What shareholders think about Starbucks' race idea

Starbucks has long been about more than coffee. CEO Howard Schultz has led initiatives to encourage small businesses to create jobs, his company is hiring thousands of veterans and Starbucks is providing free online college educations for many workers.

Starbucks CEO to Cramer on controversial 'Race Together' campaign
Starbucks CEO to Cramer on controversial 'Race Together' campaign
Starbucks shareholders weigh in on race
Starbucks shareholders weigh in on race
Customers outside first Starbucks on 'race together'
Customers outside first Starbucks on 'race together'

Now he wants to get you talking about race.

The company's new initiative, called "Race Together," will encourage baristas to write those two words on coffee cups and engage willing customers in discussion about America's racial divide. The reaction on social media has ranged from snarky to vicious—so much so that reports say the head of Starbucks' global PR temporarily suspended his Twitter account.

Some have criticized the lack of diversity among Starbucks executives. So on Wednesday, the company released data on its diversity, claiming that 42 percent of its vice presidents are women, and 16 percent are ethnic minorities.

Shareholders who traveled to Seattle for the company's ongoing annual meeting seem to like the concept of airing out a touchy subject like race while serving up coffee.

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"Starbucks seems to promote socially progressive things, and I think that's terrific," said Steve Nussbaum, a shareholder since the IPO. Evie Scribner is a believer in whatever initiative Howard Schultz executes: "It's a forward-moving company, and I think it's going to work, whatever he puts out there."

Baristas will be on the front lines, and many of them were at the meeting, including Harrison Deatherage. He has not yet written "Race Together" on a coffee cup, but said he will.

"It's kind of putting into words how I feel about everything," he said. And if customers are annoyed? "Our customers are so positive," he replied.

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The bigger concern for some is whether "Race Together" will slow down the process of making coffee. While shareholder Mary Melalson likes the concept, "I don't know how baristas are going to have time to have a conversation."

Not far away, outside the original Starbucks store at legendary Pike Place Market, customers were lining up and wondering the same thing.

A woman walks past a Starbucks cafe in New York.
Getty Images

"I don't know how much of a conversation you're going to have in a short period of time while you're waiting to get your coffee," said one woman. But she liked the idea, as did most of the others in line. "Race relations is what makes the world go 'round, positive race relations between all cultures, and Starbucks is a good example of that," said another woman.

However, not everyone's a fan, even in traditionally liberal Seattle. One man holding a grande-sized cup said if a Starbucks employee tries to talk to him about race, "I'd walk out of the store because it's inappropriate ... I want coffee. I want good coffee."