The public rise of Rosalind Brewer couldn’t have happened at a better time.
On Tuesday, Brewer, a Black woman, was named CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., the global drug store giant, making her the only Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.
She’ll leave Starbucks in February, where she has been chief operating officer since 2017. Before that, Brewer blazed trails at Sam’s Club (owned by Walmart), where she was the first woman and the first African American to lead a division.
When she takes over as CEO of Walgreens, she will join the board of directors, where another trailblazer and business maven, Valerie Jarrett, also serves. In October, Jarrett became the first African American woman appointed to the board.
But while Brewer is legendary in C-suite circles, ordinary folk have probably never heard of her.
That’s a shame.
Brewer’s journey could have inspired a lot of disappointed young women to dream beyond TikTok stardom. Her success lets young women know that they can navigate the potholes of systemic racism and life’s challenges to realize their dreams and purpose.
But don’t take my word for it.
In 2018, Brewer gave a powerful commencement address at her alma mater, Spelman College, a historically Black college in Atlanta, in which she laid out the path before graduates.
“The generation of Spelman women who came before me were all first-of-a-kinds. The first Black woman to … the first Black leader to … the first Black judge to … the first Black surgeon to … a generation of way-makers. My generation is what one might call “Generation P,” and that P is for perseverance. We’ve had the job of keeping the fires that our grandmothers and mothers fought for, lived for, died for — alive,” Brewer said, according to a profile on the stories.starbucks.com website.
Much like Vice President Kamala Harris, who attended Howard University, Brewer’s success also shines a positive light on historically Black colleges and universities.
In 2010, she established nine annual scholarships awarded to first-generation Spelman students. Her rise will likely raise the school’s profile and enrollment as well.
And Brewer’s choice of chemistry as her major is a gift to every young girl who feels like she has to hide her smarts to be accepted by the popular kids.
Because Brewer’s elevation to CEO of a Fortune 500 company comes when leaders of every industry are grappling with how to address long-standing racial inequities in hiring and compensation, there will be some readers who will try to reduce her elevation to tokenism.
But as they say, “I once was blind, but now I see.”
As many have attested, Brewer did the work, and she is getting her due.
“Roz has mastered the art of being a servant-leader — she has humility, but at the same time, she’s in charge,” David Burritt, CEO of U.S. Steel Corporation, told the interviewer. “I’m a huge fan. When I grow up, I want to be just like her,” he said.
As recent events have shown, fixing a system rife with racial disparities isn’t for the faint-hearted.
In 2015, when Brewer commented on the “lack of diversity among Walmart suppliers,” it ignited a “hailstorm,” Brewer said in her commencement address.
“I received death threats. My children’s lives were threatened … and here’s what I’d said that triggered such strong emotions. I said: ‘Diversity makes good business sense.’ How dare I?” Brewer said.
If you are a teacher struggling to inspire bored students or have charge over a bunch of giggling girls, encourage them to read Brewer’s entire speech. Given the political and racial strife that has nearly engulfed us, we could all use some inspiration, particularly our young people.
The 14-minute read could give them a clearer view of the way forward.