

Now Schultz is at it again. After last month’s notorious incident at a Starbucks store in Philadelphia — when a Starbucks manager had two black men arrested and escorted out in handcuffs while they were waiting for a friend — the company is holding four hours of racial bias training for 175,000 employees on Tuesday afternoon.

All U.S. stores will be closed while the training is going on. The curriculum is said to be intense. Executives expect that some of the conversations will be highly charged. The store closure will cost Starbucks an estimated $12 million. That’s not a lot of money for a company with annual revenue over $23 billion — but it’s not nothing either.

Is it really possible for a company the size of Starbucks to eradicate racial bias among its employees and make every customer who walks in for a cup of coffee feel “seen, respected and uplifted,” as the bias curriculum pamphlet puts it? Most people would say no. Howard Schultz says yes.

And is it plausible that Starbucks can be a company that helps bring Americans together, which is Schultz’s ultimate goal? Again, most people would be dubious. But Schultz would say yes.

“The foundation of our company is steeped in creating a sense of community and human connection around coffee,” he told me Monday afternoon. Almost from the moment he bought the then-tiny chain in 1987, he had the idea that Starbucks could emulate the European coffee shop model, where people could sit in a store for hours, where they could read the paper or strike up a conversation or get some work done.

He called it the Third Place — neither home nor office, but an environment where people felt welcome — and to a large degree, that is what Schultz is trying to re-instill on Tuesday afternoon. It’s a lot harder to do now that Starbucks has nearly 27,000 stores, rather than the 11 it had in 1987: “There are systematic societal issues we didn’t have to deal with back then,” he said. “Homelessness, racial division, the opioid crisis.” Nonetheless he is insisting that the bathrooms be open to all, whether the user buys coffee or not, and that the stores allow anyone to sit and rest, so long as they are not creating a disturbance.

“Our aspiration is to be welcoming,” Schultz told me. He continued:

One thing we’ve learned over the years is that there is an epidemic of loneliness that is emerging in the country. The longing people have for connection is real. I do feel strongly that the polarization and vitriolic behavior in Washington has given license for people to act in ways that causes you to ask yourself what kind of country you want to live in. You can’t embrace the promise of America unless you love your fellow countrymen. Those values need to be regained.

The racial bias training, he said, was a demonstration of “what we think is important and what is our responsibility as a company.”

I understand how easy it is to be cynical about words like these. On the page, they can sound as programmed as anything Mark Zuckerberg might say about Facebook Inc. “bringing people together.” They can be dismissed as an exercise in public relations. But if you’ve followed Schultz over the years — or if you know him even casually as I do — you can’t doubt his sincerity.

His employees don’t seem to doubt it. Over the last few days, whenever I stopped into a Starbucks, I asked the baristas, both black and white, whether they were looking forward to the training. My tone was mildly sardonic, and I expected a lot of eye-rolling, but that’s not what I got. “I’m really excited,” said one woman. “I’m so proud to work for this company,” said another.

If the Philadelphia incident shows anything, it illustrates how hard it is to eradicate racial bias in a company the size of Starbucks. Even before Tuesday’s training, Schultz and Starbucks had done far more than most companies to instill the Third Place as a core value, and to emphasize its roots as a place that welcomed one and all. Yet with all that, a store manager still had two black men arrested.

To me, though, what matters most is that Starbucks and Schultz keep trying. You can call that naïve if you want. I call it a beacon of hope in a cynical world.

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