Starbucks‘ CEO on racial training: We want to confront our biases ‘and disrupt them‘

The training materials included a 68-page, 16-by-22-inch guide printed on newspaper, and a journal with prompts titled “My Notebook.”

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With them, in the Loews Hotel in Center City and at individual Starbucks stores across the Pennsylvania suburbs and country, nearly 175,000 employees — “partners,” in company parlance — would , said CEO Kevin Johnson, “and disrupt them.”

The tools for the racial-bias training were not only procedural in scope — how to handle someone asking customers for money, how to

serve a patron with a thick accent — but extremely personal. Here were topics more likely to land in conversations among social justice-minded millennials than in sanitized HR trainings, less corporate, more self-reflective — even vulnerable:

When’s the first time you: Noticed how your race affected your beauty standards? Had a senior role model in your organization with a similar racial identity as your own? Went to work with your natural hair without comments and questions from others?

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and racial-bias training

More than a month since when two black men in a Rittenhouse Square store were arrested after its manager called police because they hadn’t ordered anything, for the training. It was a first step, Johnson said, in the process to refocus the coffee company on its mission of being “the third place,” a community space outside of home and work where everyone is welcome.

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Starbucks planned to make the materials available on its website Wednesday and will incorporate the curriculum in its on-boarding process, chief operating officer Rosalind G. Brewer said.

DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer CEO of Starbucks Kevin Johnson and Rosalind G. Brewer, COO of Starbucks, talk to the Inquirer and Daily News Tuesday.

In an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News on Tuesday, Brewer acknowledged that the training, which she and Johnson underwent a week ago along with about 60 other top Starbucks executives, was “exhausting, both emotionally and physically.”

“I am convinced we do all have biases,” she said. “I confronted some myself while sitting in that session.”

Malek Young, too, said it was working as he took a break from the training Tuesday evening.

“I do think people are learning,” said the 28-year-old black man who works in a Center City Starbucks. “And if they aren’t, I am.”

YONG KIM / Staff Photographer Malek Young talks about the coffee company’s racial-bias training during a break outside the Loews Hotel in Center City on Tuesday, May 29, 2018.

In the meantime, customers who arrived at Starbucks to find it closed Tuesday afternoon were both bewildered and thoughtful.

At the popular Starbucks in downtown Haddonfield, Norm Alger praised the company’s decision.

“I think it’s respectful of Starbucks to take some kind of move,” said Alger, 53, of Audubon. “I think it opens some people’s eyes.”

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Johnson said the total cost of this training and subsequent ones would be in the “tens of millions.” As for the  impact the arrests had on business or the brand, he said the company was taking a “long-term view.” He would not disclose any financial details on the settlement with the two men who were arrested, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, but did confirm the manager who initiated the incident with her call to police no longer works at Starbucks.

Johnson said the four-hour training was designed with the help of 30 experts in neuroscience, social behavior, and civil rights, including prominent attorney Bryan Stevenson and Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. It featured video discussions among Starbucks staffers and experts from Perception Institute, a research consortium, on “racial anxiety” and the difference between personal bias and structural bias, plus numerous reflection questions that employees would discuss in smaller groups.

Further trainings will be around topics such as how to handle escalation, how to judge the seriousness of an incident, and how to define “a true altercation,” Brewer said. Store staff have also been given other phone numbers to call in the event of an incident, including homeless shelters and food banks, where previously, the policy was to call either the store manager or 911.

Eventually, Starbucks plans to evaluate the success of the programming through customer-service scores and employee surveys.

Jordan Crockett, 21, a black man who works at a Center City Starbucks, said the training was useful, but it did seem ridiculous to him that in 2018, a major corporation would have to shut down thousands of its stores to teach its employees not to discriminate.

“It’s a shame,” he said, “but at least it’s happening.”

Staff writers Bethany Ao, Jan Hefler, Justine McDaniel, Katie Park, and Tommy Rowan contributed to this article.

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