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6 CEOs who are our ‘other American presidents’

Howard SchultzHoward Schultz
Howard SchultzPhoto courtesy: Victor Chavez / WireImage

On Monday, Starbucks (SBUX) announced that it would offer a steeply discounted online college degree through Arizona State University to eligible baristas who work at its United States locations for at least 20 hours a week.

In rolling out the program, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz accomplished, albeit on a smaller scale, what the Obama administration has long tried – and often failed – to do: make college more affordable and accessible.

“Everyone who works as hard as our [employees] do should have the opportunity to complete college, while balancing work, school and their personal lives,”  Schultz said in a company release.

President Barack Obama has made strikingly similar statements, but he’s failed to compel a do-nothing Congress to make good on them. “No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, how you were raised, who you love, if you’re willing to work hard … you can make it here in America,” the president said on June 9, before signing an executive order to increase access to a student loan income-based repayment program – one of the few actions he could take without Congressional approval.

To prove just how effective it’s been at preventing comprehensive legislation, two days later the Senate killed a bill sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Warren that would have allowed an estimated 25 million student loan borrowers to refinance their debt at lower interest rates.

Feeble lawmaking has opened the door for business leaders like Schultz, who–armed with considerable power–have made executive decisions to address social issues Congress has refused to touch.

“We can’t be bystanders. And we can’t wait for Washington,” Schultz said in a video that Starbucks released on Monday. “And I strongly believe that businesses and business leaders must do more for their people and more for the communities we serve.”

Well said.

Here are some other execs who have already followed that advice.

Warren Buffett – Berkshire Hathaway

The chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) got Americans outraged over the sleepiest of subjects in 2011 when he sparked a legitimate discussion about tax reform. In a New York Times op-ed, Buffett revealed that he’d paid a 17.4% tax rate the year prior – a lower rate than anyone else in his office — and called on Congress to tax millionaires and billionaires more.

Lloyd Blankfein – Goldman Sachs

Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs

In February 2012 – before Vice President Joe Biden’s slip-up endorsement of gay marriage and President Obama’s subsequent support for the cause – the chief executive of Goldman Sachs (GS) spoke out for marriage equality on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign. His reputation as a villain of the recession made him an unexpected advocate for gay marriage but a nonetheless powerful voice in the typically conservative world of finance.

Elon Musk – SpaceX, Tesla

Tesla’s Elon Musk.

After George W. Bush ended NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program and President Obama cancelled moon exploration in favor of unmanned deep-space travel, the government decided to farm out manned spacecraft to the private sector. Musk’s SpaceX, along with Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation, won the NASA contract to assemble and test commercial capsules that will send Americans into space.

Larry Page – Google

Larry Page, Google co-founder and chief executive officer at Alphabet.

As the U.S.’s broadband infrastructure continues to lag behind other developed countries, Google (GOOG) has begun to provide select cities with affordable broadband service that’s roughly 100 times faster than the average U.S. connection. The Google Fiber project has motivated broadband providers like AT&T and Time Warner Cable to improve their own high speed Internet access, which has boosted competition among these providers and lowered prices for consumers.

Bill Gates – Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft

Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates delivers the commencement speech at Stanford

Starting in 2008, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation bankrolled the Common Core curriculum for American schools by donating more than $233 million to develop these standards and garner the required political support to put these practices into classrooms. For better or worse, all but eight states have adopted the Common Core, which sets universal academic standards for all students–an effort that has been underway since the Eisenhower administration.