By Kevin Frazzini
John Kelly had two instructive encounters on his first day of work as Starbucks senior vice president of global responsibility and public policy in August 2013.
First, a barista who’d asked him how his day was going remarked that Starbucks was a “beautiful company.” Shortly after that, he was asked by company CEO Howard D. Schultz what he could do about the then-looming shutdown of the federal government.
The contrast, he said, illustrated the strength of the company’s internal culture and of its external sense of purpose—even when external events might seem beyond the reach of a single company, even the world’s coffee giant. Kelly’s remarks highlighted Tuesday morning’s general session at NCSL’s 2015 Legislative Summit.
Beyond an awareness of what’s happening in government, Starbucks’ sense of purpose includes a commitment to providing opportunity for its employees, minimizing its environmental impact and helping the farmers, workers and suppliers who are vital to the company’s success. Those priorities are a reflection of Schultz’s social conscience, Kelly said.
Kelly detailed four initiatives that embody the company’s mission. The first is its College Achievement Plan, which gives its employees—partners, as they’re known—the opportunity to earn a four-year college degree, free of charge and with no obligation to stay on at Starbucks. By 2025, the company estimates that 25,000 partners will have degrees, Kelly said.
The company has committed to hiring 10,000 veterans within five years. The initiative is open to veterans preparing to transition out of the service, to reservists and to military spouses. The company expects to reach the 5,000-hired mark this year, Kelly said. Veterans are the “most trainable people in the world,” he said. “If we put them to use we’ll all be better off.”
The Starbucks CUP Fund is a safety net for partners facing significant hardship because of catastrophic circumstances beyond their control. It’s funded by partner contributions and fundraising activities, and is administered by Starbucks, according to the company. Employees can qualify for financial assistance of up to $1,000.
The last of the initiatives Kelly discussed is perhaps the most ambitious—and controversial. “We cannot be a bystander,” he said. That was the impulse behind the much-criticized effort to promote discussion of racial issues by encouraging baristas to write “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups. “We got hammered for it,” he said.
The initiative ended in March, but the company will continue its effort to engage with its customers. “We’re doubling down,” he said, without being more specific. “Companies have a responsibility to do more, say more,” and to “talk about things that matter.”
Kelly ended on a note that linked corporate and personal responsibility: “It’s time we stop expecting so much from government and more from each other.” His message was a reminder that, even if they don’t always get it right, leaders—people or companies—will be engaged in their communities and will always be a part of the conversation. It is, indeed, a “beautiful” idea.
Kevin Frazzini is assistant editor of State Legislatures magazine.