I like to think that if I were a public figure, I would recognize myself as being target-rich, and for my own protection I would develop a higher sense of self-awareness so that I wouldn’t trip on my own hubris. However, target-rich people and organizations…well, just keep providing new targets. This is how I should have replied when friends asked about my thoughts of the recent brouhaha surrounding Starbucks’ “#RaceTogether” campaign. At the time, I just shrugged it off, but afterwards, I thought more about it, and my delayed reaction was the above “target-rich” musing. My more nuanced and serious reactions are these: 1. Not bad intention, but beyond-clumsy snafu-caliber execution; 2. But “Why?” in the first place? 3. Can’t corporations just stop championing social causes, be they conservative or liberal? Of course, nothing is ever just so simple.
While I would rather see corporations focusing on their main goal, bringing value to commerce and making profit thereby, it would be grand if they can take more responsibility for and ownership of their roles in our collective society, their reliance on the infrastructure for which we all chip in (two of numerous examples: education of their workforce and access to their “customer support” via the internet), and above all their mistakes. That means: I take the stand that “corporate social responsibility” is part of the id for corporations. Given that one of my foundation principles of organizations is its “social system” in which all elements are interrelated, then it follows that corporations have to join with the rest of the society on a wide range of social issues. Join, but do not presume that they are anointed leaders just because of their size or brand name. Does our purchasing power – which is the key to corporations’ market shares and profits – give corporations the right to represent our social views? This question invites debate that will not lead to any clear conclusion. However, knowing that the conclusion may be elusive doesn’t mean we should stop the discussion.
Similarly, just because race relations is a profoundly difficult and complex topic, leading to uncountable debates without clear conclusions or solutions, doesn’t mean that we should shove it aside. Not only is race relations a difficult topic, it is highly emotionally charged, and its prominence in this society surges and recedes depending on circumstances; but some may argue it has been especially emotionally charged in recent years. And few can engage in racial issues thoughtfully and intelligently; or, more pointedly, even when someone can speak and/or write beautifully and penetratingly, s/he can still excite hostile reactions.
Against this backdrop, what made Starbucks’ executives think that they could just pick up the torch without any forethought as to “what’s next?” How many people feel totally comfortable entering into this topic with just anybody, even if you might have encountered the same barista a dozen times? And who’d want to talk about race at 6AM or 5PM in a café, especially if there are 5 more people behind you? How exactly did Starbucks foresee these conversations beginning? proceeding? and concluding? What was to happen if some customers got agitated with each other? Should Starbucks’ baristas intervene?!
Most corporations, actually probably all of them, exhibit inconsistencies on matters of social conscience; this is one of the reasons why, when they champion a social cause, they might end up with egg on their corporate faces. The current case of the hole Starbucks dug for itself is a perfect example because the corporation isn’t exactly a shining beacon for diversity, not in its hiring and certainly not in its appeal to its clientele. While many of their urban stores’ free providing for some of the homeless is a good gesture, the whole cappuccino culture (outside of Italy) isn’t inviting to the lower / lower-middle class where, since race and class issues are almost always inseparable, the racial mixture is most diverse. This doesn’t mean that Starbucks or other corporations cannot engage in such a topic. However, did they really think through what they wanted to talk about, or focus on? Evidence suggests that they were woefully inadequate in their preparation and execution.
Recalling the common saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” I recognize that intention is only the starting point, and most often the easiest step. A more nuanced version of the saying, “Hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works” reminds us that the real work – per Starbucks, the real work of thinking through what their intentions might elicit – too often doesn’t happen.
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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