The Starbucks senior vice president talks strategy, Seattle, and sampling coffee culture around the world.
- May 01, 2018
Fifteen years ago, Sandra Stark, ’95, went west to Seattle to Starbucks Coffee Company, where she worked with three others in new ventures, a group that behaved like a VC firm: buying Tazo Tea, introducing the Starbucks Card, and looking for other growth opportunities. She wasn’t managing a huge slice of the company’s total $22.4 billion business, as she does these days as a senior vice president managing the global product organization, but it gave her a first glimpse of the fast-growing company’s equitable culture.
It’s this culture, she says, that informs “what we do and how we treat people—farmers, suppliers, partners in stores, customers—along the way. It permeates everything we do, it sets the tone, and it helps answer many, many questions. It’s our true north and it’s why I’ve been here 15 years.” A native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, and mother of three tweens, Stark recharges with her kids: skiing and playing tennis and basketball. “I have everything I could wish for in my life. Every single day I think, ‘I am so lucky to have this job.’”
Coffee is the heart and soul of our business. Product is my responsibility: beverages, food, merchandise. It starts with coffee and expands from there. What’s the strategy? What’s the right portfolio? What’s the innovation? How are we staying ahead? Currently new to the mix are our Blonde Espresso, made with lightly roasted beans; nitrogen-infused cold brew, which is less acidic and richer tasting; and Teavana Tea Infusions. With merchandise, we’re thinking, what do our customers need to create the right coffee experience at home?
My work is measured day to day. I’m thinking about how the business did yesterday. How our products delivered in terms of revenue and margin. I report to the COO, and I manage 190 people. I lead teams that think about what’s next at Starbucks.
“Worldwide, people connect over coffee. When I’m traveling, I’m looking for how people are innovating around food and beverage.”
Finance was my first love. Then I took a strategy course. I’m an engineer by background, and so my scope was narrow and deep. The strategy case studies suddenly had me thinking broadly: Were the companies selling the right product and pricing appropriately? Had they structured their organization correctly? Were they going after the right customer? Had they defined their competitive set? It was fascinating to me. On top of that, I was thinking about these questions with three or four other students who had different experiences and opinions on the best approach. There was no correct answer. That was so different from my past studies.
Travel informs my business. When I travel, I see how coffee is consumed in different countries, and I learn their coffee culture. In Italy, it’s about sipping espresso at the bar with friends. In China, they are more likely to gather in the afternoon, and they sit down together in a shared experience. The Japanese are constantly innovating. The leading edge? Korea. Worldwide, people connect over coffee. When I’m traveling, I’m looking for how people are innovating around food and beverage. Are we tapping into the right trends? Do we see what customers are interested in or will be interested in?
We’re always introducing new products and flavors. Sometimes things go wrong. We introduced Sorbetto, a dairy-based granita. It was a great product. But it was made in a soft-serve machine that had to be taken apart and cleaned nightly. It took hours, and was too much of a burden. How it will work in the store is one of the main lenses we look at when we innovate and launch.
Mostly things go right. I savor our successes. My team reformulated our food products, removing anything artificial. We made all-day snacking permissible. We introduced the Bistro Box and cake pops.
For advice, I have a lifelong bench of mentors and colleagues, and I pay it forward by mentoring others. It’s an investment maintaining these relationships with people who have been my managers, peers, and colleagues. When I face challenges or situations in my professional or personal life, I turn to these people for a different perspective, to have a sounding board. It’s an invaluable network, and these relationships go back to my first job, span to today, and include many from Chicago Booth.
As a working mother, I’m not going to say I do it all. I am going to say that I juggle a lot of balls and catch most of them. I catch the important ones. I mentor women who want to see what it looks like to have kids and a successful career and not go crazy. We talk about that a lot.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I don’t know where that’s from, but it resonates with me. I believe in informal mentoring, being visible and open. I make sure others see the reality of my professional and personal life. I talk about sick kids, the never-ending after-school practice schedules, forgetting to sign someone up for something, being late for things. It’s hard to keep all the balls in the air and it’s OK to make mistakes. By sharing, it creates an environment where others feel comfortable and open about challenges they may be having.
I can’t remember the last time I regularly wore a suit to work. What a change over my career! Some of it is the times and some of it is living in the Pacific Northwest: I’ve gone from suits and heels every day, to casual Fridays, to a completely flexible dress code.
The Midwest stays with you. I was born in Chicago and grew up in Wisconsin. I went to the University of Wisconsin. There is a true friendliness and down-to-earth quality of people from the Midwest, and that stays with you even after you leave. In Seattle, I have an immediate bond with others from Wisconsin: the Badgers, the Packers, casseroles, brutal winters.
Seattle combines urban life with access to the great outdoors. The city is relaxed, casual, and diverse, and has good restaurants and art combined with easy access to the ocean and the mountains. My husband and I are both from the Midwest, and we lived in London before settling in Seattle. We can’t imagine raising our family anywhere else.
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