Howard Schultz had just returned from a trip to Poland, where he had a sobering experience at the Auschwitz concentration camp. At the time, he was on the eBay board of directors, and decided to start browsing the e-commerce site to see if anything being sold was even remotely connected to Nazi Germany.
Schultz was shocked to find the number of eBay users profiting off that time in history. He walked into the next eBay board meeting with a question: What is eBay’s purpose as a company if we are selling these products?
“It was a very important moment,” Schultz recalled at an event in Seattle on Thursday evening. “The leadership had to decide: are we in the business of making a profit off anything that can go on the site? Or are we also in the business of making sure we are not adding to a moment in our history that we all need to remember, but not profit from?”
It’s a similar question that many tech giants, from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube, are still grappling with today as they face increased scrutiny about their company’s impact on society.
Schultz, the long-time Starbucks leader who stepped down as chairman this summer, stopped by The Riveter on Thursday for a fireside chat with Maynard Webb, the former eBay COO who just released a business advice book called Dear Founder. Schultz wrote the foreword for the book, which are “letters of advice for anyone who leads, manages, or wants to start a business.”
The eBay story was part of a series of lessons Schultz imparted to the audience about how business leaders must think about their company’s core values beyond the bottom line.
“From Day 1 at Starbucks, we were trying to build a different kind of company — a company that would balance profit and conscious and demonstrate that success is best when it’s shared,” he said.
Schultz, who led Starbucks as CEO for more than two decades and is a rumored presidential candidate for 2020, said establishing an early culture and guiding principles at a company is what will build a “foundation.” Asked about advice for young professionals that want to become leaders, Schultz compared launching a company to raising a child.
“When you start a company, you are in this imprinting stage,” he explained. “It’s like having a newborn child. You try to give the child self-esteem, values, and confidence, but you’re also trying to create behavior consistent with your own family. When you start a company, the early decisions you make will imprint a foundation.”
Schultz added that human resources functions at a company should “have a seat at the big table.”
“Everyone one of us here, regardless of product or service, we are all in the people business,” he said. “It’s the humanity of a company that is going to create the long term value. Without humanity and without values, you end up with a company that perhaps makes money, but doesn’t stand for anything and really has nothing to be proud of. So, lead with your heart.”