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Starbucks: The Unofficial Office for Social Change

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Wowed by a singing barista and a great place to bring her two daughters, Cecilia Carter joined the Starbucks team as their Vice President of Global Diversity, Community and Government Affairs, for Starbucks Coffee Company. In between toffee-nut lattes Cecilia was able to speak with me about the Starbucks approach to philanthropy.

What is your favorite Starbucks drink and, as a customer, how does Starbucks support your personal community engagement?

My favorite drink is a toffee-nut latte. It's warm, it's got a little sweetness to it and it makes me feel good inside. I lived in Connecticut for several years, and every day I used to go to Starbucks to get one, and every day the store manager would sing to me. He would sing my name, "Cecilia," which everyone recognizes from Simon and Garfunkel.

He would also tell me what they were doing in the community, and since he knew I worked in philanthropy he would ask me for ideas -- mind you, this was when I was a customer! Even my girls loved it there, they would go after school and he would watch out for them, he even knew them by name. When I would come in, he would tell me all about them. I know that not every Starbucks is in a community like that, but what's important is that our store managers are delivering on that customer service aspect.

Our pro bono consultants at Taproot meet at Starbucks hundreds of times per year.

I really believe that we have the responsibility to shepherd the image of Starbucks as a catalyst for change. When you come into a community and you hear about the opportunities that Starbucks provides in terms of engagement, it simplifies philanthropy and empowers the individual to make a difference. We are in the community business as much as the coffee business.

What skills do baristas bring to their community?

Baristas bring a passion and leadership skill that is essential to running a business and embedding that business in the community. They have a P&L to manage, they deal with labor issues and they have to maintain a community presence. We at Starbucks give them the tools they need to do that, but it's their ability to be creative in thinking about how to apply those skills that really matters. It's the kind of thing you can't teach, but we have become known for having a culture that supports that passion, so we are able to attract that type of employee.

This is true in the U.S. and in our stores around the world. The most pleasant surprise has been to see the lack of difference in this as I travel to our stores internationally. There may be differences in terms of issues and focus, but the passion of our employees to give back to their communities and stay connected is consistent. Witnessing this was really an "aha moment" for me.

How does this compare with the way you leverage the skills of your corporate HQ employees in Seattle?

Our Law & Corporate Affairs department has been providing pro bono services for more than 10 years, and they have spread that ethic across other departments. Legal inspires other teams like our HR, marketing and accounting departments, to connect with their non-profit clients to offer additional support. We've created a sort of hybrid model with pro bono and cash at Starbucks. When our executives join boards, we look for approaches that go beyond just money.

What kind of pro bono support do your executives find most necessary when serving on a board?

I always start with the financials. You need to understand how that organization makes and spends money. When someone donates a dollar, you need to understand where that dollar went, what it did, and what the impact was. So, when our executives join boards, we connect them with our finance team, and we even hold workshops on reading financial statements.

What issues keep you up at night?

The impact of the global economy has created a world of the "haves" and the "have-nots," and corporations, as the largest employers, play a significant role in making sure that gap doesn't continue to grow. As such, we have a responsibility to settle the unrest that bubbles up in our youth. This is something that we really see on the front lines -- they're the kinds of conversations that you expect to have in coffee shops.

So, at Starbucks you are often the first to overhear unrest in a community, but you are also able to influence it to productive ends.

Yes. The beauty of my role is having the support of our corporate executives and leaders as we identify and attempt to address these issues. We don't just want to be bystanders, we want to take action when we identify a problem -- an example of this is the Create Jobs for USA program we introduced here in the U.S. Our employees on the ground are already engaged in their communities. Our job is to make sure they have the tools and supports they need in order to fill this role on the front lines

Starbucks has taken the Billion + Change pledge, volunteering its best business skills and talents to serve the needs of nonprofits and communities at home and around the world. Together, Billion + Change pledge companies are inspiring the largest commitment of pro bono and skilled volunteering in history. Has your company taken the pledge? Learn how at http://www.abillionpluschange.org