You wouldn’t think the COO of one of the largest corporations on the planet and a freelance photographer would have similar life experiences, but Starbucks’ Roz Brewer and Milwaukee’s Sara Stathas found a few patches of common ground — some delightful, others disheartening — during the latter’s October shoot for Fortune Magazine.
For starters: both are mountain-loving Midwesterners, with Roz hailing from Detroit and Sara rooted in Brew Town.
We connected on a deep, obsessive love of hiking and mountains. Anytime I can have authentic conversations with a subject on set, it directly informs the outcome of the work.
Roz understood the importance of really “being” with me in the moment during her time in front of my camera.
As for that other bit of common ground? Well, to put it mildly, when you’re a female in pretty much any field, you’re going to be grossly underestimated. Before saving Starbucks from a crippling combination of decreasing sales and increasing racial bias accusations — which boiled over right as Executive Chairman Howard Schultz was adding ‘emeritus’ to his title — Roz spent five years as the CEO of Sam’s Club, Walmart’s warehouse membership business. During this time, she gave the keynote speech at a CEO confab. Another executive in attendance was surprised Roz was scheduled to speak after assuming she was just a marketer or merchandiser.
I’m not at all surprised by Roz’s experiences of being discounted by colleagues in her field based solely on appearances. If I arrive at a shoot with a male photo assistant and the subject or others on set don’t know who the photographer is, they’ll sometimes approach my assistant first.
Even if I already have a camera on my shoulder, I make it a point to introduce myself immediately and, in addition to my name, announce that I am also the photographer.
A successful photographer at that, considering the first image on her landing page is of one of the most famous athletes in the world. Like reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Roz keeps a busy schedule. Sara only had about half an hour with the mother of two, but her first shoot with Fortune nonetheless went smoothly. Maybe Sara’s upbeat attitude was the reason.
Fortune’s creative director, Mia Diehl, sent two rounds of scout photos of the location to me since I didn’t have the opportunity to scout the space in person. The Starbucks was in downtown Chicago, so there’s also the added driving and parking-based stress to consider. But I had a really good gut feeling about this shoot and went into it way more excited than nervous. In turn, the logistics of the shoot went off without a hitch. I got a parking spot right next to the front door and even found a lucky penny before we brought in the gear.
Although Sara didn’t step into the Starbucks until shoot day, a phone call with Mia helped both parties “iron out specific portrait ideas based on the scout images.”
Mia gave me a lot of creative freedom but specifically emphasized a few things. Do not make it a typical business portrait. Look for a ‘moment’ with Roz and capture her personality and attitude by documenting a range of expressions. She also said to observe and react to Roz’s natural movement and body language.
Mia also requested that I keep a low profile at the location, with minimal setup, because we were shooting in a relatively small space during business hours. I was asked not to arrive with my equipment too early so that we didn’t take up space in the café and interfere with the customers.
That’s, uh, quite a number of hoops to jump through. But these shoots tend to go as the subject does, so Sara didn’t have much to worry about on that front.
My first impression of Roz is that she commands attention and expects connection. I found her super easy to chat with.
Sometimes when I’m shooting, I feel like certain set ups don’t work as well as I predicted. Either things don’t feel right or the subject doesn’t seem comfortable, but this wasn’t the case with Roz — everything we shot felt natural and great. None of the set ups were throwaways. They all worked!
“They all worked” is also a pretty good way to assess the changes Roz implemented upon starting her job in October of 2017. When she got to Starbucks, Roz was greeted with uninspiring marketing gimmicks, flatlining sales, and, to top it all off, a PR nightmare. In April of 2018, a manager at a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on two black men who made the mistake of existing while in the store. Again, all this took place as Howard Schultz, the name most associated with the billion-dollar behemoth, was in the process of retiring.
Roz spent her first 90 days on the job researching the company and mapping out the best path forward. Per the Fortune piece, she set three priorities: “beverage innovation, store experience, and the digital business,” gaining a well-earned reputation as a person unafraid of making tough decisions and following through on them.
The Wharton grad streamlined the online ordering process, which has mitigated the crush of foot traffic that descends upon Starbucks’ the world over. She also eliminated flash-in-the-pan stand-alone offerings like the “Unicorn Frappuccino,” delivering a necessary ultimatum along the way: “If it doesn’t fit with the company’s priorities — kill it.” Oh yeah, she also apologized to the two profiled Philadelphia men in person and helped put together a racial bias training program for Starbucks employees. Described as someone who “knows how to operate with discipline at scale,” Roz has taken a comprehensive approach to this corporate triage.
Roz’s job at Starbucks isn’t just about getting the stores to make money selling coffee or to raise the stock’s value. She understands the importance of giving employees the opportunity to thrive and grow in their work roles and personal lives.
The highly respected businesswoman is the perfect person to lead Starbucks’ caffeinated renaissance, and not just because her last name is Brewer. The same traits that pushed Roz to the top of the corporate food chain also helped Sara with her all-too-brief shoot.
Art Striber, a well-known editorial photographer, said this in an Instagram post: ‘The truth is, most people equate having their picture taken to dentistry: it’s something you SHOULD do twice a year, but you really don’t want to. It can be intrusive, painful, and there will probably be a lot of drooling.’ I totally agree! But I also think it’s so important for there to be full collaboration, otherwise the photos will suffer.
So, when I said that Roz was able to give me her time on set without distraction, she really did.
See more of Sara’s work at sarastathas.com.
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