Some of you may know me from my years at Starbucks, but many of you do not know my full story - so here are a few highlights
I was born in 1953, in Brooklyn, New York, to Fred and Elaine Schultz.
Like so many Americans, our ancestors were immigrants. My paternal great grandfather, Max, arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe in 1892 with $10 in his pocket. He spoke no English and made his living as a tailor. My maternal great grandfather, Morris, came to America in the early 1890s. He was a barrel maker.
I was three years old when my family moved us into a small apartment in one of Brooklyn’s public housing projects in Canarsie, which really was the last stop on the “L” train from New York City. I grew up in those projects, the oldest of three kids, and with a best friend who lived next door.
Neither of my parents finished high school, and after my father returned from World War II, he spent his life working low paid jobs as a laborer. He and I had a complicated relationship, and the best memory I have of my dad is sitting with him at Yankee Stadium, watching our hero Mickey Mantle play baseball.
The most indelible image I have of my dad is of him lying on our couch in a cast, distraught. I was about seven years old. It was winter, and he had a job delivering cloth diapers. He’d fallen on a patch of ice and broken his hip and ankle. He was fired from his job and had no health insurance, no workers compensation, and no savings. The image of my father on the couch, helpless, stuck with me.
Most people called my mother Bobbi. She was a fierce believer in the American Dream, and it was my mom who gave me the confidence to believe that I could one day build a better life for myself.
Our family rarely had enough money to pay the bills, and there was a lot of angst in our seventh-floor apartment. I escaped the family chaos by sitting in the stairwell between floors and imagining a better life. My other escape was sports. The playgrounds of the projects became a second home, and as a teenager I spent most of my free time playing basketball and football on its concrete courts.
In high school I played football, and I saw the sport as a potential path out of the projects. In 1971, I arrived at Northern Michigan University—a world away from Canarsie—with the hope of getting a football scholarship, but it never materialized. I stayed at NMU and paid my way through school with student loans and part-time jobs. I even sold my blood for cash when things got really tough.
In 1975, I became the first in my family to graduate college. Unfortunately, my parents could not afford to attend the graduation ceremony, but I knew my mother was proud.
My first job after college was selling office equipment door-to-door. Each day I made up to 50 cold calls. I liked talking to people and was pretty good at sales. I always gave half of my paycheck to my parents. My first job led to others until I worked for a European company that made housewares. One of our customers was a small coffee company in Seattle, Washington, named Starbucks. In 1982, I went to visit the founders. Within a year, I was heading up marketing for Starbucks and had moved to Seattle with my wife, Sheri.
Onward to Seattle
Sheri and I had married in 1982. She was and remains the love of my life. We met on a beach, and I quickly fell in love with her intelligence, her wit, her beauty, and her generous spirit. She grew up in a small town in Ohio, and her father had built a successful industrial laundry business. Sheri planned to go to law school, but instead, she followed her passion and studied interior design. In the summer of 1982 we packed all our belongings in the car, and with our dog Jonas we headed west, to Seattle.
Visiting Mt. Rushmore on our cross country drive to Seattle
In 1983, I was on a business trip to Italy when I walked into an Italian café and tasted my very first espresso. I was captivated by the beverage, the barista who prepared it and the romance of the café atmosphere. At the time Starbucks stores only sold whole bean coffee and had no seating. I had a vision of creating specialty coffee stores that integrated the romance of espresso and provided a place for community. The founders of Starbucks, however, weren't interested in my idea.
I left Starbucks to open my specialty coffee stores. But I had no money. For a year, Sheri and I lived off of her salary while I tried to raise funds. I heard “no” more than 200 times, but eventually, enough people believed in my vision that they invested in me, and in the business. It was an incredibly challenging and exciting time! By 1987 we had 3 espresso bars named Il Giornale.
I never set out to build a global business. I set out to build the kind of company that my father never had a chance to work for. One that treats all people with dignity.
The image of my father immobile on the couch, after his accident, stayed with me. So did the fear of not having healthcare. Not long after he passed away, in 1988, Starbucks became one of the first companies in America to give health insurance to all its employees—including part-time workers, a benefit that was unheard of at the time, especially in retail.
As a kid, I also knew what it felt like not to have money. My parents never owned anything, or had any savings. In 1991, Starbucks became the only company we knew about to give stock ownership to all employees. We called it Bean Stock. Since its inception in 1991—and after Starbucks went public in 1992—Bean Stock has generated more than $1.5 billion in pre-tax gains for the company’s baristas and managers, helping some put down payments on homes, finance cars, pay off loans, even pay for weddings.
We did those two things in the late eighties and early nineties, and never stopped trying to be a different kind of company.
One of my favorite benefits has been the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. In 2014, Starbucks and Arizona State University created the first-of-its kind program to give employees a tuition-free college education. By spring of 2019, more than 3,000 Starbucks partners (employees) will have graduated. Twenty percent of those who have participated in the program are like me, the first in their families to go to college.
More About my Family
As Starbucks grew, Sheri and I grew our family. Our son, Jordan, was born in 1986, and our daughter, Addison, in 1989. Today, Jordan is a sports journalist and Addison is a social worker. I am most proud that they have grown into kind, generous, hard working adults. Each married someone who shares their values—and, luckily, a love of dogs. Our close-knit family continues to grow.
Sheri is not only a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother, but for years she has been the heart and force behind the Schultz Family Foundation, which focuses on helping young people, veterans, military families, and others to access opportunities like education and employment. The two of us have lived the American Dream, and we see it as our responsibility to help others do the same for themselves and their families.
Looking back: We transformed the business to sustainable growth and profit, while maintaining our core values. Growing a business takes teamwork, and there were always tough decisions and difficult periods. In 2000, I stepped down as CEO and became chairman, but I returned in 2008, when the company was having troubles. In 2018, Starbucks ranked fifth on Fortune’s list of the World’s Most Admired Companies 2018 & 2019.
In 2018, I officially left Starbucks and became chairman emeritus, but the three million people who have worked for Starbucks over the decades are never far from my mind. Together, we built a public company that achieved the fragile balance between profit and responsibility that my parents would be proud of.