- Howard Schultz announced on Monday that he would be stepping down as Starbucks’ chairman, sparking rumours of a potential presidential run in 2020.
- Schultz has spearheaded a number of progressive initiatives at Starbucks, including speaking out in favour of gay marriage, refugee rights, and police brutality.
- Two former Starbucks employees who worked closely with Schultz told Business Insider that the billionaire had “quietly” surrounded himself with politically minded people, developing a personal relationship with the Clintons.
Howard Schultz is leaving Starbucks after more than three decades at the company, a period in which he served as both CEO and – most recently – executive chairman.
With the outspoken billionaire’s departure, rumours regarding a potential 2020 presidential campaign immediately started to heat up.
The New York Times asked Schultz directly about a presidential run after news of his departure from Starbucks broke.
Schultz said: “I intend to think about a range of options, and that could include public service. But I’m a long way from making any decisions about the future.”
While Schultz has long maintained he was not planning to run for president, rumours have followed the businessman for years. Schultz has long acted in a manner very similar to a political candidate, even when he was leading Starbucks.
Here’s an overview of Schultz’s long history of dabbling in politics – and of making connections to politicians, including the Clintons, behind the scenes.
Turning Starbucks into a ‘nonpartisan’ progressive company
Rumours about Schultz running for office have been floating around for years, in large part because Starbucks has become one of the most outspoken companies on social issues over the last decade.
In 2011, Schultz encouraged people not to donate to political campaigns until the government addressed national debt. In 2015, he spearheaded the “Race Together” campaign to address police brutality and racism. In a 2015 New York Times op-ed celebrating bipartisan leadership, Schultz said he wasn’t running for office, “despite the encouragement of others.”
One of the best illustrations of Starbucks’ approach to politics took place at the company’s 2013 shareholders meeting, when a shareholder argued that Starbucks had lost customers because of its support of same-sex marriage.
“Not every decision is an economic decision,” Schultz said. “The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people.”
Yet Schultz also brought up Starbucks’ financial success in the past year.
“If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year, it’s a free country,” he continued.
“You can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much.”
In other words, as Starbucks first began wading into discourse surrounding social issues, Schultz wanted to reassure investors that the socially conscious business model actually turned a profit.
Starbucks in the Trump era
While, originally, Schultz and Starbucks only spoke out on select social issues, President Donald Trump’s rise to power has run parallel to Schultz growing more outspoken.
In September 2016, Schultz endorsed Clinton for president – his first time publicly endorsing a candidate.
That December, he announced plans to step down as CEO, saying he would instead be focusing on Starbucks’ “social missions” as chairman. In January 2017, he blasted Trump’s attempt to bar refugees from entering the US, inspiring boycott threats from the right. In August 2017, he wrote a piece in the Financial Times about national identity after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville.
And, in October 2017, he launched the second season of “Upstanders,” a streaming series that highlights the efforts of people making a difference in their communities.
“I believe strongly in the promise of America,” Schultz said at a screening of the “Upstanders” series in October. “What’s coming out of Washington in many ways – the lack of leadership, the lack of authenticity, lack of civility – is not the narrative or the story of America.”
Schultz also helped lead Starbucks’ recent efforts to address racial bias at the chain after an incident in which two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia location. Starbucks closed 8,000 locations for an afternoon so that employees could undergo racial bias training. It also changed store policies to open bathrooms to all, even people who do not make a purchase.
Starbucks is increasingly being seen as a political and cultural touchstone. Trump even suggested a Starbucks boycott during his own rise to political power.
“No more ‘Merry Christmas’ at Starbucks,” Trump said at a rally in Springfield, Illinois, in November 2015. “Maybe we should boycott Starbucks. I don’t know. Seriously. I don’t care.”
Schultz’s political connections
Schultz’s connections with politics go deeper than many realise, according to two former employees who spoke with Business Insider in 2017.
“He always had an interest in politics and always surrounded himself” with politically minded people, one former Starbucks employee who worked closely with Schulz for close to a decade said. “But very quietly.”
In addition to some degree of familiarity with the Bush family and former President Jimmy Carter, Schultz apparently has a close relationship with the Clintons, according to one source.
Starbucks’ current president of US retail was Bill Clinton’s aide from 1997 to 2000, and Schultz emailedHillary Clinton during the 2016 election about ways to “emotionally reach and touch the American people.” Clinton reportedly planned to appoint Schultz as her secretary of labour had she been elected president.
If Schultz were to run for office, he would most likely turn to the Clintons for advice, according to one former employee.
“If President Clinton said he should run for office, he would do it,” the ex-corporate employee said.
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