Three CWU alums thriving in leadership roles at Starbucks

  • September 7, 2023
  • David Leder

Editor's note: This story appears in the latest edition of Crimson & Black magazine.

Starbucks Coffee Company is an iconic global brand with more than 100 million customers in 84 markets worldwide. The Seattle-based coffee retailer generates upwards of $30 billion per year and has been on a steady growth trajectory since it was founded more than 50 years ago.

With a track record like that, it should come as no surprise that Starbucks attracts some of the world's best talent to its leadership ranks. But only one institution of higher learning-Central Washington University-can claim three graduates on the company's senior leadership team.

Acting Executive Vice President and General Counsel Zabrina Jenkins ('92), Senior Vice President of Marketing Kyndra Russell ('96), and Senior Vice President and Chief Procurement Officer Kelly Bengston ('96) all started their professional journeys in Ellensburg. As a result, all three alums are extremely proud to call Central their alma mater.

"The three of us always try to champion the CWU name within Starbucks, and it's definitely a point of pride for me when I talk about where I got started," said Jenkins, an 18-year Starbucks veteran who graduated with a business administration/finance degree before going on to law school.


Jenkins now serves on the CWU Board of Trustees-a position she has held since 2019-and previously sat on the Foundation Board. No matter where she has gone throughout her career, she always harkens back to her overwhelmingly positive experiences at Central.

"I still talk to students on campus all of the time when I'm over there," she said. "It has changed a lot since my time there, but it's still a very special place for me."

Bengston, who earned a degree in business administration, believes one of the best things about being a Wildcat is the sense of pride that is shared among the alumni. She also appreciates how CWU has maintained its culture of belonging since she was a student and residence hall advisor in the mid-1990s.

"Central has always been known for being very accessible and very personable, and that is still true today," said Bengston, a member of the CWU Foundation Board since 2017. "It still has great professors and great programs, and I feel like it's only getting better. Plus, it's in an ideal location-close to the west side, but far enough away so students can have a true college experience."

She and her husband, Kevin-also a Central alum-remain active with the foundation, and they are always seeking new opportunities to champion current and future Wildcats. Their most recent contributions have been through a new initiative called the Wildcat Promise, which seeks to help bridge the gap between financial aid and the true cost of attending a university.

"We are very passionate about first-generation students and helping them pursue their education," said Bengston, who has been with Starbucks since 2010. "Kevin and I were both first-gen students, so we know what it's like. We understand that it's hard to afford college, and we wanted to help find a funding mechanism for students who don't have the benefit of full financial aid. With the Wildcat Promise, and other programs we support, we see students thrive."

Russell, like her two Starbucks colleagues, said she plans to become more involved in alumni relations in the years to come, while also contributing to CWU's marketing and rebranding efforts. She sees a number of growth opportunities for the institution, and she hopes to use her professional expertise to benefit Central's future.

"I have developed a lot of good alumni relationships over the years, and I feel like I can help strengthen the alumni community for Central," said Russell, who earned her degree in marketing and marketing management. "I would like to help figure out new ways for our alums to get involved in any way they can, no matter what that looks like, because there are so many different ways to help."

It All Started at Central

Russell, Jenkins, and Bengston each took charge of their own destinies, but the three Starbucks executives never hesitate to point out that their experiences at Central paved the way for their eventual rise to prominence in the world of international business.

To this day, Russell talks about how attending a relatively small institution like CWU helped shape her as a person and as a professional. For example, she learned to sharpen her analytical skills while also building strong, lasting relationships with her peers and professors.

"Central has such a strong sense of community, which really helped me grow as a person," she said. "But, at the same time, it stretches you and challenges you to go outside your comfort zone. By letting me choose the areas I really wanted to specialize in, Central gave me the power over my education that I may not have found at a larger institution. I was able to figure out what I really like to do, and that's what helped me find a career that I am passionate about."

