On March 23rd, 2016 Harlem Alicia Keys performed at the Starbucks shareholder meeting. Thousands waited in line for hours in the rain outside an auditorium in downtown Seattle Wednesday morning, the way you might for Adele tickets or a new Yeezy shoe.
But this dedicated showing wasn’t for a political rally, but a gathering of investors for a prosaic corporate shareholders meeting.
That’s because Starbucks — and its charismatic CEO Howard Schultz — has famously turned these investment meetings into big extravagant productions with star musical performances, surprise celebrity guests and sometimes controversial discussions about social issues of the day.
Last year, for instance, Schultz dedicated much of the meeting to talking about racial tensions in the months following Black Lives Matters protests in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. Common appeared on stage and Jennifer Hudson performed.
The excitement was evident among the thousands of people who packed into the Seattle center this morning, eager to get good seats for the show.
Still more stood in pop-up tents outside the building to watch on screens set up to broadcast the event for those who didn’t make it through the doors.
John Schooler, a retired attorney and longtime shareholder from Palm Springs, California, said he’s been to investor meetings for other companies and the difference is striking.
“It was night and day. I’ve never been to a shareholders conference like this one,” Schooler said. “One of the reasons I’m still a shareholder here is that I love the energy that comes together at one of these meetings.”
The hype around the meetings comes in large part from the stage presence and outspokenness of Schultz, whose most recent run as CEO started in 2008.
Jerome Bosley and his wife Barbara have owned shares in Starbucks since the company first went public in 1992 and they’ve been to at least half a dozen of these events. They said the company has been keeping these events entertaining as far as they remember.
The crowd is a bit more divided on whether Schultz’ social activism has a place at the gathering. Cagie Peardon, who came here from Crystal River, Florida to lobby for a hometown Starbucks, says she respects the opinions but doesn’t feel like they have a place at a meeting for a public company.
“I think there’s a time and place for that,” she said.
But others welcomed Schultz’ principled stances as a refreshing change of pace from other corporate monoliths.
“It was a little edgy last year with the race campaign last year, but I dug the balls it took to talk about that,” said Keri Kragh, a social worker from Tacoma, Washington.