Morehouse students leave with more questions than answers after Starbucks execs hold Town Hall event

Executive Chairman Howard Schultz and COO Rosalind Brewer know the company is facing a new set of issues.

Howard Schultz Rosalind Brewer
On Thursday, Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz and Chief Operating Officer Rosalind Brewer attended a town hall meeting at Morehouse College in Atlanta. (photo courtesy of Clarissa Brooks.)

When companies face a public controversy, there are a few different strategies that can be used to save the future of their brand. Either corporate leaders ignore the issues at hand or they chose to face what’s coming at them head on by acknowledging the results and dealing with the consequences.

After Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks two weeks ago, the company and its executives went on an apology tour. Then Starbucks announced plans to close more than 8,000 stores in the United States on the afternoon of May 29 for company-wide racial bias training as a way to further resolve the unconscious bias that permeates its staff.

On Thursday, Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz and Chief Operating Officer Rosalind Brewer attended a town hall meeting at Morehouse College in Atlanta to speak to students, faculty, alumni and community members about the most recent events of discrimination that have led to many once loyal customers now boycotting the coffee giant.

Moderated by Dr. David Wall Rice, professor and associate provost at Morehouse College, Schultz and Brewer spoke about the arrest, the implicit bias training and their company’s future. 

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As fate would have it, the town hall at Morehouse was actually first scheduled nearly two months ago, long before the incident in Philadelphia took place. It was important for Schultz and Brewer to keep their commitment and use this opportunity to talk about the the corporation’s core values and the ways in which Starbucks sees itself growing in the coming years.

“We were not our best…. We made a terrible mistake. We are doing our best to influence other companies around having these honest conversations” said Schultz of the arrest.

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Schultz also spoke briefly about the backlash he has faced from white people in response to calling the incident exactly what it was—racism.

“The country is in dire need of the truth about what is really going on and until there is a catalyst for that I don’t see other corporations making that move. As a company we are facing a new set of issues that we don’t yet have the answers to.” said Schultz.

“I thought it was a very fair conversation. We came here to learn and this conversation reinforced the fact that we have work to do,” said Brewer.

Students have their say

Students in attendance were mostly concerned about the logistics of the anti-bias training and how to hold Starbucks accountable moving forward. When asked about who would be leading the training and how the public can trust the corporation, Shultz and Brewer both gave vague responses

“We’re going to hold ourselves accountable to make sure we are the best that we can be,” said Brewer in response to questions from the audience around training details.

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There was however an overall feeling that Shultz and Brewer were clearly avoiding responding to the more controversial questions around race, systematic oppression and white supremacy.

“Overall I enjoyed the dialogue. Anybody who can answer student questions with poise is worth acknowledging,” said Morehouse senior Kyle Colley. “I don’t believe Starbucks by doing their store closure employee training will resolve systemic issues, but I believe they are facing the issue upfront up rather then running from it.”  

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“We were able to have honest conversation….I was pleased that student voices were heard and responded to,” said Rice after the event.

While the event was a good first step for Starbucks as a whole, many were left with more questions than answers.

“The event largely reaffirmed that Starbucks and larger companies in general are not invested in prioritizing Black and brown lives,” said Morehouse College senior, Da’Shaun Harrison. “This was made apparent through the ways in which Rosalind Brewer and Howard Schultz dodged questions about race and Palestine and then seemingly argued in favor of capitalism.”

The town hall at Morehouse College was a chance for Starbucks, its patrons and community members to have an open dialogue about where Starbucks plans to go next. Unfortunately, many students walked out of the event feeling as if they had been given the corporate run around.