Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer Talks Finding Her Voice, Breaking Barriers and Thriving as a Working Mom
When Rosalind Brewer was appointed CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance in 2021, she became the only Black woman at the helm of an S&P 500 company and only the third Black woman to ever achieve this milestone. She was also the first woman and first Black person to be CEO of Sam’s Club, and subsequently served as Starbucks’ COO from 2017 to 2021. Clearly, Brewer is no stranger to breaking barriers.
During the 2021 Forbes Power Women’s Summit, Brewer reflected on how she found her voice as a leader, how she ended up on a path to the C-suite and how she balances her career with motherhood.
On Finding Her Voice
Brewer has risen to the highest ranks of corporate America, but she admits she wasn’t a natural-born leader and that it took her a while to find her voice.
“I was that quiet, shy person in the back of the room,” she said. “It took a couple of people to pay attention to me who could see my wheels turning but my mouth not moving, and to call me out in a meeting, and say, ‘Roz, what do you think?.’ Just those very few words were like, ‘Oh, somebody’s watching, somebody cares.'”
When she first started speaking up in meetings, Brewer refects that she “said a bunch of dumb stuff because I was caught by surprise or wasn’t really ready. Just talking, just opening my mouth, that was hard.”
But she learned from her missteps.
“I think the stumbling made me better,” she said.
On Landing Executive Roles at Some of the Biggest American Companies
Brewer has served as an executive at Kimberly-Clark, Sam’s Club, Starbucks and now Walgreens, but she said she didn’t initially set out on this path.
“I did not say, ‘I’ve got my eyes on this prize, I’m going to throw in the hat until I get this CEO title.’ I actually began to pursue something different than that,” she said. “There’s a way I wanted to feel about the work I was doing and what I was delivering.”
Brewer said her top focus has always been on how to better serve her community. That’s why she took a demotion to join Walmart in 2006 as vice president after serving as group president of Kimberly-Clark.
“You don’t join Walmart after being a group president and become the vice president. If I was trying to be CEO, I would have stayed on that track. But I took several layers down to become a vice president because I wanted to learn something different,” Brewer said.
Brewer said she wanted to join Walmart because it’s the largest employer of African-American employees in the United States.
“I thought, ‘If I could get in there and I make one decision about pay practices, that affects a ton of people.’ I started to get on that kind of pursuit more so than the mission of my title,” she said. “And then it just so happened that the two merged.”
Breaking the Glass Ceiling: How To Land a Leadership Position
On Thriving as a Working Mother
For a while, Brewer tried to separate home life and work life, and would be mortified if she showed up to work with spilled milk on her shirt. It was only when she gave up on trying to find such stark separation that she was able to thrive in both worlds.
“I’m like, ‘I got milk on my shirt, but what the heck.’ I’ve got to go to work and I’ve got to get back to daycare and pick the kids up. That’s just our reality,” she said.
“I think the change for me was when I got comfortable with the messiness of my life,” Brewer continued. “After a while, I didn’t know how to keep it separate anymore. It just got to be so much. They merged together and at that point, my confidence grew to just be like, ‘Hey this is what’s happening with me and my life,’ and it just began to open conversations.”
Brewer said she felt so much better once she “began to bring my whole self to work.”
“Work wasn’t stressful anymore because the lines were blurred — I was just one Roz,” she said. “I wasn’t that one person at home and a different person at work. Then I began to like work a lot better, and I liked home a lot better.”
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