Breaking The ‘Concrete’ Ceiling: Roz Brewer To Become The S&P 500’s Only Black Female CEO
Rosalind “Roz” Brewer is, by Forbes’ accounting, the 48th most powerful woman in the world. But now, she’s poised to become even more powerful.
On Tuesday night, news broke that Brewer, who has served as Starbucks’ chief operating officer since 2017, will be taking the helm of Walgreens Boots Alliance in March. It’s a momentous announcement, making Brewer, who is 58, not just Walgreens’ first female CEO, but the only Black woman chief executive of a S&P 500 company.
“Congratulations to my corporate sister Roz Brewer on being named the new CEO of WBA,” Ariel Investments president and co-CEO Mellody Hobson said on Twitter. “Another glass ceiling shattered today!”
Brewer has not yet publicly commented on the remarkable nature of her appointment (and has not yet replied to a Forbes request for an interview), instead saying in a statement issued through Walgreens, “I am excited to work alongside the entire WBA team as we deliver further innovation and positively impact the lives of millions of people around the world every day. This is especially true today as the company plays a crucial role in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.” (Of note: When Brewer, a scientist by training, officially assumes her position in March, it will mean that three women lead the nation’s three largest pharmacy chains, with Heyward Donigan serving as Rite Aid’s CEO and Karen Lynch running CVS.)
This won’t be Brewer’s first time being the “only” or “first” Black woman in a role: Before joining Starbucks in 2017, she served as the CEO of Sam’s Club and was the first Black woman to lead a Walmart division. In 2019, she became the only Black director on Amazon’s board (which she’ll depart ahead of officially becoming Walgreens’ chief executive). And the youngest of five children to two parents who worked the assembly line at General Motors in Detroit, Brewer is part of the first generation in her family to attend college.
If you’re talking about how women as a group face the glass ceiling, women of color face a concrete one.Serena Fong, vice president of strategic engagement at Catalyst
Brewer has, in the past, been open about racial dynamics in the corporate world and the ways she’s been affected. “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,” she said in a 2018 graduation speech at Spelman College, her alma mater and HBCU on whose board she sits. “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.’”
And in a 2015 interview with CNN, when she was then the CEO of Sam’s Club, Brewer talked about her commitment to diversity across all aspects of business, including at the supplier level. “You have to speak up and speak out. And I try to use my platform for that,” she said at the time. The alt-right erupted in outrage, calling for Walmart boycotts and sending Brewer death threats.
“I said, ‘Diversity makes good business sense,’” she has said. “How dare I?”
Roz Brewer will soon be the only Black woman running a S&P 500 company, but she will not be the first. That honor goes to Ursula Burns, who became Xerox’s CEO in 2009. Aside from Mary Winston’s seven-month tenure as the interim Bed Bath and Beyond CEO in 2019, there have been no other Black women elected to run one of America’s largest publicly-traded companies since Burns stepped down from Xerox in 2016.
“Roz Brewer is outstanding, but she’s not unique. There are many talented, capable women—Black women, women of color—out there. Corporate America has to do a better job of identifying and developing talent,” says Shellye Archambeau, the former CEO of compliance software company MetricStream and current director on the boards of Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies and Okta. (She is also a contributor to Forbes.com.)
“If you’re talking about how women as a group face the glass ceiling, what we’ve always heard is women of color face a concrete one,” says Serena Fong, vice president for strategic engagement at research firm Catalyst. “And that is due to the systemic barriers that exist in terms of talent management and advancement.”
Catalyst’s data shines a light on those barriers: As of 2019, white women held 32.3% of all management positions, while Black women held just 4%. At the senior vice president level, 26% of positions were held by women, but only 5% were held by women of color. A 2020 Lean In report, meanwhile, found that for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 58 Black women are promoted, too—even though Black women ask for promotions at the same rate as men.
“I wish I could tell you it’s getting better,” Brewer said in a Goldman Sachs discussion in 2019. “I think we are showing up more in numbers, but I still get mistaken” for someone who does not have the top job. It’s an astounding statement from someone who was responsible for a more-than $100 billion profit and loss statement at Walmart and who, prior to that, culminated a 22-year career at Kimberly-Clark as a global president. When outgoing Walgreens CEO Stefano Pessina praised Brewer as a “distinguished and experienced executive” who’s driven “significant and sustainable growth and value creation,” he wasn’t exaggerating.
“She’s eminently qualified,” Fong says. Brewer’s promotion “should be celebrated; this is a very positive step towards towards building more inclusive workplaces. But it’s just a step. This is not celebration of the end result, but a marker in terms of the continuation of the work that still needs to be done.”
Archambeau puts it this way: “It is historic. I can’t wait until we get to the point that it’s not.”
Brewer, who said in a December interview with broadcast journalist Shaun Robinson that she’s been surprised by the outpouring of attention she’s received for the barriers she’s broken, seems inclined to agree.
“I would have hoped that by now it’s boring,” she said in 2019. “It signals to me every time that my work, our work, is never done.”