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Sneed: Mellody Hobson’s ideas inspired Starbucks’ #RaceTogether

The talk of the Twitterverse Wednesday began with a cup of Starbucks that brewed up a storm on social media.

And it was Chicago’s own Mellody Hobson — a financial whiz who is president of Ariel Investments and an African-American member of the Starbucks board of directors — who may have started the coffee brewing.

OPINION

At issue was a plan by Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz to start up a conversation about race relations — inspired by the police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson and New York — an initiative titled “Race Together” in which Starbucks baristas write the phrase on coffee cups to inspire customers to discuss racial relations in a more public forum. #RaceTogether was trending on Twitter on Wednesday.

But what was intended to be a quiet water-cooler discussion in the atmosphere of what has become a “third place” to go during the day — began to backfire on social media, prompting criticism and a dollop of derision.

Even Gwen Ifill, the highly respected African-American PBS “NewsHour” anchor, tweeted Tuesday: “honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I’ve had my morning coffee, it will not end well.”

Sneed is told the race initiative may have been Schultz’s brainchild, but it was influenced by a TED conference talk by Hobson in March 2014 in Vancouver on being “color brave.” TED is a forum where speakers are invited to share powerful ideas on almost any topic.

Schultz told shareholders at the company’s annual meeting in Seattle on Wednesday: “Over the last 10 years, we’ve had the benefit – I’ve had the benefit — of having Mellody Hobson on Starbucks’ board. She’s an African-American woman, and she has risen to the heights at the highest level of corporate America. She’s been an adviser and counselor to me on a number of issues, but specifically this issue [of race in America] as I and the company try to navigate through the process of not being a bystander and effectively and respectfully trying to make a difference in the communities we serve.”

Back in 2014, Hobson told the TED gathering: “Race in America makes people completely uncomfortable.”

“I’m asking you to show courage, to be bold,” she added. “I’m asking you not to leave any child behind, not to be colorblind but to be color brave, so every child knows that their future matters and their dreams are possible.”

“She clearly planted the seed,” said a Sneed source — which eventually resulted in a corporate meeting called by Schultz months ago to talk about race relations.

“There was a firestorm at that meeting,” a source said. “There was even crying. Workers who talked about police brutality in their life experiences and how they made sure their children would be protected by going unnoticed.”

On Wednesday, Hobson addressed the Starbucks shareholders meeting: “Race today is still one of the most controversial and uncomfortable issues to discuss in America. Bring it up at the dinner table or the workplace, and the effect is the conversational equivalent of touching the third rail — shock followed by a long silence.

“But we all know the first step in solving a problem is to stop hiding from it. The first step toward action is awareness. So I’m here to talk about what I’ve seen and what I’ve lived, with the hope that we can all feel a little less anxious and a little more bold when it comes to conversations about race.”

Sneed is told Hobson was surprised by the runaway backlash against Race Together, but strongly felt that starting a conversation leads to more empathy and understanding.

Is this coffee controversy a hill of beans, a tempest in a teapot or grounds for a new kind of dialogue on race?

Bravo, Howard. Bravo, Mellody.

Sneedlings . . .

Friday’s birthdays: Holly Hunter, 57; Spike Lee, 58, and Carl Reiner, 93.