Overcoming the ‘Fractured’ American Dream: Childhood Experiences Shape the Actions of Two Leaders

It was Christmas Eve, 1968, in Saint Mary’s County, Maryland.

Michael, age 13, had spent several months collecting food and gifts for an Eagle Scout service project and it was time to deliver the supplies to a family in need.

With his father dressed as Santa Claus by his side, Michael walked into a house like he’d never seen before. It had a dirt floor and no indoor plumbing or running water. As a woman stepped forward to thank them for the food, Michael noticed someone in her shadow in the dimly-lit room. It was a classmate of his; a boy he had talked with in school nearly every day.

“I never realized they had no money. That had a profound impact on me and something clicked at that moment. I thought 'something’s wrong in this world' and that started me on a path of wanting others to have the opportunity to live up to their potential and not be limited by their family’s means,” said Dr. Michael Crow, who went on to become a tenured professor at New York’s Columbia University and is currently President of Arizona State University.

Howard was seven years old when he walked through the door of his family’s federally-subsidized apartment, or as kids in his poor New York neighborhood called it, “the projects,” to find his father on the couch with a cast from his hip to ankle. His dad was a delivery driver who fell on a sheet of ice picking up a load of dirty cloth diapers.

“In those days you were dismissed from a job if you were injured. We didn’t have health care and very little money to get by; my father never made more than $20,000 a year. What followed was an unbelievable fracturing of my parents' hopes and dreams, and in many ways the promise of America,” said Howard Schultz, Starbucks founder, chairman, president and ceo.

These decades-old childhood experiences shaped the world views of two men who are joining forces to create opportunities for thousands of young people through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan.

This multi-million dollar investment will create an opportunity for Starbucks partners (employees) to finish a bachelor’s degree with full tuition reimbursement, through a unique collaboration with Arizona State University’s research-driven, top-ranked online degree program.

Partners admitted as a junior or senior, according to ASU’s admission requirements, will earn full tuition reimbursement for each year of coursework they complete toward a bachelor’s degree. Freshmen and sophomores will be eligible for a partial tuition scholarship and need-based  financial aid for two years of full-time study. 

“Every person should have an opportunity to advance on their own,” said Dr. Crow. “I fundamentally believe in an education model where individuals have an equal chance in a merit-based society where your parents’ income or status is not the determiner of your fate. That is what we have been building at ASU.”

Though neither of his parents graduated from high school, Schultz’s mother made it clear to her sons “you guys are going to college,” he recalled. Schultz went to Northern Michigan University on a football scholarship.

“Without a college education, I wouldn’t be here today,” Schultz said from his 8th floor office in Seattle where he oversees a company of more than 300,000 partners in 64 countries. “I truly believe education is the way to opportunities and a better life.”

Schultz said the company, and country, will be well served by the education initiative created by two like-minded organizations – Starbucks and ASU.

“This is going to give our partners hope, opportunity and the freedom to believe in themselves and their careers for the long term,” said Schultz. “The Starbucks College Achievement Plan is part of the answer to the question ‘what is the role and responsibility of a public company,’ and for me it demonstrates the heart and the conscience of Starbucks.”