In her 14 years with Starbucks, Katie Seawell has helped launch some of the company’s best-known products, including VIA Instant Coffee, Starbucks Blonde Roast, Flat White and Cold Brew. But the senior vice president of Starbucks’ Siren Retail Operations also counts organizational culture and commitment to social good among the java juggernaut’s greatest hits.
“In today’s hyperpolarized world, customers want to understand where you fall on issues and how far you’re willing to go to declare your beliefs. We are unafraid to take a stand and that’s very much Howard’s legacy,” Seawell said, referring to Starbucks’ former CEO and executive chairman Howard Schultz. “For me, the initiatives where we’ve really tried to tie impact back to the community are true highlights, even more so than our product line.”
Among those initiatives is Create Jobs for USA, which launched in 2008 at the height of the economic crisis. To promote the initiative, Starbucks partnered with microlenders to release capital for small businesses while simultaneously providing opportunities for customers to make in-store donations to further grow the funding pool.
Starbucks’ efforts around diversity and inclusion are also near to Seawell’s heart. She proudly serves as the organization’s executive sponsor of the Black Partner Network, a role she has held for two years. “At first I was trying to figure out how I would add value as an executive sponsor to a partner network where I didn’t have the same life experiences and didn’t know the challenges and hurdles those partners deal with,” Seawell said. (FYI: In Starbucks parlance, employees are called “partners.”) “With dialogue and honest conversation, it became clear that the underrepresented communities and minority groups can’t always be the ones advocating for themselves. People in power in the majority group must advocate for them as well.”
Despite the company’s good intentions, Seawell acknowledged, Starbucks hasn’t always gotten it right. Case in point: The 2018 incident in Philadelphia involving a Starbucks store manager who called the police when two African-American men didn’t purchase anything and refused to leave the store. The men, who said they were waiting for a friend, were arrested and subsequently released. “Philly was a great example of leadership owning the mistake,” Seawell said. “As a result, we’ve gotten a lot more intentional about what it means to live the values of diversity and inclusion, including from the standpoints of recruitment, engagement and retention. That incident was an important inflection point for the organization.”
Seawell’s time at Daniels served as her own inflection point in many ways. With its emphasis on ethics, Daniels helped solidify Seawell’s conviction that corporate social responsibility and business impact are fully integrated. “They don’t live in parallel. Corporate social responsibility isn’t a sidecar to the organization’s business strategy.”
When asked what she loves most about her job, Seawell doesn’t hesitate: “The ability to get up every morning and love the brand and the business that I’m a part of, and to be proud of the fact that we’re trying to do the right things in the communities in which we operate.”