I want to mostly co-sign this mensch-y open letter from Crooked Media’s Jon Lovett, in which he tries to explain to Howard Schultz that high-paid political consultants are not his friends, and that he is about to pay them millions of dollars and not end up with many votes for president to show for it, because there is not actually a large and untapped pool of votes to draw on for the CEO-billionaire version of centrism he represents.
The letter contains good advice on this score. But while Lovett also has some advice for Schultz about how he could involve himself more productively in politics as a non-candidate, I want to give different advice on that score: stay in business. You’re really good at business. Do more of that.
Rather than dunk on Schultz for what he doesn’t understand, it’s worth dwelling on the ways in which he’s an actual visionary. He created a whole new product category: 30 years ago, people didn’t know they wanted fancy coffee beverages, and now tens of millions of people look forward to them every morning. Starbucks drive-throughs are everywhere.
Beyond the product, he understood Starbucks as not just business but as a “third place” with a role to play in the community. This has led to a series of prominent Starbucks initiatives, some admirable (hiring veterans and refugees) and some cringe-inducing (“Race Together”). It’s also led to a public commitment to taking employee well-being seriously and providing better benefits than the competition does. It’s hard to tell where the marketing ends and the community spirit begins, but I’m not sure it matters; companies are key players in our society and our everyday lives, and Starbucks has spent much more time than most companies grappling publicly with what responsibilities that means it bears.
If Schultz wants to keep making a positive difference in America, the question he should ask himself is not what the biggest problems are that face the country, but what big problems in the country Howard Schultz is best suited to address. And I think his track record makes clear that those are business problems: what products consumers want that they’re not getting, and what roles companies should be playing in our society that they aren’t.
There are a number of ways in which Schultz could reengage in business. He could resume the role of Starbucks CEO, as he’s already done after leaving the position once before. He could start a new company or become a more active venture investor. He could — I’m not making this suggestion as a joke — become a panelist on Shark Tank.
But I think the best thing might be for Schultz to slightly tweak his ambitions in the public sphere. He clearly wants to be a thought leader. He is also very qualified to serve as a thought leader about business. Why not use his public influence to start non-policy conversations about the roles of companies in society: What other businesses and other sectors might to do take a more Starbucks–like approach to the communities they operate in?
It’s not that Howard Schultz is a dum-dum with nothing useful to say to America. He could say a lot of useful things on business topics. He shouldn’t run for president.