Last year Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer innocently answered a question on CNN about how she works to make people like herself—a minority woman—less of a rarity in the corner office.
Her remarks set off a firestorm. Brewer was called a racist and says that she and her family even received death threats.
“Immediately my company stepped in and said, ‘This is a conversation we’ve been having at Walmart for years. Roz is right,’” Brewer told the attendees of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women “Evening With…” dinner in New York City on Monday evening. While it was great to have the support of her the company, Brewer says the incident was a powerful reminder for her that issues around diversity are nowhere near resolved.
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The CNN controversy centered around a story Brewer told about a supplier she had visited earlier that day. When she and her very diverse team sat down with the company, “the entire other side of the table was all Caucasian males,” she told CNN anchor Poppy Harlow. “That was interesting,” said Brewer, adding that the supplier didn’t even have any women on staff going down several layers within the organization.
On Monday, Brewer recounted how the two teams had been talking about their joint business, which hadn’t been performing well. “Our members of Sam’s Club need to buy merchandise that reflects who they are,” Brewer said. Looking across the table, she could tell why the partnership wasn’t working.
Brewer told the MPW dinner audience that this supplier had been an outlier. “I think they’ve learned from it,” she said. Sam’s Club did not remove any business from the partner, who has since improved. “This one needed some education,” she explained.
It was a lesson to “continue to use my voice,” she said.
The episode proves that Brewer has shaken the shy persona she says she wanted to shed when she joined Walmart. She had been on the “lifer” track at Kimberly Clark when she decided to make the switch. “The lifer concept didn’t feel good in my gut for me,” she said. “I found that I had become a shrinking violet in that environment.” She didn’t like that one bit.
When Walmart came calling she realized she “wanted a new challenge and wanted a new me.”
Brewer, the youngest of five children, grew up in Michigan with parents who both worked for General Motors doing manual labor. Her generation was the first in the family to attend college. Her dad eventually moved up into management but initially worked three jobs to get all of the kids through school. “All I know is hard work and work ethic,” she said.
The New York dinner is the capstone event for the annual Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership, a three-week program that pairs women from emerging markets with senior female executives from companies such as The Dow Chemical Company, Accenture, and Johnson & Johnson.