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Starbucks chief says ineffective political leaders hurting America

Howard Schultz took the stage, a green curtain hanging behind him. Although the Starbucks chairman, president and CEO was in Las Vegas to speak to a group of food scientists, he took the opportunity to get political.

Schultz recently has been speaking out about his lack of faith in American politicians, and his efforts to affect change. He’s called for other leaders to suspend financial contributions to incumbent politicians until they "put Americans first."

About 2,000 food scientists packed the ballroom at the Las Vegas Convention Center Tuesday morning to hear Schultz, the keynote speaker for the 72nd Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo, which runs through Thursday. About 22,000 self-described "food geeks," including some 2,000 international attendees from 80 countries, are expected to attend.

Whether they hailed from the United States or elsewhere, keynote audience members seemed excited as Schultz walked on stage. Many snapped photos of the man who built Starbucks from a handful of outlets in Seattle into a worldwide caffeinated juggernaut with more than 15,000 stores in 50 countries.

But the billionaire had little to say about food or technology.

"This is a time where I just can’t be a bystander," Schultz said before launching on a nonpartisan critique of national politics and political leadership he called ineffective and damaging to American society.

Schultz seemed particularly upset about last summer’s debt ceiling debate in Congress, which he called a "debt-ceiling debacle."

"I was profoundly disappointed. Their inability to lead caused doubt and a lack of confidence in the ability of America to solve its problems," Schultz explained. "Whether Democrat, Republican or Independent, we don’t seem to have a voice."

Schultz said Americans are going to experience cuts in social services, and citizens can’t continue to ignore what’s going on around them.

"Your business and respective careers can’t be, and won’t be, isolated from what’s going on in America," Schultz told the crowd. "Our voices must be heard and heard loudly."

Perhaps to put his call-to-action in context, Schultz told of his struggles when, in 2008, his wildly successful company was in peril.

"A level of entitlement and hubris had set in," he said.

What followed was a series of self-induced mistakes, chief among them allowing stock price to guide business decisions, he said.

To save Starbucks, Schultz said he and other "like-minded people facing the same direction checked their egos at the door … There isn’t anything I would not do to preserve and enhance the values of this company."

Starbucks went public in June 1992. On Tuesday, the brand’s market cap was listed at almost $41 billion.

Schultz said he attributes much of his company’s success to valuing employees and creating a business philosophy that pairs profits with social responsibility. For example, all employees who work more than 20 hours each week are offered stock options and health insurance.

"I would strongly suggest to not let anyone in your life tell you your dreams can’t come true," Schultz said.

When he finished, the crowd clapped and a few people stood, but no one suggested marching on Washington or reforming the government. Most simply walked away, headed for educational sessions or exhibit booths on the show floor.

Contact reporter Laura Carroll at lcarroll@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4588.

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