Starbucks’ new CEO meets with partners in an open forum and shares his personal journey

By Linda Dahlstrom, photos by Joshua Trujillo and Taylor Kelliher

It was not what is generally expected of a letter of congratulations.

“practically zero,” Narasimhan said Wednesday.

“I probably shouldn’t be here,” Narasimhan told a crowd of thousands of Starbucks partners who gathered virtually and in person at the company’s headquarters, the Seattle Support Center, to meet him. “I shouldn’t be here but I am. The world has given me some really tough things, but resilience defines me. We win from within.

Narasimhan, 55, has a hugely impressive resume, including nearly 30 years leading and advising global consumer-facing brands. Most recently, he was CEO of Reckitt, the multinational consumer health, hygiene and nutrition company. He is a graduate of several universities, including an MBA from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

But before all that, Narasimhan was a boy growing up in Pune, India, whose family struggled financially – and with grief so deep it can tear your heart apart. His sister died before he was born and his older brother Ram died at the age of 8 when Narasimhan was only 6 years old. He remembers waking up at neighbors’ house at night to find his brother’s health had changed and his parents had left him in the care of others while they focused on his brother.

After Ram’s death, the family was financially devastated, having spent all of their healthcare money trying to save their son. To help her, her mother went back to school and became a teacher. When he was 19, his father had a heart attack and the cardiologist told Narasimhan that he had to drop out of school to go work for the family since his father could no longer. Her mother wouldn’t hear of it. “She said there was no way you were doing this. We are going to live off my teacher’s salary,” he said.

Narasimhan skimped and saved to apply to universities. The app alone costs around $100 – almost the same as what he earned a month in India. He often didn’t have enough money to eat three meals a day, but refused to be defeated and kept pushing forward. After all, it’s a lesson he learned from his parents.

“I’m an extremely positive and optimistic person,” he said. “It’s not about what happens to me but how I react.”

“An innate understanding of humanity”

When Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, introduced Narasimhan at the event on Wednesday, he said “the leader of Starbucks, the future of the company, must be imbued with humility and must have an innate understanding of life. ‘humanity”. When he got to know Narasimhan, he said he was stuck with his experience and his leadership qualities, but it was his heart and his respect for others that made him “know that we are going to be between good hands and I can promise you that will make us a better company.

Narasimhan will officially join the company on October 1 and will spend the next six months as an apprentice with Schultz while learning about the company and company culture. But he’ll start by taking a multi-day barista course, he said.

During a visit earlier this week to the original Starbucks store, located in Pike Place Market, he made his first drink (“That was stressful!” he said) and held the camera to take photos of tourists posing in front of the historic store. Sara Kelly, executive vice president and director of partners, who led the Q&A with Narasimhan, said she wondered if later on tourists would reflect and realize the importance of who their photographer was.

Narasimhan describes himself as “relentlessly curious” and says he is eager to learn from his partners. He said he fell in love with Starbucks, especially as he watched partners serve customers in stores. “Humanity, warmth. (Partners) make them feel special in that moment and that’s really what this brand stands for. »

“People really matter”

Narasimhan moves to Seattle with his family, which includes his wife of 28 years and his mother, who became something of a celebrity in her latest venture when she inadvertently crashed the Zoom calls he was leading, including one where she said to take out the trash. He and his wife also have two adult children.

He said he looked forward to getting to know his new extended family of 400,000 Starbucks partners worldwide who serve 100 million customers a month. Every cup served, Narasimhan said, is an opportunity to connect. It shows “the magnitude of the impact we can have by fostering connection in a world where we are often disconnected,” he said. “It just shows you that the potential we have is huge and there’s a lot of humanity to connect over a cup.”

At the heart of it all is Starbucks’ mission, to nurture and inspire the human spirit, one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time, he said. As he reflects on his future, he thinks of everyone who helped him get where he is against all odds, his family’s trust in him, and all he has to learn and experience. alongside Starbucks partners.

“One thing I’ve learned is that miraculously when you open yourself up to fate, everyone you’ve bonded with along the way comes to help you. People really matter.

Melvin B. Baillie