Students Pour In to See Silk Speaker

About 650 students, faculty, staff, and community members — including 100 Starbucks partners (employees) — packed War Memorial Gym to see Starbucks president and CEO, Kevin Johnson, speak as part of the University’s Silk Speaker Series. 

The talk was moderated by School of Management professor Sonja Martin Poole and emceed by Johnson’s son, Michael Johnson ‘10. 

The older Johnson, a friend of then-CEO Howard Schultz, joined the Seattle-based coffee company in 2009 as a member of the board of directors. In 2013, he became president of Starbucks, finally becoming CEO in 2017 after Schultz stepped down.

Michael told the audience that he was thrilled to return to the Hilltop, as education is a No. 1 priority for him and his family. Prior to Kevin Johnson taking the stage, a promotional video played, touching on Starbucks’ social responsibility initiatives such as hiring veterans and military spouses, making sure the company is inclusive to the LGBTQ community, and opening a store with deaf partners who use sign language to take orders.

The video showcased the now-infamous incident from a Philadelphia Starbucks in 2018, in which two African American men were arrested after a store manager called the police when they refused to leave; the two men had been waiting for a friend. Kevin Johnson noted that he was profoundly impacted by the incident in Philadelphia, saying the company was founded on the “third place experience,” where people can feel comfortable and welcome outside of their home and office. 

“On that day in Philadelphia, we failed,” Kevin Johnson said. “We have to acknowledge that we were accountable for us failing.”

As a result of the incident, he decided to close all stores to hold an anti-bias training. He explained that all partners, from store employees to senior leadership, participated in that day of training, and new modules have since been added for partners to update their training.

When asked if he received any criticism for his decision, Kevin Johnson noted that “race relations in America [is] a topic that we have struggled with for 100 years, and that there will always be people criticizing [what we did].”

Kevin Johnson said that the decision to close was not a decision that he took lightly and provided insight into his own decision-making process, which is as follows: he often envisions two empty chairs in front of him, with one chair representing a Starbucks partner and one chair representing a customer. For him, every decision should make both the partner and customer proud, and he believed that what he did in shutting down stores was right.

Poole peppered Kevin Johnson with questions during the hour-long talk, focusing on his mission to make Starbucks a socially responsible company. Foundational in his mission is the philosophy that the “pursuit of profit is not in conflict of the pursuit of doing good.” He believes that it is his responsibility to make sure Starbucks changes lives, through positively impacting the lives of partners, customers, or their suppliers.  

In response to Poole’s question regarding social change, Kevin Johnson spoke to Starbucks’ belief in the “power of one.” According to him, Starbucks serves “one person, one cup at a time, one store at a time,” and he noted that this attitude “can change one neighborhood at a time.” He talked about initiatives like their program for partners to work part-time and concurrently earn a bachelor’s degree, online, through Arizona State University, which is paid for by the company and echoes his belief that “every partner is a leader.”

Kevin Johnson also expressed concerns over climate change, adding that Starbucks could make coffee the first sustainable agricultural product — he mentioned the company’s initiatives such as their “next cup challenge” (designing the most eco-friendly cup) and the move to eliminate plastic straws.

One of many life lessons that the CEO shared was his belief that people should prioritize what they need to do while having fun and only doing joyful things in life. He shared an anecdote in which, shortly after being diagnosed with melanoma, he was at San Francisco International Airport canceling his medical appointments in order to board a flight to Europe for a business trip. During this process, he realized that life is short, and he needed to prioritize his health over anything else.

To close the event, Kevin Johnson told the audience that a piece of advice he would give his younger self would to be authentic. 

“Being authentic requires a journey of self-discovery that gives one the confidence to be vulnerable,” he said.

After the talk, Poole told the Foghorn that she believed that Kevin Johnson’s point about authenticity was the biggest takeaway of the night. “I think that students really got that. I mean, I know I did. So I thought it was very inspiring.”

“You know, this is a company that thinks about what they’re doing, thinks about the impact on the world, thinks about not only, you know, doing well, obviously in their business, and employing good business models, but taking care of their employees,” Poole said. “The lessons that were emphasized in the talk were lessons that I am constantly telling my students.”


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