- For years, rumors have flown about Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz running for office. In the past year, Schultz’s involvement in political and social causes has escalated after President Trump’s election over Hillary Clinton, which whom Schultz reportedly has a close relationship. Current and former employees are split over whether Schultz – who one person said leads “with heart” – would be a good president, or if he’d fall short of the lofty ideas he espouses. One former longtime employee said she’d estimate a 50% chance that Schultz runs for office.
Howard Schultz says he isn’t running for president, but he sure acts like he is.
“I believe strongly in the promise of America,” Schultz, Starbucks‘ chairman and former longtime CEO, said at a screening of Starbucks’ “Upstanders” series on Monday. “What’s coming out of Washington in many ways – the lack of leadership, the lack of authenticity, lack of civility – is not the narrative or the story of America.”
An attendee sitting in the darkened audience whispered, “It sounds like he’s running for president.”
Schultz isn’t campaigning – on Monday, he told Reuters that he had no plans to run for office – but rumors of political aspirations have dogged the Starbucks leader for years.
According to people who have worked with Schultz, the entrepreneur has long fostered a deep interest in politics and a feeling of “responsibility” to effect change in the US. One former employee who worked with Schultz closely for almost a decade told Business Insider she estimated that chances were 50-50 on whether he would run or not.
Some pollsters are already tracking Schultz. Morning Consult, a nonpartisan survey company, placed Schultz at 21% favorability among Democrats, based on a national sample of 895 registered members of the party in June.
Starbucks declined to comment on Schultz’s rumored political aspirations. Starbucks’ chairman may never run for president, but for years he’s been refining a progressive political message of a unified America.
- Stephen Brashear / Getty
Rumors about Schultz running for office have been floating around for years, mostly because he keeps doing things that make it seem like he’s going to run.
In 2011, Schultz encouraged people not to donate to political campaigns until the government addressed national debt. In 2015, he spearheaded the “Race Together” campaign to address police brutality and racism. In a 2015 New York Times op-ed celebrating bipartisan leadership, Schultz said he wasn’t running for office, “despite the encouragement of others.”
Schultz’s political efforts have ramped up even more in the past year.
“One and a half years ago, during campaign season, we began to get quite concerned with the vitriol, and the hate, and the lack of respect in American society,” Schultz said on Monday. “And we know there’s a different narrative. There’s different stories. And those stories are in every town and every city and every state in America.”
In September 2016, Schultz endorsed Clinton for president – his first time publicly endorsing a candidate.
In December, he announced plans to step down as CEO, saying he would instead be focusing on Starbucks’ “social missions” as chairman. Since then, he’s blasted Trump’s attempt to bar refugees from entering the US, written in the Financial Times about national identity after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, and launched the second season of “Upstanders.”
“He always had an interest in politics and always surrounded himself” with politically minded people, another former Starbucks employee who worked closely with Schulz for close to a decade said. “But very quietly.”
Schultz’s connections with politics go deeper than many realize, according to two former employees. In addition to some degree of familiarity with the Bush family and President Jimmy Carter, Schultz apparently has a close relationship with the Clintons, according to one source who spoke with Business Insider.
Starbucks’ current president of US retail was Bill Clinton’s aide from 1997 to 2000, and Schultz emailed Hillary Clinton during the election about how to “emotionally reach and touch the American people.” Clinton reportedly planned to appoint Schultz as her secretary of labor had she been elected president. If Schultz were to run for office, he would most likely turn to the Clintons for advice, according to one former employee.
“If President Clinton said he should run for office, he would do it,” the ex-corporate employee said.
The view from inside Starbucks
- Dan R. Krauss/Getty Images
No one can judge Schultz’s abilities as a leader and potential as a politician better than those who have already been under his leadership – Starbucks employees.
Most Starbucks employees have at least heard rumors of Schultz’s political aspirations, according to interviews with a half-dozen current and former employees, from baristas to corporate staff, who worked closely with Schultz. According to workers, Schultz’s lofty goals played a major role in shaping Starbucks’ culture and workers’ day-to-day lives.
