Career Guide

Michael Gates Gill on valuable life lessons from Starbucks

How Starbucks Saved My Life is the true story of Michael Gates Gill, a successful man who had it all, and then lost it all when he was suddenly removed from a top position in a large American organisation.

In this book, Gill writes about how he accidentally meets a young African-American woman who offers him a job opportunity when he is deep in the pits of despair.

Gill shares 12 months of this redeeming journey in the chapters of this book. In this book summary, we take a look at what happened in two of these months.

MARCH: From Drinking Lattes to Serving Them Up

“Would you like a job?” Gill was awakened from his daydream by this question as he sat in a Starbucks store one day looking for some comfort in a latte. The latte was one of the last few treats he could afford at that moment of his life.

He looked up to the person who had asked him the question and found himself face-to-face with an attractive young African-American woman in a Starbucks uniform.

At 63, Gill, a former creative director of J Walter Thompson Co (JWT), the largest advertising agency in the world, had to ask himself, “Do I want a job at Starbucks?”

What happened? Gill had suddenly been called to breakfast with young Linda White, a senior executive at JWT. He was 25 years into his career with JWT, who now had Martin Sorrell as its new owner.

Sorrell was very particular about his bottom line. With his preference for young, energetic workers, Gill had now become an overhead that made a difference to Sorrell’s bottom line. That morning at breakfast, White broke the bad news to Gill that they had to let him go.

So, yes, he needed a job. He had not had to look for one for the last 35 years of his life. But today, without much thought, he responded to this confident and smiling African-American lady, “Yes, I would like a job.”

Gill grew up as a lonely boy whose parents were often not home. He spent a lot of time with Nana, an African-American woman who was like a mother to him. As he sat there looking at Crystal, this young African-American woman, the memories of his relationship with Nana returned to him. He felt he could trust her.

“Would you be willing to work for me?” asked Crystal, to which Gill immediately replied, “I would love to work for you.”

Happy with this answer, Crystal informed him that it was Starbucks’ Open Day and she was there to interview people for barista roles.

All remaining resistance towards the job vanished the moment Crystal explained the health benefits that Starbucks offered. Gill’s financial situation had become so bad that he had to give up his health insurance.

Even more troubling was that he had just been told by his doctor that he had a small tumour at the base on his brain which affects his hearing. He was due for a follow-up MRI in a few months.

Gill was also relieved to know that the insurance could cover all five of his children. He really wanted to be able to provide for Jonathan, his youngest child whom he had with Susan, Jonathan’s mother.

It was a moment in his life where he had gotten carried away by his emotions and pursued his attraction towards Susan, whom he had met at the gym. Eventually, one morning, Susan informed him that she was pregnant. When Jonathan arrived, Gill finally told Betsy, his wife, and they had a divorce.

Although Gill had left the house and family money to Betsy and their four children, he knew that was not sufficient, for he had ruined all their lives and his own. Now, he lived alone in a small apartment in a New York City suburb.

Gill had given all his life to his career. He was rarely around to see his children grow up. It was only when Jonathan suddenly looked at him one day, and said, “Da da”, that his heart broke.

He could tell that Crystal sensed his sincerity and willingness to work for her. Even though he knew that he had a lot to learn, Crystal seemed willing to take the risk. “The humble improve” – Wynton Marsalis, jazz musician, a quote published on the side of a cup of Starbucks Double Tall Skimmed Latte.

APRIL: Reality Shocks

As the weeks went by, Gill had to face the reality that he was not able to support himself any longer. What was worse, was that Crystal had not called him.

As he waited daily for the phone to ring, he remembered how he had no hesitation rejecting people during casting sessions for any imperfections in his days at JWT. He had this tendency to choose only those who were like him. Perhaps Crystal was doing the same, he thought.

She finally rang one morning and asked him again if he really wanted the job. Yes, he said, and she asked him to show up at her store at 93rd and Broadway the next day. Gill had never been to Broadway and expected it to be a very different community.

As he pondered on how Crystal had treated him, he felt sorry for how he had mistreated a young African-American woman who worked for him at JWT.

Now, he had personally experienced what it was like to be treated differently just because he was of a different race.

Remorsefully, he also remembered how he had always brushed off his daughter Laura’s desire to help the less fortunate. He had often called her “hopelessly naïve”.

Finally, he understood what Laura meant when she said that the perfect college campus he had chosen for her had no diversity! Diversity was Laura’s view of the “real world”, and it was the correct one.

As he made his way into the 93rd and Broadway Starbucks, he was able to confirm one of the anxieties he had. It was obvious that all the partners at that store were African-Americans.

No wonder Crystal repeatedly asked him if he really wanted the job and was willing to work for her. He suddenly realised that he would stick out as the minority in this community.

Gill looked around him and observed the rapid pace at which everyone was working. They were functioning at top, efficient speed, at the cash register, taking orders, calling them out and recalling orders.

What he had thought was below his ability suddenly appeared to be a task beyond him. He had stepped foot into a job that would be challenging in every aspect – mentally, physically and emotionally.

To his delight, Crystal greeted him with a cheerful and friendly tone, helping him to be more at ease. Soon, he found himself having coffee with Crystal, as she introduced him to a good cup of Sumatra coffee. Crystal told him he had to learn the different types of coffee at Starbucks.

Later, she introduced him to Kester, a well-built, muscly six-foot-something African-American, his training coach.

Gill was about to learn two things:

1 At Starbucks, no one ever orders anyone to do anything. It’s always asking for a favour. As his training coach, Kester, calls it, it is “training by sharing”. “We do things together. I learn from you by helping you learn.”

2 At Starbucks, Gill gradually discovers that it is not about him. It is about serving others. Less of Gill, more of others. “…Differences need not divide us. Embrace diversity. Dignity is everyone’s human right” – partial quote from Bill Brummel, documentary filmmaker, published on the side of a cup of Starbucks Decaf Grande Cappuccino.

Koh Earn Soo and his team take the best books and summarise them into shorter, readable content in the hope of inspiring people to read more and learn more. To read the rest of this summary and summaries of other bestsellers, subscribe to