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Taking aim at Trump policies, Starbucks CEO vows to hire 10,000 refugees over five years

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, pictured in December, told employees “we will neither stand by, nor stand silent, as the uncertainty around the new administration’s actions grows with each passing day.” (Richard Drew / Associated Press)
By Jena Mcgregor Washington Post

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz added a coffee magnate’s voice to the chorus of tech industry executives who spoke out over the weekend against President Donald Trump’s travel ban order, announcing plans for the coffee behemoth to hire 10,000 refugees over five years in 75 countries, initially focusing on those who served as interpreters or as support personnel for U.S. military.

In an impassioned letter Sunday to Starbucks employees, Schultz reiterated the company’s backing of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Dick Durbin’s, D-Ill., support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He also described the company’s work of “building bridges, not walls, with Mexico” following Trump’s border wall directive Wednesday, and shared his worries about Trump’s order temporarily prohibiting U.S. entry for migrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

“I write to you today with deep concern, a heavy heart and a resolute promise,” Schultz opened his letter. “We are living in an unprecedented time, one in which we are witness to the conscience of our country, and the promise of the American Dream, being called into question.”

The statement was praised by many, but it also was met with anger. By Monday morning, #BoycottStarbucks was the highest trending topic on Twitter.

Schultz’s memo to employees spoke out against Trump’s policies at a time when many CEOs have touted the jobs they will create or stayed largely quiet as Trump – known for using Twitter to lash out at his critics – began his presidency. It was also notable for the extent to which he openly acknowledged the anxieties and concerns his employees have been expressing.

Schultz said that he and Kevin Johnson, who will replace Schultz as CEO in April, are “hearing the alarm you all are sounding that the civility and human rights we have all taken for granted for so long are under attack, and want to use a faster, more immediate form of communication to engage with you on matters that concern us all.”

Schultz went on to address actions he said would “ensure you are clear that we will neither stand by, nor stand silent, as the uncertainty around the new administration’s actions grows with each passing day.”

One of these, he said, would be to hire more refugees. “We are doubling down on this commitment by working with our equity market employees as well as joint venture and licensed market partners in a concerted effort to welcome and seek opportunities for those fleeing war, violence, persecution and discrimination,” he said.

Schultz said Starbucks would begin “by making the initial focus of our hiring efforts on those individuals who have served with U.S. troops as interpreters and support personnel.” (In sharing the letter, a company spokesman said Starbucks would not comment further on it.)

Schultz also reiterated the support the company expressed in a letter last week for “dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. He tried to reassure employees they would be able to return to the company’s health benefits without waiting for open enrollment if the Affordable Care Act ends up being repealed.

And he detailed the company’s relationship with Mexico, where it has 600 stores and sources coffee: “We stand ready to help and support our Mexican customers, partners and their families as they navigate what impact proposed trade sanctions, immigration restrictions and taxes might have on their business and their trust of Americans.”

For many CEOs, a letter with such lofty rhetoric addressing political hot-button matters would be unusual, but not for Schultz. He has long been more willing than most CEOs of companies Starbucks’ size to speak out on societal issues, fueling a brand identity carefully constructed around corporate responsibility and community mindedness.

In 2013, Schultz told an investor he could sell his shares if he didn’t like the company’s stance on same-sex marriage, and he has been credited for company programs that have offered college education benefits and hired young, minority workers and veterans. Other efforts have been panned, such as his “Race Together” campaign to get baristas and customers talking about race. Many saw it as tone deaf, an overreach in bringing political topics into a business transaction.

In March, Starbucks put together a series of online videos designed to teach lessons on civic engagement; he also spoke openly at Starbucks’ annual meeting for investors about the lack of civility and leadership in the country.

“There are moments when I’ve had a hard time recognizing who we are and who we are becoming,” Schultz told shareholders. “We are facing a test not only of our character but of our morality as a people.”

As a result, he has repeatedly faced questions about whether he’s interested in higher office. In an op-ed in the New York Times last August, Schultz said he has “no intention of entering the presidential fray,” though in a September interview on CNN, he didn’t entirely rule out a run. “I’m still a young man. Let’s see what the future holds.”

Later, Schultz added, “I determined for myself that at this time, I can do more as a private citizen and as the CEO of a public company to advance the causes that I think are important for the country and for our company.”

In his letter Sunday, Schultz did not just express his own concerns; he also made a direct appeal to employees to get involved in the political process.

“If there is any lesson to be learned over the last year, it’s that your voice and your vote matter more than ever. We are all obligated to ensure our elected officials hear from us individually and collectively,” Schultz wrote. “Starbucks is doing its part; we need you to use the collective power of your voices to do the same while respecting the diverse viewpoints of the 90 million customers who visit our stores in more than 25,000 locations around the world.”

He closed by trying to reassure employees.

“We are in business to inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time – whether that neighborhood is in a Red State or a Blue State; a Christian country or a Muslim country; a divided nation or a united nation,” Schultz wrote. “That will not change. You have my word on that.”