Doing Global Good at Starbucks

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Nancy Joseph 01/29/2014 January 2014 Perspectives

Remember the last salad you nibbled or juice you drank at Starbucks?  A&S alumna Ann Burkhart probably had her hand in it.

Not literally, of course. That would be unsanitary. But as manager of global responsibility for Starbucks, Burkhart (BA, International Studies, 1990) explores the origins of many ingredients in Starbucks food products to better understand—and positively impact—the working conditions and environmental practices under which they are produced.

“I’m currently focused on developing ethical sourcing strategies for all our agricultural products, except coffee, cocoa, and tea,” says Burkhart.  “The priority commodities for me this year are fruits, vegetables, and dairy.”

"When you find a company that matches your values, when you appreciate the culture in which you spend most of your day, it’s a wonderful thing,”says Ann Burkhart of her Starbucks job.

Burkhart’s global perspective dates back to childhood, when her family hosted international students each year.  She turned the tables and lived with a host family in Ecuador during her senior year of high school, then majored in international studies at the UW, with an emphasis on Latin America.  “I didn’t know it at the time, but the whole research and writing piece at the UW has been extremely valuable in my work,” she says.

After graduating, Burkhart took a job with CARE, first in its Seattle office, handling logistics for a speaker series, then in its Ecuador office, helping write a plan for a project to develop family gardens.  Other CARE positions followed in Seattle, San Francisco and New York, with duties ranging from office management to marketing to fundraising. 

“I became very interested in microenterprise development work, which was a new program at CARE,” says Burkhart. "But a lot of people doing that work had business degrees.” Lacking business experience, Burkhart applied to graduate business programs. She was soon enrolled at New York University, where she earned a graduate degree in international finance.  

Ironically, after earning her business degree, Burkhart had hefty loans to pay back and could no longer afford to work in the nonprofit world.  She became a consultant in the internet sector, which was exploding (“in a good way,” she clarifies) at the time.  “I enjoyed aspects of working in the internet sector—I enjoyed that work intellectually—but it didn’t have the ‘heart’ component that was important to me,” says Burkhart. “I realized that I wanted to do work at the intersection between doing good and managing a for-profit.”

Starbucks buys a lot of things, and how you buy things is a powerful way to influence what happens in the world. We can help make a greater change.

Fortunately for Burkhart, business ethics was an up-and-coming field at the time. “It was right when the business sector was being rocked by Enron and other scandals,” she explains. “It was a great time to be a business ethicist! Everyone was building business ethics programs.” Burkhart spent two years at Weyerhauser, and then moved over to Starbucks. Her first Starbucks job was in the Legal Department, helping the company develop its international codes of conduct. She later led equal opportunity initiatives before moving into her current position in global responsibility.

To those who covet Burkhart’s plum job, she offers a bit of advice: keep your eye on the prize, but don’t expect anything to fall in your lap.

Ann looks over the Zocolo in Mexico City during a trip abroad during her college years.

“I didn’t come into Starbucks directly into the area that was my dream job,” she explains. “I always had that job on my radar, but in a company that is considered a leader in this area, people rarely leave these positions once they have them.” Burkhart became involved with employee groups, organized volunteer activities, and joined a committee to review grant applications as a way to build skills that would get her noticed. “I built up that network and my reputation so that when an opportunity finally presented itself in the ethical sourcing group—an eight-month assignment, filling in for someone on leave—I ended up getting the job,” she says. Burkhart later leveraged that short-term assignment into a permanent position.

Burkhart’s team focuses on sourcing food commodities in an ethical way. That means developing strategies for procurement of everything from dairy to sugar to produce, looking at factors ranging from economic transparency to environmental impacts and the treatment of workers.  “I love that I get to focus on agricultural issues globally,” she says. “My grandparents were all dairy farmers and it feels good to be connected to that tradition.”

One central mission guides all of the team’s strategies: ensuring that the company’s global impact is a positive one. “Starbucks buys a lot of things,” says Burkhart, “and how you buy things is a powerful way to influence what happens in the world. We can help make a greater change.”

Years after leaving CARE, Burkhart still has a soft spot for the nonprofit world, but she feels she’s found an ideal position in the corporate sector. “I loved the not-for-profit world,” she says, “but I like the broader reach that a corporation like Starbucks provides. When you find a company that matches your values, when you appreciate the culture in which you spend most of your day, it’s a wonderful thing.”


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