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 / Summer 2008 / Issue 51(originally published by Booz & Company)


Starbucks and the Power of Story

Providence arrives in the form of a benevolent woman named Crystal who asks Gill if he’d like to come work for her at Starbucks. No longer a master of the elite universe and eager to qualify for health insurance, Gill agrees. And thus begins a journey of discovery. Formerly an arrogant, entitled, and heartless soul, Gill ultimately experiences a Scrooge-like epiphany.

As Gill takes the subway in rush hour for the first time in his life, takes pride in keeping the store bathrooms clean, and becomes an equal with the African-American “partners” (as the company’s em­ployees are known), the dignity and respect fostered by Starbucks works its mojo. Slowly he learns the value of earnest hard work, of serving customers, and of working in an environment where everybody is judged by merit, not class. “I no longer had the luxury of time for philosophical self-concern,” he realizes about his new station in life. “I was about to discover that at Starbucks it was not about me — it was about serving others.”

Gill learns to work the cash register, makes drinks, and even rises to the role of coffee master, where he teaches small groups the secrets of great coffee. Gill comes to appreciate, perhaps worship, something more important than any coffee knowledge: the humane environment that forces him to reexamine his entitled, privileged background. The benevolent capitalism he en­counters makes his old life seem worthless. “Here at Starbucks,” he writes, “both the Partners and the Guests seemed to agree tacitly that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity. I had never seen any work environment like it. The best Fortune 500 companies I had encountered, despite spending months and lots of money writing and publishing high-sounding mission statements, never practiced the corporate gobbledygook they preached.”

His story is as heartwarming as a movie on the Lifetime network. (Indeed, Tom Hanks has reportedly optioned the movie rights.) And it’s this sentimentality that makes it hard to trust Gill’s contention that Starbucks is “a work environment that valued those precious moments of interaction.” A reader’s justifiable skepticism has little to do with tangible evidence to the contrary, but much to do with the unreliabil­ity of the source.

The screaming need of the narrator to draw such a neat, comforting lesson from his experience undermines his credibility. Throughout this fable of redemption, Gill projects an opera of wishes and fears and emotions onto the coffee behemoth. For Gill, Starbucks acquires dense and crushing meaning. The store he toils in be­comes a potent force that serves to frame and highlight all that his privileged life denied him.

As the son of a New Yorker editor, Gill rubbed elbows with Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Jackie O, and Ernest Hemingway, and even snatched cucumber sandwiches from the Queen of England. As the aging barista, Gill finds himself explaining the poetry of Muhammad Ali to his fellow partner Kester, a streetwise African-American. He views his own story through a prism of noblesse oblige that renders it condescending. You can never quite tell if Gill is a brilliant author who mocks his background by deliberately creating a stuffy and pompous narrator or is simply as clueless as the Gill who torpedoes his marriage by knocking up a yoga pal.

Ultimately, the most notable material in How Starbucks Saved My Life may be what the author leaves out. The factual story of the company’s growth has given way to the myth. For Gill, Starbucks is no longer a business story; the com­pany has become a country unto itself, governed by such clear rules and principles that one need no longer discuss them. Starbucks has become, for him, an economic and philosophical force with the power and resources to salvage his life.

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Starbucks Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Scott Bedbury with Stephen Fenichell, A New Brand World: 8 Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century (Viking, 2002), 240 pages
  2. Karen Blumenthal, Grande Expectations: A Year in the Life of Starbucks’ Stock (Crown Business, 2007), 309 pages
  3. Taylor Clark, Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture (Little, Brown, 2007), 297 pages
  4. Michael Gates Gill, How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else (Gotham Books, 2007), 265 pages
  5. John Moore, Tribal Knowledge: Business Wisdom Brewed from the Grounds of Starbucks Corporate Culture (Kaplan, 2006), 252 pages
  6. Phil Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect — and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (Free Press, 2007), 260 pages
  7. Arthur Rubinfeld and Collins Hemingway, Built for Growth: Expanding Your Business around the Corner or across the Globe (Wharton School, 2005), 268 pages
  8. Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time (Hyperion, 1997), 358 pages
  9. Leonard Sweet, The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion (Waterbrook Press, 2007), 222 pages
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