One of the areas that piqued Russell's interest during her time at CWU was analytics-using data, insights, and innovation to drive planning, implementation, and evaluation of marketing campaigns. That knowledge helped her get her foot in the door at Westin Hotels and Resorts (which later became Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide) right out of college.

After more than 20 years in the hospitality industry, she parlayed that experience into a vice president role at Starbucks in 2017. Now, as senior vice president of marketing, Russell oversees a team of 200 and manages the company's global marketing strategy and execution. She is understandably proud of how far she has come in her career, and she isn't shy about admitting what sparked her successful journey.

"The most useful skills I learned at Central were how to communicate and to distill information for a specific audience," Russell said. "I have always loved mixing right-brain and left-brain; creativity and analysis. Fortunately, for me, marketing allows me to do both-and Central had a well-rounded curriculum that let me explore both of those areas at the same time."

Similarly, Jenkins can trace her early career development back to her time in Ellensburg, where the former Wildcat basketball player and admissions counselor learned to be a strategic thinker and problem-solver. But, most of all, she learned the importance of developing meaningful relationships.

"I learned early on the importance of going out and talking to people and building a strong network. That has served me very well throughout my career," said Jenkins, who now manages all of Starbucks' legal functions, along with its global security and resiliency team.

Her team of approximately 370 employees includes another CWU alum, Sean Dyers, who mentored her when she was in high school. He even helped Jenkins land her first position at Starbucks in 2005.

"Sean has been there for me since I was a teenager, and today we work in the same department," Jenkins said of Dyers ('87), a managing director and corporate counsel. "I've been fortunate to have a lot of meaningful relationships in my career, but Sean has been one of the most instrumental to my success." 

Control Your Own Destiny

Whenever Bengston thinks about how far she has come in her career, she always thinks back to what she learned while she was on campus. Like her two colleagues, she remembers the people she interacted with at CWU as being instrumental to her long-term development.

"You have to lean in and ask for help, and engage people when you need support," Bengston said. "And at Central, it seems like everyone is there to help you. That's one of the reasons it's such an amazing place to get an education."

While cultivating those personal relationships is essential for most people's professional development, your network can only do so much. Achieving your goals in life ultimately comes down to the effort you put in, she believes. 

"You have to learn to make yourself uncomfortable and take things on that you may not be sure about," said Bengston, whose staff of 350 acquires everything sold at Starbucks' 36,170 stores around the world-tables, chairs, cups, milk, flavored syrups, décor-all but the coffee beans themselves. "I have found that the most important thing is to be solutions-oriented instead of problem-focused. Don't get stuck on what the problem is; just figure out a way to fix it."

Russell concurred, noting that one of the most valuable skills she learned at Central was how to advocate for herself.

"I remember when one of my professors told me, 'The world isn't waiting for you; you need to let the world know what you're capable of,'" she said. "It was kind of a harsh reality at the time, but it helped me develop the self-confidence I needed to become a more well-rounded professional."

As one of the most trusted advisors to Starbucks founder and retired CEO Howard Schultz, Jenkins also understands the value of self-promotion. But, at the same time, she knows that to become a leader in a multi-national business, you have to present yourself as someone others want to get behind. 

Above all, be approachable and authentic. Always

"You have to recognize the responsibility that comes with being a leader," Jenkins said. "Be empathetic and relatable. Be a problem-solver. But, most importantly, be transparent and authentic. If you're not, people will see right through you, and they won't want to follow you."

Now that they have three decades of professional experience under their belts post-CWU, Jenkins, Russell, and Bengston have a wealth of advice to offer today's generation of young professionals: Meet as many people as you can, don't be afraid to ask questions, be curious, open yourself up to new opportunities, and be a good listener.

Most of all, don't wait for the world to discover you. Believe in yourself and grab hold of your own destiny.

"Be confident yet vulnerable," Russell advised. "Be brave enough to suggest new ways of working, but show respect for how things have been done before you got there. It's also important to take the pressure off of yourself. No one expects you to know everything when you're just starting out. Don't be afraid to show them what you can do."

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David Leder

University Relations