When former Starbucks chief executive officer Howard Schultz and Arizona State University president Michael Crow met while serving on a board, they quickly realized they shared a common denominator: a commitment to human development and performance. Schultz, who wanted to provide educational opportunities to his partners (Starbucks refers to its employees as “partners”), and Crow, who had access to scalable online education, decided to join forces in what would become a lasting partnership between the coffee giant and one of the largest public universities in the U.S.

“It was, essentially, a match that just worked from a core mission and values perspective,” says Lisa Young, associate vice president of enterprise development at Arizona State University (ASU).

In this case study, we will examine how Starbucks and ASU’s shared commitment to learning and development (L&D) promotes lifelong learning for Starbucks partners and customers alike.

Getting Started

The Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP), a degree completion program, launched in 2014 to act as the “flagship part of our partnership,” Young says. The program was designed to give all Starbucks partners the opportunity to earn their bachelor’s degree through ASU Online — with 100% tuition coverage. Partners can choose from over 100 undergraduate degree completion programs, from retail management to biochemistry to information technology (IT).

In 2016, after recognizing that Starbucks has “learners of all types,” Young says that Crow and Schultz decided to expand their education benefits to reach non-degree-seeking learners or, as they call them, “universal learners.”

Thus, Starbucks Global Academy was born.

Expanding Access to Lifelong Learning

After piloting the program in four different countries outside of the U.S., Starbucks Global Academy officially launched in 2017. The program was designed to help partners “supplement their learning” or previous degree with additional subject matter expertise, Young says. Essentially, it acts as another “modality of learning” with a non-degree lens.

Laura Jones, senior specialist for global social impact at Starbucks, says the program’s mission is to “remove the barriers” within high-quality education and provide learning resources to partners as well as customers and community members around the world. “It’s a global resource,” she says.

Starbucks Global Academy includes four learning tracks:

    • English language learning
    • Personal growth and development
    • Pathways to advanced education
    • Global social impact

Each of these learning tracks includes an array of courses. Jones says that the company’s subject matter experts (SMEs) and ASU’s academic experts work closely together to develop “innovative curricul[a] and resources” for the program.

“Over time, we honed in on [content] that was important to Starbucks strategically,” Young says, adding that the program has also helped Starbucks upskill current partners. For example, the English language learning track is “definitely helpful” for baristas who speak a different first language, as conversational English is a skill they consistently use on the job.

Jones explains, “As the program was designed for global learners, we worked with our international markets to understand which content would be most beneficial. We learned it was important to offer English language content, and English language courses continue to be some of the top-performing courses on the platform.”

Some of the learning tracks also include certification programs that result in a digital and/or physical badge. One of the most popular certification programs, Greener Apron, teaches sustainability using content from the ASU School of Sustainability within the College of Global Futures. The course looks at both “sustainability fundamentals” as well as sustainability at Starbucks specifically, Young says. Upon completion, Starbucks baristas receive a Greener Apron pin that they can wear on their apron to designate their expertise.

Young says that baristas “really take a sense of pride in [wearing] those pins” and that there is continued interest in these “stackable credentials.” After completing certification programs, learners also receive a digital badge, which they can upload on LinkedIn to designate their expertise.

Leveraging Technology

Over time, Young says ASU has leveraged technology to “get closer” to customers and support their unique needs. The university has worked closely with Starbucks to establish a “technology talent pipeline,” she says. Starbucks even has a Technology Center in Arizona, where students and SCAP scholars work on various technology initiatives for the Starbucks business, and subject matter experts partner with faculty to develop innovative technology curricula in support of career readiness. This initiative is one of the ways that ASU has leveraged its internal capabilities to help Starbucks achieve its business needs, Young shares.

Starbucks Global Academy also leverages technology to drive engagement. After all, many learners are busy baristas balancing work and home life. Jones says that the platform uses everything from short videos to knowledge checks to keep learners engaged. In fact, from February to June 2020, well into the coronavirus pandemic, Starbucks saw “sustained engagement and participation but also new engagement and participation [in the program].”

Specifically, over 16,000 individuals have enrolled in the platform since February, Jones says, and its “To Be Welcoming Course” — which covers diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) — gained over 27,000 enrollments during the same time frame. As companies continue to embrace remote work and learning, she says, their top priority remains to “provide these educational resources globally.”

The Bigger Picture

While all of the company’s educational resources and benefits help “support continued learning and development,” Jones says that Starbucks Global Academy is about more than creating valuable learning opportunities: It is also about creating “understanding and advocacy of our [social impact] priorities and our programs.” Educating learners on the company’s (and ASU’s) values around sustainability, DEI and additional social responsibility topics gives them the tools they need to drive change, whether at Starbucks or in their individual communities.

While ASU and Starbucks have “different ways of operating,” Young says, collectively, “We have a shared idea that we want to advance people [and] the communities they’re in.” This shared commitment to human and community development is what first sparked the partnership between ASU and Starbucks — and what both partners hope will sustain it in the future.