Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz is as famous for his rags-to-riches story--coming up on the wrong side of the tracks, crossing them, and becoming a business icon--as for his determination for his company to address social issues.
But in a video interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times DealBook, Schultz told an amazing story. At a pivotal time, he could have lost everything but for the sympathy and assistance of Bill Gates Sr., father of the Microsoft mogul.
Schultz talked to Sorkin about Starbucks' efforts to make a difference in the world. "We have 350,000 people working for Starbucks," he said. "They expect Starbucks as a company to have a point of view about what we stand for, what our core purpose is, and what our reason for being is. And our reason for being is not just to make money."
Part of his drive comes from having grown up in public housing and known poverty. "I saw the fracturing of the American dream, and I think my sensitivity and empathy for those people who are struggling is the reason why we created the kind of company in which respect and dignity was created in a way in which we would share success with people," Schultz told Sorkin. But another part is due to Gates Sr.
Schultz worked his way through college and had gone up the ranks at some big corporations when, during a business trip, he stumbled across Starbucks in Seattle. The company had only a few stores, but he was so taken with it that he went to work for the much smaller business. Eventually, he left to start his own small coffee chain (when the original Starbucks owners didn't see the value of a chain of Italian-like coffee shops), and then wanted to buy Starbucks.
It was 1987, and Schultz needed to raise $3.8 million, but "one of the titans of Seattle" had heard about the deal and was trying to cut him out of it. Someone told Schultz to see Bill Gates Sr. The 6-foot-7 inch lawyer was a Seattle powerhouse and major player in business. Schultz saw him and gave him a quick rundown. Gates said to come back in two hours.
When I came back, he said, "Everything you told me, is it true? And did you leave anything out?" I said, "No, the guy is trying to steal the company." And he said, "We're going to take a walk."
And he and I took a walk across the street and went to see this guy. And in five minutes, Bill Gates Sr. said, "You should be ashamed of yourself, that you're going to steal this kid's idea, his dream, his aspiration, and it's not going to happen."
I didn't even know what to do. I was just flabbergasted. We walked out of the office and I said, "What just happened?" And he said, "He's going to stand down and I'm going to help you raise the money and I'm going to invest in Starbucks." If it wasn't for Bill Gates Sr., Starbucks Coffee Company would not exist.
Being good at business is fine, but if you want to be great -- that is, a great human being even with your flaws -- you need a sense of compassion, a sense of fairness, and a willingness to do what you know is right.