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Leadership

What’s the hardest thing Howard Schultz has ever done?

The former Starbucks CEO, who recently announced a possible White House bid, says that decision has been the toughest—not his years spent building the coffee giant.
Photograph courtesy of chicagoideas.com/press

It’s been little more than a week since former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced he’s considering running for president as an independent in the 2020 election.

It will be another three or four months before Schultz decides if he will launch a campaign. Already, though, Schultz—who built Starbucks from 11 stores to a global coffee goliath—calls the possibility of a White House bid “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“It’s much harder than Starbucks,” Schultz said to a packed auditorium in Chicago on Monday night during the kickoff event of the city’s annual Chicago Ideas Week symposium.

Schultz, promoting his new book, “From the Ground Up,” acknowledged that he has attracted widespread criticism across social media for his potential candidacy.

“I’m not trying to win the Twitter primary,” he told Ariel Investments President Mellody Hobson in the onstage interview. Hobson, who has served on Starbucks’ board since 2005, became vice chairwoman following Schultz’s retirement last June. “I’ve already lost that.”

Schultz, though, said his experiences with Starbucks, especially around racial issues, have shown him that there’s a place for an independent candidate in a deeply divided country.

“I am so profoundly concerned with the state of our country,” he said to applause. “I promise, I’m going to do nothing to be a spoiler and to re-elect Donald Trump. Nobody wants to see this president leave office more than me. … If I don’t see the evidence for me, I will back out. Our system is broken. Our politics are broken. And someone needs to try and change that.”

In the book and onstage, Schultz detailed a chaotic and physically abusive childhood that often led him to escape to the stairwell of his New York City apartment building.

Schultz said he realized later and with the help of therapy that the stairwell was his “third place,” a place of comfort that’s neither home nor school or work.

Starbucks has promoted itself as a third place gathering spot.

“So much of what I’ve been trying to do was to make life better for others,” Schultz said. “And I did it through Starbucks … to balance profit [with] doing the right thing for people.”

Schultz, who said he would run on a platform of ensuring financial security for all, has drawn criticism this week for recent comments in which he said he doesn’t like the word “billionaire” and instead prefers “people of means.”

Starbucks became the target of protesters last spring when two African-American men were accused of trespassing and arrested in a Philadelphia cafe. The incident happened several years after the coffee chain launched its Race Together campaign, in which it tasked baristas with opening up dialogue with customers about race relations.

“We just didn’t execute it well,” Schultz said of the failed Race Together initiative.

Following the arrests in Philadelphia, Schultz worried about long-lasting damage to the brand’s reputation.

“I was absolutely apoplectic that something like that could happen in a Starbucks store,” he told Hobson, noting that he worried “this is going to stay with us and stain the company forever.”

Since then, Starbucks has closed all U.S. units for a half-day training session on racial bias. It has also reworked employee training procedures and protocol for reporting potentially dangerous in-store incidents.

 

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