Two Big League CEOs Tell Personal Stories of Race and Responsibility

September 30, 2016, 2:53 PM UTC

Two big league CEOs have inspired me this week, both of whom were addressing issues of race in distinct — but personal — ways.

The first was Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who showed up at tiny Rufus King Park in Jamaica, Queens this week to support a get-out-the-vote effort co-hosted by his friend the activist, actor and songman Common.

“For the past year or so, Starbucks Coffee company has tried to use its platform and scale to start a national conversation,” Schultz began. “We’ve been to Ferguson, we’ve been to Oakland, we’ve been to Milwaukee, Houston, Chicago all the places around the country where there has been significant racial tension.”

Schultz has increasingly dedicated himself to the transformation of urban communities through jobs and leadership training, by opening stores in places like Queens, Ferguson, and Chicago. “We really think of Starbucks as a platform,” he tells me later. “I’m very worried about the state of leadership today, particularly around race.”

And the community loves him for it. Nishon Rivers, a Jamaica native — who hilariously framed the preternaturally photogenic Common out of a picture to get a better shot of Schultz — told me that Schultz is nothing less than a local hero. “What Howard is doing, is giving the black youth a chance,” she said, trailing the CEO as he walked the park shaking hands with future voters and baristas.

I’ve got the whole story here.

The second was AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. Check out this clip of his recent remarks at a gathering of the company’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). It’s really worth your time.

He started out saying all the right things about race in a complex world, but then he got personal. Turns out, Stephenson has a black friend. A real one, whom he clearly loves.

The thing was, he had no idea that his highly accomplished friend — a doctor and veteran, to boot — had a long and painful history of race-based mistreatment. Stephenson learned about it when someone had forwarded him a video of his friend discussing race and reconciliation at his predominantly white church. “I was really ashamed that this was new information for me about Chris,” he began, ticking through a list of evidence that the men were, in fact, very close. “How could I not understand the very core that informed his world view about race?”

His point: If two very good friends of different races aren’t talking about it, then what is the hope for the rest of us? Stephenson was humble, vulnerable and turned himself into an ally right on stage.

“We have to start communicating,” he said. Work hard, move into uncomfortable territory and listen to each other. “If this is a dialog that is going to start at AT&T, I feel like it probably ought to start with me.”


Have an inspiring weekend, everyone. You’re working hard, and we see you.

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