Five pieces of free advice for Starbucks

Nicole Sanchez
Apr 18, 2018 · 4 min read
Starbucks is one of the most recognizable brands around the world

Dear Starbucks Leadership:

Given all of the free wifi I’ve used over the years, I’d like to offer my expertise as you lead up to your company-wide training on May 29. Having trained thousands of employees across sectors on issues of diversity and inclusion (D&I) — and specifically on race in the workplace — I hope my guidance helps you plan. Starbucks getting this right would be huge for our country, not just those who pay close attention to D&I in business.

  1. Your current challenge is about race, specifically anti-Black racism.

If you want to fix this, the first step is to be honest with yourselves about where you are falling down on race at every level of the company, starting with executive leadership. No company can successfully shift culture at this magnitude without strong buy-in at the highest levels of the company. Simultaneously, no company can shift without engaging their own Black employees on solutions.

What we saw on the video of two Black men getting arrested while waiting for a friend in a Philadelphia Starbucks is not about “diversity” writ large. Nor is it about a nebulous group of “people of color” — it is about anti-Blackness. This was not an isolated incident, as any Black person in America could tell you. And if it isn’t Starbucks in their experience, it’s one of a million other retail outlets where Black people live, work, and shop. But it is Starbucks that now has the opportunity and responsibility to set an example for how to do this well. That begins with calling it what it is — only then can you begin to wrestle with solutions.

2. Unconscious bias is not the framework to use.

Unconscious bias is an interesting, very real phenomenon. Important work has been done on this issue as it relates to everything from car loan interest rates to courtroom convictions. It is not, however, what happened in the Philadelphia Starbucks. There was a tremendous amount of explicit bias present for a barista to target two Black men who were doing nothing out of the ordinary for any Starbucks in America. Using unconscious bias as a theoretical smokescreen holds companies back from upending discriminatory behaviors. Companies have warped the initial concept and now use it as the phenomenon du jour for making people feel less guilty about plain, old-fashioned racism.

Additionally, anyone worth their salt in this field will tell you that unconscious bias cannot be trained out of a person. When taught correctly, awareness of unconscious bias needs to be leveraged to build systems that can mitigate the bias (ex: removing names from resumes or having multiple people screen phone interviews). Emerging research shows that this current wave of unconscious bias trainings trainings may actually have the opposite of the desired effect. But it is much easier to say “this resides so deep in our subconscious that we don’t even know we’re doing it” than “we need to stop racism in our company.”

3. Do this training in person, not by video.

I am not certain how in five weeks time, 100,000+ people will be trained in one day other than by video. Please consider taking more time to implement a different model. Issues around race in particular stir up legitimate, difficult emotions for people from all backgrounds. Without skilled facilitation, the people who get hurt are likely to be the people who are already vulnerable in this situation. For example, employees of color — and Black baristas in particular — will be forced to do the in-person explaining to white colleagues for whom this may be their first foray into a conversation about race. This is an additional burden for a segment of your employee base, many of whom are currently left to field questions from their community about their employment with Starbucks.

Like when your company decided it wanted to take on the “Race Together” initiative in 2015, several of us cautioned that you did not have the capability to do this without serious facilitation training and support for baristas who would be on the hook for these conversations. Conversations about race are incredibly important, but when done poorly, people dig deeper into their entrenched mindsets rather than experience a transformation. As it currently stands, 80% of Millennials do not want to discuss race in mixed company; consider this context as you design the experience.

4. Manage expectations for a single training.

Effective training should be thought of as part of ongoing education, not a one-shot solution to something that ails you. This is certainly the case with race. If Starbucks wants to change the way baristas and other employees discuss, think about, and behave around issues of race and racism, consider a multi-part experience that allows employees to reflect in between sessions. Is this expensive? Of course it is. I cannot begin to guess how much revenue your company is forgoing by closing stores on May 29. However, it pales in comparison to the revenue you will gain if Starbucks takes the lead on how companies eradicate racism from their stores.

5. Normalize the topic in your stores

My current favorite book on race is So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Buy lots of copies and put them on the shelves of your stores. Other titles to consider are Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum and Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper. Like your stores have done with music, let these books permeate your customers’ collective consciousness. Help normalize the conversation about race and racism by providing access to the smartest people working on this today.


Nicole Sanchez, CEO and Founder, Vaya Consulting

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