Starbucks did something very uncharacteristic for a Fortune 500 company at its annual meeting in Seattle today.
Instead of limiting the conversation to proxy statements and financial results, the coffee giant talked extensively about a topic that is typically considered off limits in corporate America: race. Nevermind the standard cautions about forward-looking statements. Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz kicked off the event with a different kind of warning: “These meetings can be emotional.”
After being treated to tea and chocolate croissants in the lobby, shareholders sat through a three-hour event that was no doubt inspired by recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and New York.
But the topic of race wasn’t necessarily surprising. Schultz has been building up to this for the past few months.
Late last year, the company started hosting unscripted forums among its employees to talk about the subject of race, and earlier this week, the Seattle company announced a new program called “Race Together” that will allow baristas to discuss race with its customers. As part of the campaign, it has formed a partnership with USA Today, which will run the first of a series of inserts on Friday with information about race relations. Starbucks coffee shops also will stock the insert.
Critics of the marketing campaign accused Starbucks of injecting a bit of awkwardness with their cup of Joe, but that feedback didn’t stop the company from watering down the message today. “Do we have a right to bring this into the meeting and to share with you and discuss with you what we think we think should do?,” Schultz asked.
Apparently, it does.
Schultz said someone he’s relied on over the past 10 years for guidance on the topic of race relations is Starbucks board member Mellody Hobson, an African American woman and president of Ariel Investments. She was invited to the stage to share a portion of her popular TED talk, Color blind or color brave?
Immediately following was a surprise appearance by Common, who performed “Glory,” the gospel-influenced song for the movie Selma with John Legend at this year’s Grammy Awards. He spoke to the audience about his experiences as a black man, urging them to conduct simple acts of kindness.
“I’m proud to be able to say I came to a Starbucks shareholder meeting and the people were real,” said Common, who was supported by a healthy round of applause.
The day’s events ended with a stirring performance by Grammy Award-winning Jennifer Hudson, who concluded her set with the song “Hallelujah,” which she encouraged the audience to sing along to. Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
By the end of the three hours, Starbucks finally got around to the original purpose of the meeting: To hear from shareholders and add up the votes for the different measures on the proxy.
Perhaps shareholders were drained by the emotional journey, but the Q&A period contained almost no evidence of the previous conversation about race. Instead, questions revolved around table size at cafes, the lack of an overhang at one particular drive-thru in Yelm and two hard-hitting questions about the need for more gluten-free food in stores.
Finally showing a bit of humor after a long day of preaching, Schultz caved: “We’ve really screwed up on the gluten, I got it!!”