Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz defends 'Race Together' campaign

Common and Mellody Hobson join Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz to talk about Race Together

Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz defended the company’s campaign promoting race relations on coffee cups a day after unveiling it to widespread criticism on social media.

Schultz provided few additional details about the “Race Together” initiative at Starbucks’ annual shareholders meeting.

He was joined on stage by Oscar-winning rapper Common, who stressed the importance of talking to people from diverse backgrounds, and business executive Mellody Hobson, who shared an experience in which a media company receptionist assumed she was kitchen help.

“Over the last few months, I have tried to seek out other influential people who have a greater understanding than I do of the issue of race and racial injustice in America,” Schultz said in the webcasted meeting, “so I can learn, so I can get better and understand what I and the company can do.”

The Seattle coffee chain this week began encouraging, but not requiring, its employees to write the words “Race Together” on cups to get its customers talking about race. Customers can also request plain cups.

The campaign stemmed from a forum in December at company headquarters in Seattle, where employees discussed racial tensions in the United States after police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York.

Both Schultz and Hobson, who is a Starbucks board member and chairwoman of the board at Dreamworks Animation, acknowledged the campaign's critics, many of whom questioned whether Starbucks was the appropriate place for a discussion about race.

“Now, there will be cynics,” Schultz said, before adding, “At every single open forum that I led, partners came up to me and said, 'Howard, we must do more.’”

Hobson and Common never addressed the campaign by name, but both spoke about the importance of diversity and being exposed to diverse views.

“Race today is one of the most controversial and uncomfortable issues to discuss,” Hobson said. “We have certainly seen that in the last 24 hours. The first step in solving a problem is to stop hiding from it.”

They praised Starbucks for trying to start the conversation.

“I never thought I would be able to stand in front of a company ... shareholders and say that you care,” Common said. “I would say, 'Why do companies make all this money and don't care for the communities that are supporting them? Well, I am here to witness that Starbucks is a different type of company.”

Acknowledging the beating Starbucks took on social media, Schultz asked shareholders to trust the company.

“All I am asking of you is to understand what we’re trying to do, to understand our intentions,” he said. “We strongly believe that our best days are ahead of us.”

Starbucks shares closed up $1.45, or 1.5%, at $95.84.

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