By Linda Dahlstrom / Starbucks Newsroom
SHANGHAI, China – The cold was so devastating in the mountains that sheep sometimes froze to death. People who lived and worked for long periods at the high altitude of the remote Hoh Xil nature reserve on the Tibetan plateau risked heart issues, altitude sickness or other deadly health problems.
Nick Ning, 28, grows quiet when he talks about the stark conditions his mother worked in for years to provide for her sons.
He was 13 years old and his brother was only 6 when their dad died. Their parents had met years ago when they both worked in high in the mountains as rangers defending Tibetan antelope, which are endangered due to poachers killing them for their valuable underfur. Now, with the death of her husband, Chun Mei Guo needed to earn enough money to raise her children. She needed to return to work in the Hoh Xil reserve.
In an area with a mean annual temperature of 37 degrees Fahrenheit, the job meant sacrificing not only potentially her health, but also the two boys who filled her heart. To care for them, she would have to leave them.
She sent them to stay with their grandfather in Qinghai Province while she went to the mountains nearly 500 miles away, sending money home and visiting as often as she could.
“The altitude is too high,” Ning said through a translator. Most rangers couldn’t work in those conditions for long and few women held those jobs at all. But she stayed years, until both her boys were grown and settled with jobs of their own.
“She was so brave to be working in the area where there are few people around,” he said. “She devoted her whole life to protect the safety and security of the place.”
Now 54 years old, with her sons working at careers of their own, she’s been able to come down off the mountain. Her health is OK for now, Ning said, but he always worries about her – waiting for the cumulative effects of those years in thin air and icy temperatures to catch up with her.
Five years ago, Ning, began working at Starbucks, a career that his mother didn’t quite understand having never tasted coffee. He worked his way up from being a barista to a shift supervisor and now works at the tea bar at the prestigious newly opened Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai.
“She had no idea what I did,” said Ning, 28. That changed in the spring when she was invited to attend with Ning a Starbucks Partner Family Forum, where Howard Schultz, the executive chairman of Starbucks, and Belinda Wong, the chief executive officer of Starbucks in China, welcomed partners and their families and answered questions. It marked the first time his mom tried coffee and the first time she’d ever been to Beijing.
And there was another first as well. It was there that Wong announced Starbucks would be the first company in China to allow partners to not just cover their children and spouses on their health insurance policies – but also their parents.
“(My mom) was shocked that there would be insurance for her,” said Ning. “I just felt relief. It made me feel safe and like I had achieved something for my mom.”
That’s exactly the goal, said Wong. China is Starbucks’ fastest-growing market and with that growth also comes the chance to take care of partners in new ways. In a culture where family ties are incredibly strong and children are responsible for the care of their aging parents, she wanted to find a way to add them to their partners’ insurance. When she reached out to three different insurance companies to ask about it, “none of them had ever heard of this before,” she said.
But Wong found a way and the insurance was implemented last June. Soon after, 14,000 parents had been added to policies under the Starbucks China Parent Care Program, which offers critical illness insurance plans for the parents of its eligible full-time partners across Mainland China to complement the current China Social Medical Insurance Program.
Wong’s dream is that the parental insurance benefit will be adopted by other companies throughout China as well.
Just as Ning’s mother took care of him, “now I can help take care of her,” he said, adding “she was very proud of me working for a company that valued humanity and love.”
Connecting the past to the future
At that same partner forum where the insurance benefit was announced, Ning had arranged to perform a song. His mother thought she’d be singing a song for Schultz. Instead, he surprised her by singing one to her named “Mayke Ame,” which translates to “Holy Mother.” As he held her hands in his as he sang, he could feel her trembling with emotion, he said.
“It is about a woman working hard and how we appreciate this kind of woman,” he explained. In the song, the woman serves butter tea, a treat in Tibet offered to those you love most, your best friends and closest family.
In his new job at the Teavana tea bar of the Shanghai Roastery he introduces customers to a host of new tea blends and unique flavors. “It’s connecting the past to the future,” he said.
Each day, he strives to make each customer to feel as honored and respected as they would if they were guests in his home and he was serving them butter tea, he said. He wants them to feel the warmth and support that he’s felt all those years from his mother, even as she was high in the mountains, her sacrifice making his future possible.
“Her spirit inspired me to face the adversity of life bravely,” he said. “My mom is the hero of my heart.”
Starbucks’ Cat Geng, Stella Weiwei Zhou and Derek Ng contributed to this report.