words of wisdom

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz: America Needs a Movement to ‘Recognize the Threat of Tyranny’

Schultz, at last night’s Ripple of Hope awards.

He may be stepping down from his CEO position at Starbucks, but Howard Schultz isn’t abandoning his vision of togetherness. The coffee-chain leader was honored last night (alongside Vice-President Joseph Biden and Guggenheim Partners’ investors chairman Scott Minerd) at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Ripple of Hope Award dinner, and in the final speech of the night, Schultz focused on the country’s uncertain future.

In the final acceptance speech of the night, Schultz not only talked about Starbucks’ core progressive values and its focus on community and equality, but also the optimism that was instilled in him as a boy when he saw John F. Kennedy stump for president. But it was America’s uncertain future that was most on his mind. Schultz urged the star-studded audience to form a movement, and to find the moral courage to recognize the “threat of tyranny,” a not-so-subtle reference to the current president-elect.

Schultz began by asking those seated in the audience to think about the word humanity:

We haven’t seen that much of that in the last couple of years. And certainly the presidential-election cycle, the lack of civility, the lack of respect. It really I think began to remind us that perhaps we as a people and as a country have lost something of ourselves. Almost to the point where you could ask yourself a rhetorical question about has America lost its conscience. For me, it’s easy to not be optimistic. And I must say that during these last couple of years and certainly the results of the election, it makes for a lot of questions about the direction of the country and where we as a people are going. But I remain optimistic because I see optimism in every Starbucks store, in every community around the country. I see kindness among our customers. I see leadership from our people and I see the deep sense of community that exists in every store as people are longing and hungry for human connection. That optimism for a kid who grew up on the other side of the tracks and public housing in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, it happened for me at an early age — that optimism despite living in the projects.

Schultz brought up the time he went with his mother to see then-Senator John F. Kennedy speak in Brooklyn in 1960:

I could feel my mother’s hand grip mine tighter and tighter as he spoke about the fact that your station in life should not and will not define you. Because in our country that is not the promise of America, that is not the American Dream. I looked up at my mother and I could see the glow on her face. And from that day on, she had a belief that anything would be possible, even for a family who struggled to pay $98-a-month rent in the Bayview projects. Now that was optimism, and that optimism carried me through all these years, and I’m living proof, living proof of the American Dream. If I took you today back to those projects, which look worse today than they did when I was a kid, it’s almost impossible, impossible that one can get from there to here and receive this kind of prestigious award on a night like tonight sitting next to Ethel Kennedy and the vice-president of the United States.

But, Schultz said, optimism is not enough. Beyond hope, people need to be willing to do more:

We need a movement. We need a movement of a large group of people who are unwilling to embrace the status quo and recognize the threat of tyranny. You can link that optimism to moral courage. And as we heard tonight from every speaker, every video, a common thread of the legacy of Robert Kennedy is his moral courage, day in and day out. We also heard about what happened in 1968 when he stood on the back of a flatbed truck and spoke about nonviolence against the counsel of the advisers he had, because of the danger of the situation. And he spoke about three things — really when you break down that speech, it’s three things: It’s empathy, it’s compassion, and it’s love. Empathy, compassion, and love. And I go back to the feeling, the thought, the term humanity. Where have we gone? What is happening between us? When Kerry [Kennedy] visited us in Seattle just a few weeks ago, at the end of a really positive day, we started talking about where we are as a country, where we are as a people and I asked her, “What would your father do right now?” She didn’t even blink, not even for a second, “He’d be standing up. He’d be standing up for what he believed in and he’d be standing up for the people who did not have a voice.”

We’re all gonna go home from this night back to the lives we lead and if you look at the history books, there are many, many examples in other countries in other years in other centuries where there was a feeling of indifference. Where we ignored the signs and the signals. And I would submit to you today as citizens, forget the government, forget the elected officials, forget the president-elect just for the moment and realize that we have a responsibility. That we have to start taking this very, very personally and realize the responsibility that we have to the people who came before us as well as the responsibility we have toward our children and our grandchildren about the promise of America and the American Dream. We cannot allow the continuation of the fracturing of trust and confidence, of the lack of truth, the lack of authentic leadership, to take us in a direction that most of us in this country know is fool’s gold.

This is a serious time, a very serious time for all of us in the country, and all of us who represent other people around the world who are asking the very serious question. And the question is: Is it really possible, is this the direction that the country is really going? So trying to link what it means to be optimistic with the moral courage to recognize that we need a collective, a movement, and a recognition of individual and collective responsibility not to accept the status quo and not to accept what we know is a direction that is against the grain and against everything that we heard tonight that was about compassion, empathy, and love. The promise of America and the American Dream.

Schultz went on to discuss his company’s desire to leverage its platform and scale “for good.” In talking about Starbucks’ willingness to take on conversations about race, he mentioned the company’s store in Ferguson, as well as a new store in Johannesburg, South Africa:

I had never been to South Africa and I didn’t realize when we arrived in Johannesburg that there were preparations taking place in Cape Town for the 50th anniversary to commemorate the Ripple of Hope speech by Robert Kennedy. I didn’t realize that. What I did realize when we were opening the store in Johannesburg that the unfortunate thread between Ferguson, Missouri, and Johannesburg, a lifetime away, was virtually in sync. And that was a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity and prejudice.


As I sat down with these kids in South Africa and heard their personal story and walked the townships with them, I kept hearing a word I had never heard before, over and over again. An African word, and finally I got the courage, I said, “What is that word you keep saying? What is it?” And it was almost like they could not wait to rise up and tell me the word. Unbuntu. I said, “What does Unbuntu mean?” I am because of you. I am because of you. And I almost had tears on my face when they were sharing with me what it means. They have so little and yet they are because of us. So I thought about what could I possibly say tonight, especially following the choir, Vice-President Biden, Scott Minerd, Alec Baldwin. What could I possibly say? I can imagine with great respect to Mrs. Kennedy and all the Kennedys that are here. I can imagine Robert Kennedy saying, “I am because of you.” And I say to all of you. At a time in America when the American people are facing such a crucible of history, we need to be, because of each other. Thank you very much.
Starbucks CEO: America Must Recognize ‘Threat of Tyranny’