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No, She’s Not the Kitchen Help

Black people make up about 13% of the American population, meaning black women are approximately 7.5%. Not a huge number, but also not insignificant. And yet the percentage of S&P 500 companies with a black woman in the top spot is currently… checks the math… 0%. No, I didn’t forget a digit there; not a single one of the S&P 500 companies is led by a black woman. Starting in March, however, that number is going to change (to an impressive 0.2%) when Rosalind “Roz” Brewer steps into the CEO role at Walgreens.

When you’re a Black woman, you get mistaken a lot. You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have that top job. Sometimes you’re mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people assume you’re in the wrong place, and all I can think in the back of my head is, ‘No, you’re in the wrong place.’”

Rosalind Brewer, commencement address to Spelman College, 2018

Brewer is the youngest child with 4 older siblings whose parents worked on the auto assembly lines in Detroit. Neither of her parents graduated from high school, but they insisted their children go to college. Brewer earned a bachelor’s in chemistry from the historically black, all-girl institute Spelman College. She used that science background during two decades of rise at Kimberly-Clark before being offered the CEO position for Walmart’s Sam’s Club stores in 2006. Since 2017 she has served as Chief Operating Officer at Starbucks, where she worked on the “…global functions of marketing, technology, supply chain, product innovation, and store development organizations.” I don’t know about you, but I think the company charged with helping to vaccinate millions of Americans against COVID-19 will be very well led by the person who has spent the last 4 years of her career overseeing how to get a latte served up in just 90 seconds.

On the topic of diversity, inclusion, and racial equity, Brewer also has an impressive record. Recall back to the summer of 2018 when a white barista called the police on two young black men who were sitting in a Starbucks. Brewer was instrumental in the company’s reaction to the mistake. She personally (along with Starbucks’ CEO) met with the two men to apologize for the discrimination. She publicly spoke about how she could envision similar discrimination happening to her son. Under her leadership, the entire company to shut their stores for one afternoon to conduct 4 hour racial awareness training, with 12 other trainings made available. The events also prompted Starbucks to change their store policy so that non-paying customers are welcome to sit in their stores and use their restrooms when needed. Brewer is the kind of leader who pushes diversity and inclusion thinking to make her company better. While at Sam’s Club she actively called out suppliers for their lack of diversity. Brewer is the embodiment of an anti-racist leader.

During a 2018 speech delivered to her alma mater she frankly addressed the challenges of being a woman of color in corporate America, saying, “When you’re a Black woman, you get mistaken a lot. You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have that top job. Sometimes you’re mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people assume you’re in the wrong place, and all I can think in the back of my head is, ‘No, you’re in the wrong place.’” It is important to note that Brewer will be just the third black woman ever to head an S&P 500 company. Ursula Burns was the first when she held the reins at Xerox from 2009 to 2016. Bed Bath & Beyond was technically the second when Mary Winston served as interim CEO for seven months in 2019.

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