Belonging, ethics, Starbucks – and what you say ‘No’ to

What would you say no to?

It’s a great question to ask if you want to see how ethical your culture is.

How does this play at Starbucks?

I’m sitting in Starbucks in Covent Garden. My first time in a Starbucks for some time. Partly I wanted a cup for the photo above. And, in the interests of fairness, to experience a company I’ve tended to avoid.Starbucks seemed to say ‘No’ to taxes for quite a while, had some bad press suggesting it was grumpy it couldn’t quite say ‘No’ to homeless people hanging around a branch nursing one cup of tea all day, and recently said ‘No’ (pretty soon after saying ‘Yes’) to its rather blighted #racetogether campaign.But last week it said ‘No’ in a way that may have brought it more of an ethical glow in a few minutes’ exchange at a shareholder meeting than in the previous ten years.At Starbucks’ annual general meeting in Seattle last week a shareholder was disgruntled that the company had lost value because of its overt stance supporting gay marriage. 

The far-right Christian lobby had organised a boycott of Starbucks which apparently affected sales. The shareholder was identified by Huffington Post as Tom Strobhar, founder of anti-gay-marriage pressure group Corporate Morality Action Centre.Without blinking, CEO Howard Schultz responded with

“Not every decision is an economic decision… I don’t know how many things you invest in, but I would suspect not many things, companies, products, investments have returned 38% over the last 12 months.

Having said that, it is not an economic decision to me. The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity. Of all kinds.”

And then, the clear-cut ‘no’:

“If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year, it’s a free country.
You can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much.”

The audience rose in cheers and applause.

From the rough film clips on news sites and YouTube it seems this was an on the spur response to an impromptu question. Though sometimes canny investor relations teams have an idea of the issues that may be raised by activist investors, this seems the real McCoy: a moral stand by a leader with conviction. 

It’s a straightforward rejection of the investor, his ethics, and his cash.

If you don’t share our values, then don’t question our value: We don’t want your money.

Howard Shultz has taken a stand behind what the company believes in. Belonging to Starbucks – as an employee or as an investor – means ensuring everybody can belong on an equal-footing. And if you don’t believe in that, then you don’t belong.

Purpose over profit? It’s both, of course.
More importantly: ethos.
And that’s the heart of belonging, at the heart of business.

It’ll be interesting to see if any other big corporations are prepared to say no, quite so openly, to defend what they believe in.

Maybe we’re beginning to nurture early seedlings of a new capitalism.

How would that feel to belong to?

So, what would you say ‘no’ to? 

And, in your organisation, would your CEO stand up boldly for what you all belong to?

At Belonging Space we help organisations put ethos and purpose at the heart of their business, and create a sense of belonging.