Howard Schultz, the outspoken CEO of global coffee chain Starbucks, calmly but firmly defended his company’s support of same-sex marriage last week at a shareholder meeting.
In response to a challenge from a shareholder that the company’s support of same-sex marriage was hurting the company’s stock price, Schultz explained that it’s not about the bottom line but about “respecting diversity,” according to KPLU-FM, a local affiliate of NPR.
Last year, the Seattle-based company openly supported Washington state’s referendum that legalized same-sex marriage. As a result, the National Organization for Marriage launched a boycott of the coffee giant. During the company’s annual meeting in Seattle last week, shareholder Tom Strobhar spoke up, suggesting that the boycott was affecting the company’s stock value: “In the first full quarter after this boycott was announced, our sales and our earnings — shall we say politely — were a little disappointing,” he said.
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Schultz shot back that Starbucks’ endorsement of marriage equality wasn’t bad for business:
“If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares of Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much,” Schultz said, to applause from the audience.
But Schultz was quick to underscore that it wasn’t even an economic decision to support gay rights. It was simply right for its people. “The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity,” he retorted.
The heated exchange between Schultz and Strobhar came shortly after shareholders voted for the company’s board to make political contributions. Board members said they wanted the flexibility to promote the company’s policy agenda, the Daily Mail noted.
Starbucks, which last year boasted nearly 18,000 retail stores in 60 countries with plans to continue growing, endorsed the Washington state bill to legalize gay marriage, and released a statement at the time saying it was “deeply dedicated to embracing diversity,” the Huffington Post reported. The bill later became law.
In his five years as CEO, Schultz has taken on a unique role as a political activist, launching campaigns calling for political finance reform and corporate social responsibility. In December, amid the “fiscal cliff” squabbling on Capitol Hill, Schultz asked all D.C.-area Starbucks locations to write “Come Together” on coffee cups in hopes of percolating an agreement.