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Why Starbucks chief Howard Schultz put himself at the center of America’s race debate

Starbucks chairman and chief executive Howard Schultz addresses the "Race Together" program during the coffee giant's annual shareholders' meeting Wednesday in Seattle. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

When Starbucks this week announced its "Race Together" campaign, the java giant triumphed that the idea "began with one voice": that of Howard Schultz, its chief executive, chairman and guiding billionaire.

"As racially-charged tragedies unfolded in communities across the country, [Schultz] didn't remain a silent bystander," the company wrote. "Schultz voiced his concerns with partners [employees] in the company’s Seattle headquarters and started a discussion about race in America."

The coffee chain's national campaign — in which baristas would be encouraged to write “Race Together” on cups of coffee while talking with customers about the country's racial tensions — marked only the latest high-profile act of activism for the Frappuccino firm's patriarch, a 61-year-old executive known for taking conspicuous social stands on education, gay rights and gun control.

But the company's marketing of Schultz as America's thought leader on race — especially attached to a campaign that was quickly being called self-serving and oversimplified — struck many as strangely reverent, if not tone-deaf.

Kate Taylor, a writer for Entrepreneur, wrote the "one voice" line painted Schultz "as a visionary progressive for daring to discuss race — something others, especially people of color, haven't exactly been silent on in recent months or the last couple centuries.”

Schultz has built a reputation by inserting himself at the center of some of the country's most intractable debates. He has asked customers not to bring guns into the company's omnipresent cafes. In 2013, when an investor complained about the coffee king's support of a same-sex marriage bill, Schultz told him he was free to sell his shares and invest somewhere else.

Schultz's heart-on-his-sleeve progressivism has helped to elevate him as a warm paragon of corporate responsibility: One of his stated mantras is "Don't be a bystander." But it has also proven to be a shrewd business tactic, serving to humanize Starbucks' world-spanning cafe empire, which through its ubiquity has become an icon of American corporate imperialism.

As Schultz told "60 Minutes" in 2006, when his 11,000-store chain was opening an average of five cafes a day, "We're not in the business of filling bellies. We're in the business of filling souls."

Schultz's rhetoric can trend toward the evangelical. "Not the speech of an entrepreneur, not the speech of an American corporate giant, but the speech of a pastor," as a young Rwandan entrepreneur

him in 2009.

After growing up poor in public housing, he is now one of the richest men in America, with a net worth of $2.6 billion. He has long touted this rags-to-riches story in public speeches and in his two books: Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time and Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul.

Yet "Race Together" marks perhaps Schultz's thorniest campaign to date. Many have panned the effort as a cursory and awkward awareness campaign little prepared to heal one of the country's deepest wounds.

"When you look at the [Department of Justice] report on Ferguson, it does not describe issues that can be addressed by increasing the number of chats in coffee shops. We’re talking about institutional, systemic issues," said radio personality and writer Jay Smooth during an appearance on MSNBC. "If we're talking so we can feel better about talking to each other, I'm not sure that’s productive."

Critics were also quick to point out that, though 40 percent of the company’s baristas are minorities, the leadership team Schultz is at the head of is overwhelmingly white.

"Race Together feels like a concept Schultz came up with over a single cup of espresso," Dan Hill, president of Washington crisis communications firm Ervin Hill Strategy, told USA Today. "I can't believe it was thoroughly vetted before launched."

As with his previous social stands, Schultz has upheld the campaign with signature obstinacy. On Wednesday, in one of Starbucks' more unusual annual investor meetings, Schultz and others spent more than 90 minutes addressing and defending "Race Together," while giving much shorter shrift to financial milestones, including a first-in-a-decade stock split.

He was at times pragmatic, saying, "I'm not going to stand here and tell you that Starbucks itself will solve the centuries-old problem of racism in America." But he also lapsed into corporatese, arguing that the kinds of buzzy campaigns that land Starbucks in the news are about far more than just selling lattes. "This is not some marketing or PR exercise. This is to do one thing: Use our national footprint and scale for good."

Schultz' reputation for conscious capitalism resembles that of another billionaire who helms a beloved West Coast mega-firm: Apple chief executive Tim Cook, who has loudly supported workplace equality and fought against gay and lesbian discrimination. Both men have helped rewrite the traditional corporate playbook, which long advised dodging touchy topics in an attempt to protect the bottom line.

When Starbucks has been portrayed in unflattering light — as it was last year, when a New York Times story highlighted the chaotic life and volatile schedule of a young barista — Schultz has stepped into the position of the monolithic firm's corporate conscience. The story, he told the Seattle Times, had led the firm to a bit of soul-searching, adding, “We are better than that, and we care more.”

Though criticism of "Race Together" has done little to curb Starbucks' stock price, which has climbed 5 percent so far this week, it has taken its toll on company leadership: Vice president of communications Corey duBrowa deleted his Twitter account after he said he was "personally attacked in a cascade of negativity."

But among it all, Schultz has responded only by doubling down.

“Conversations are being ignored because people are afraid to touch the issue," Schultz said at a January forum on race in New York. "But if I ignore this and just keep ringing the register, then I become part of the problem. So here we are. Let’s talk.”

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