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Not a Numbers Game: Detroiter and Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer Pushing Equity Conversation

By Trevor W. Coleman 

It’s not easy to rise from the ranks of employee to the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company. And it’s especially difficult if you are a woman, and triple the challenge if you are a Black woman.

But Rosalind Brewer, who was named chief executive officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) in March, is used to being a trailblazer who defies expectations from those who might underestimate her because of her gender and race.

In just the past decade, the Detroit native and alum of Cass Tech has had the distinction of serving as a top executive at three Fortune 500 companies, Sam’s Club, Starbucks, and now Walgreens Boot Alliance (Walgreens in U.S., Boot Alliance internationally).

The executive’s latest move makes her chief executive officer of the largest company ever led by a Black woman, as WBA is No. 19 on the Fortune 500. Brewer is just one of two Black women currently leading a Fortune 500 company along with Thasunda Brown Duckett, who was named CEO of TIAA in May.

OPENING OPPORTUNITIES FOR OTHERS 

Brewer’s ascension to the rarified air of the Fortune 500 board room is a testament to her brilliance, fortitude, innovative thinking, and foresight as a thought leader in the corporate world. Those characteristics now help her open up opportunities for others.

As chief executive officer, she oversees WBA leadership accountability program, which focuses on increasing representation of people of color and women within leadership ranks. The program’s targets for fiscal 2021 are a three-percent increase of women in leadership across WBA, and a two-percent increase of people of color in leadership in the U.S.

Having personally navigated the minefields of race and gender her entire career, diversity and inclusion is not only a business imperative but a personal one. And that means not allowing such efforts to be reduced to a numbers game.

Brewer stresses the “inclusion” component of the accountability program by placing a heavy emphasis on creating an environment where diverse employees are represented, but also feel welcomed, valued, engaged, and a critical part of the company culture.

“I think we have spent more time trying to reach numbers than we have changing our environment where people feel safe, where they feel they can come to work and be their whole self, give it everything they’ve got, be their natural self, and be respected for it and applauded for it,” she said in a 2020 TED talk.

IMPROVING ACCESS TO HEALTHCARE 

Brewer, a Spelman College alum, has also been instrumental in leading Walgreens’ vaccine equity efforts, as part of the company’s commitment to improving access to healthcare.

“Leading Walgreens Boots Alliance is a rare opportunity to be part of the solution to end the pandemic and to help shape the future of healthcare and retail,” Brewer said. “A year from now I want to look back on this time as an inflection point…. and a moment in time where real, lasting change happened – that we will all have collectively banded together and got through the pandemic…. and at the same time worked to drive real change toward racial equity. I feel inspired and hopeful that some good will come out of this very difficult time.”

For her former classmates, Brewer’s success is no surprise. Maria Woodruff-Wright, vice president of operations and chief financial officer of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation has known her since their high school days in a women’s charitable organization.

“Rosalind was the president and had a command and leadership style that I admired and looked up to,” she said. “She was fun. She was great. Very likable and approachable. She had a grace and beautiful sense of style and maturity. I’m not surprised she has become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.”

Trevor W. Coleman is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Detroit Free Press.