Brave and Bold Leadership: A Profile of Rosalind Brewer

March 2, 2021

"Leadership is not designated by your title."
– Rosalind Brewer  

If you're a regular reader of the Brilliant Ink blog, you know we've spent the last several months on an intentional journey to become an antiracist company. One of the many leaders who has inspired me to use my voice and platform to speak out against racism is Rosalind (Roz) Brewer.

Later this month, she'll become CEO of Walgreens and, notably, the only Black female CEO leading a Fortune 500 company (that is, until Thasunda Brown Duckett assumes the helm at TIAA in May!). Roz is currently COO of Starbucks and former President and CEO of Sam's Club, with a long track-record of blazing new trails for women leaders, and particularly women leaders of color.  

I've learned a lot from listening to, reading about and watching Brewer speak - her words have pushed me to be brave in my leadership and I hope they are helpful to you too, no matter your professional role. We all have a part to play in combatting racism, bias and bigotry, and creating anti-racist organizations where all employees can thrive.  

Change requires action.

Brewer spoke these words as part of the Spelman College 2108 commencement address. Earlier that year, two young Black men were arrested while sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks.

In sharing how she led through that incident, Brewer explained how important it was that she not only apologize on behalf of the company, but also act. "When mistakes are made, and they will be made, how you react will determine who you are," Brewer said. "We can look at this moment as a point in history – or as a transformation."  

Under her leadership, Starbucks took swift action, closing all stores across the US to conduct racial bias training. Starbucks also provided additional employee training in the months that followed and updated its store policies to welcome non-paying guests to sit in its stores and use its restrooms.  

No matter who you are, you CAN make a difference.  

Brewer has used her leadership platform to inspire others to step up and speak out. In an interview with Marie Claire, Brewer emphasized the importance of speaking up: "You don’t have to be the one in charge to recognize when conversations are happening that you have an opportunity to teach and learn. You don’t have to be confrontational or aggressive. Most people seek to understand, and I think it’s about taking every opportunity you can get to educate and change the conversation."  

She went even further during her 2020 TED Talk, highlighting the critical role that leaders must play: "You never know when you're going to be called upon. [This] is an all-in moment. Leadership is not designated by your title."

Demand diversity from your company and partners.

In 2015, in an interview on CNN, Brewer emphasized that under her leadership, Sam's Club was focused on working with suppliers that value diversity. She shared an example from a supplier meeting where the supplier only had white male representatives attending the meeting. Brewer explained that she used her position to share feedback and encourage the supplier to make a change.  

This statement was interpreted by some as “anti-white,” and in the days and weeks that followed, Brewer endured a nasty backlash on social media, she and her family received threats, and there were calls for boycotts of Sam's Club. But no amount of bullying has gotten in Brewer's way, and she's continued to spread the word about WHY companies should be seeking diverse perspectives, and demanding that her company and partners do the same.  

Many are eager to see how Brewer applies that belief to her upcoming leadership role at Walgreens. After all, she'll be coming in at a time when the pharmacy retailer is undertaking a massive vaccine distribution effort.  

“Roz’s appointment is not only a solid business decision; it’s a huge opportunity for the Black community overall,” said Crystal Ashby, interim president of the Executive Leadership Council, a membership group of Black executives. “Having a Black woman sitting in the seat who is cognizant of the disparities — for her to be in a position to make decisions, to influence peers, to be engaged in conversations and dialogues — is very promising.”

Very promising, indeed.

I look forward to more leadership lessons from Roz Brewer and other bold leaders like her – leaders who draw on their vast expertise and lived experiences to change businesses for the better.  

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Ann Melinger

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