“Though there have been months where I was barely scraping by in my time at Starbucks, I’ve never felt like the company genuinely doesn’t care about its partners,” one Starbucks employee who has worked in stores for more than four years said. “That, I feel, is maybe one of the most important qualities a politician can have, caring about people even a little, and Uncle Howard (as we affectionately refer to him) seems genuine in that regard.”
Schultz has led the company in initiatives such as “Race Together” and hiring programs to reach refugees and veterans. He uses Starbucks to energetically address the issues of the day, with varying success, typically from a progressive but nonpartisan angle. “Upstanders” runs on an underlying thesis that has long driven Schultz’s social missions: People are essentially good and want to help one another, despite differences.
It’s a feel-good message that emphasizes people’s actions over policy. For some, Schultz’s work on these causes is enough to make him a compelling candidate.
“While I can’t speak for but a few of my coworkers, I think I would vote for him,” the in-store worker said. “While Starbucks doesn’t always live up to its values, the fact that it even has them in the first place is admirable. Mr. Schultz has always seemed like a man of principles.”
A member of Starbucks corporate team who worked with Schultz closely for several years said that he’d be a “phenomenal leader.”
“I only know what he’s like as a leader: consistent, leading with heart, involving other people, listening to diverse opinions,” said another former Starbucks employee who also worked closely with Schultz. “But I think as a politician, you really have to represent your constituency. So, he’s represented his constituency in representing the employees that have worked for him – the partners – but I don’t know how that translates.”
The case against Schultz
- Stephen Brashear/Getty
Not every Starbucks employee is convinced.
“Howard Schultz is using these events to practice for his presidential run,” one Starbucks worker said in an email to Business Insider after Schultz held a company town hall to address white supremacy following violence in Charlottesville.
This employee saw Schultz’s actions as grandstanding, while ignoring internal problems such as worker pay and in-store workers’ paid leave.
“Starbucks corporate employees are not servant leaders from what I see; they are selfish leaders,” he said. “They don’t lead by examples, they lead with excuses. Their actions speak louder than their words.”
Starbucks worker forums, such as the subreddit r/Starbucks, have long gossiped about the inevitability of Schultz running for office.
“Yeaaaaah he’s definitely running for president,” one Reddit user wrote in response to a CNN article about Schultz and the American dream in r/Starbucks. “I can see the Democratic primary now. Warren vs Schultz vs Zuckerberg vs some other random Democrats nobody’s heard of.”
“Great, how about starting by paying us a living wage?” another Reddit user responded.
Even those who respect Schultz see some major roadblocks in a political campaign.
Schultz is known for being sensitive about negative press, especially if he sees it as unjustified or needlessly “nasty.” When he feels he or Starbucks is being wronged, he takes it personally and finds it difficult not to speak out, according to people who have worked closely with him.
Plus, there’s the fact that Schultz doesn’t have any experience.
“There are a number of people who today think that if you know how to run a business, you know how to run the country,” one former long-time employee said. Trump’s election may provide evidence that a businessman can become president, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The biggest question – especially from employees who have worked most closely with Schultz – isn’t necessarily if Schultz would be capable. Instead, it’s why he’d want to, in the words of one former Starbucks’ corporate worker, “essentially ruin his life.” A presidential race would mean leaving a cushy gig as Starbucks’ chairman, executing his big ideas for the brand, and instead sacrificing his privacy and control to campaign.
Schultz has major aspirations to make a difference in the US. He’s not afraid to put himself front and center in these efforts – something that can be seen as putting his money where his mouth is or a thirst for attention. These things together make him a pretty ideal political figure. And with his political connections, it’s extremely likely the thought of running for office has crossed his mind.
But in 2017, becoming president isn’t the only way to enact change and lead a mass of supporters. Schultz already gets to do that as a corporate chairman focused on social initiatives.
If Schultz runs for office, it is probably going to be because someone – President Bill Clinton or otherwise – tells him that the best chance to fix “what’s coming out of Washington” is for him to enter the fray. If not, Schultz is still going to be pushing his progressive messages, but from Starbucks’ headquarters in Seattle, not Washington, DC.