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FEB 27, 2020

From the Ground Up: The Story of a Starbucks CEO Bringing His Personal Mission to Life

By Melissa McIvor
Unsplash/Hans Vivek

What does it take to build a great company? Do you need an MBA? Deep knowledge of the target industry? Savvy investors with deep pockets?

If former Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz’s From the Ground Up is any indication, it may come down to initiative to create social impact. As he puts it, “In business, how companies spend money reveals their values.”

“Are we talking about things that matter?”

It’s no challenge nowadays to learn how top companies came to be where they are, whether it was a formulaic rise in sync with business school case studies or a bumbling, off-road venture into success. Sometimes there’s an eccentric genius behind the wheel; other times it’s getting rid of the eccentricity that gets things running.

Schultz was famously not the founder of Starbucks, but he was at the helm on its voyage to success…and back to success after a few years lost at sea. But most of From the Ground Up isn’t about Starbucks equity, profit margins, or market share. Rather, it’s about how Schultz as CEO built his passions into the company’s DNA, from health insurance for all employees to supporting the US Armed Forces through special hiring programs. He manages to do this without getting political—the book isn’t about what’s right so much as what Schultz feels is right, and he’s never slow to mark this distinction.

As a CEO seeking to build a company about something more than profit, Schultz made a habit of posing this question to his people, both privately and en masse: “What is the role and responsibility of a for-profit public company?”

From the Ground Up is largely an account of how Schultz attempted to answer this question, wielding his influence over Starbucks to pursue social change. Some of these attempts were successful, others disastrous. Rather than shy away from the worst—such as the scandal that emerged from his 2015 attempt to take on racial unrest in America—he admits defeat head on and explains how low points became opportunities for reflection and growth.

“Being entrepreneurial means you will fail,” he says. “You just have to be willing to listen to people who tell you something is broken, and then fix it.”

“…treating people well could be part of the fabric of human and corporate behavior.”

From the Ground Up is strong on historical narrative. Most chapters begin with events seemingly unrelated—the Kennedy assassination, a day at Yankee Stadium with Mickey Mantle on the field, even a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. These are tied seamlessly into how Schultz was inspired to take action at Starbucks, so that even if we disagree with the ultimate direction of something like the failed #RaceTogether campaign, we can see how it came to be.

Yoshito Hori, founder and president of GLOBIS, says “Finding your personal mission unleashes tremendous resources of energy.” Based on this philosophy, every GLOBIS student searches for his or her kokorozashi (personal mission) as part of the GLOBIS MBA curriculum. Schultz may have different words to describe his drive, but the sentiment is surely the same. Without a personal mission to realize change—and weather the storms of those initiatives that fail—how far can a company go in the hollow pursuit of profit alone?

For entrepreneurs eager to learn how one of the world’s biggest corporations was shaped around not only profit, but social impact, From the Ground Up may be just the blend you’re looking for.