Today, Starbucks along with a slew of corporate giants ranging from Microsoft to Walmart, announced the “100,000 opportunities initiative,” an effort by these companies to hire 100,000 16- to 24-year-olds “who face systemic barriers to jobs and education” by 2018. The initiative will kick off in August, at a job fair in Chicago, where some of these companies plan to begin chipping away at this six-figure hiring target.
The announcement comes on the heels of Starbucks’s own recent “opportunity youth” commitment to hiring 10,000 employees in this age group over the next three years—a small crack at the 5.6 million youths who have dropped out of school and who are without jobs, an oft-overlooked demographic according to the company, which indicated it has been working for some time to expand this model with the help of other companies.
As detailed in our recent feature on Starbucks and its charismatic CEO Howard Schultz, the world’s largest coffee maker has an enviable track record of social responsibility. Though it ran into trouble earlier this year with its “Race Together” program, an effort to spark a national dialogue on racial inequality that many perceived as frivolous and misguided (baristas were tasked with writing “Race Together” on the coffee cups they served), Schultz has doubled down on the campaign, and this new hiring coalition represents another step toward proving his ambitions in this area are far from superficial.
“What company, what institution can’t improve [when it comes to diversity and inclusion]?” Schultz asked me recently. “These kinds of [initiatives] are really substantive, and demonstrate the fact that what we’re trying to do is real and authentic.”
Ultimately, the goal of the “100,000 opportunities initiative” is to provide training to underserved youths and a pathway toward a sustainable career, through a variety of internships and education programs, as well as part-time and full-time jobs. The Aspen Institute will administer the program, which is funded in part through the MacArthur Foundation and a string of other corporate charitable arms; Shultz’s foundation also today announced a $30 million commitment to the initiative.
The coalition of participating companies includes Macy’s, CVS Health, Hilton, JCPenney, and Target, among others.
To Schultz, such initiatives are crucial to solving not just America’s unemployment issues, but also to saving America’s future, however idealistic that sounds. He often talks, in grand and sweeping language that suggests to some his inevitable aspiration to run for higher office, about how Washington is broken; how the American dream is dying; how cynicism and anger and polarization are pulling the country apart. But as Schultz told me several times, he has “no desire” to run for an elected position in government—rather, he feels he can effect substantially more change as the CEO of Starbucks than he likely ever could in Washington. And that’s what this “100,000 opportunities initiative” most symbolizes: a private-sector solution that Schultz hopes will snowball into larger systemic change.
“What should the role be for a for-profit, public company in a world in which Washington does not provide much of what we need?” he said at a recent company event. “Over the last two to three years, we’ve taken on a number of issues that for the most part were absolutely untouchable for a company, let alone for a company as ubiquitous as Starbucks.”
Before this hiring initiative, Starbucks has launched corporate initiatives related to education, gay rights, veteran affairs, and, most controversially, racial inequality. The aim, though, was never to attack all these problems on its own. Rather, as Starbucks’s chief community officer Blair Taylor described it to me, the company wanted to build a coalition by showing the way forward, as was the case with its “Race Together” initiative. “With an issue like diversity, it’s like, Who is going to be the first to jump into the pool?” Taylor told me. “Success looks like 10 companies jumping in the pool—then you start to see pressure on the system.”
Tellingly, however, the company is not marketing this new hiring initiative under the “Race Together” banner. When asked whether the initiative is related, despite Schultz having hinted to me that big news related to “Race Together” was coming this summer, a company spokesperson would only say “this is something that Howard has been working on for quite some time, and is a significant extension of Starbucks earlier commitment to hire 10,000 ‘opportunity youth’–many of whom face systematic racial and economic barriers.”
But the truth is, these types of hiring goals are a step in the right direction, regardless of whether they’re publicly classified under “Race Together.” In recent months, I’ve talked with many baristas about the initiative, and while most feel Schultz’s heart is in the right place, many believe what’s missing is “concrete” action. Like outside critics, these baristas felt engaging customers on a topic like racial inequality was nice and all, but couldn’t Starbucks–a company with $16 billion in annual revenue–do more than just encourage conversation over coffee?
In April, at a private Starbucks’s event in Atlanta where Schultz promoted “Race Together” to his employees, a homeless man stumbled upon the venue’s entrance, and asked me what all the fuss was about and whether he could come inside. I tried to explain what the company was trying to do there, to no avail–it was so obviously, so absurdly and wrongly disconnected from his immediate problems. “So, it’s like a job fair?” he asked me, confused.
No, I had to tell him. But perhaps one day “Race Together” will be more than just a corporate slogan.