How Rosalind Brewer Turned Starbucks Around: raceAhead

September 25, 2019, 6:43 PM UTC

I last interviewed Ursula Burns shortly after she left her role as Xerox CEO for the Black Ceiling, an inside look at what is keeping black executive women from the C-Suite. At the time, just two short years ago, there were zero Black women running a Fortune 500 company and only one on that year’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business list. 

Burns made it clear that when Black women get shunted away from positions of real impact—stretch assignments that take them close to product and revenue and give them a deep understanding of multiple business units—it just won’t happen.

“HR isn’t going to get you there,” she says. “Communications and the arts aren’t going to get you there. So, now look at the numbers of women we have now. Unless you’re bringing people in from Mars, it’s going to be a while.”

But when I asked about former Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer, who had just been named the COO of Starbucks, it gave her pause. “Yes,” says Burns. “Let’s keep our eyes on her.”

My takeaway: Brewer’s got what it takes to go all the way. 

While this year’s Most Powerful Women in Business list boasts three very powerful Black women, the number in the top spot, at least in the Fortune cohort, is still zero. (To be sure, we are not sleeping on Mellody Hobson, the president and co-CEO of Ariel Investments, which has $13 billion under management.)

That’s partly why this exceptional long-read profile of Brewer by my colleague Beth Kowitt is such a tonic in an age when the Black Ceiling seems as entrenched as ever.

If deft handling of product, money, and people are a recipe to the top spot, then there is much to learn from and celebrate here.

Brewer took on the job of COO and head of the Americas business—the company’s biggest and most profitable—in October 2017, just as the company entered what J.P. Morgan analyst John Ivankoe has described as a “terrible few months in the company’s history.” After an unprecedented run of sales and store growth lasting more than half a decade, store traffic flatlined as the company found itself in operational chaos. Then, in April 2018, the company faced accusations of racial bias after a manager called the police on two black men in one of its Philadelphia stores. But the icing on the cake—or frothed milk on the macchiato, as it were—was the announcement just months later that Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz, one of the business world’s most storied leaders and the embodiment of the Starbucks brand for more than three decades, would leave the company

It was during this critical period that Brewer entered the fold, tasked with translating her retail expertise into cleaning up the company’s stores and imposing a level of discipline that has become her calling card. “Roz is a tough cookie,” says Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo who did business with Brewer when she was at Walmart and now serves with her on the Amazon board. “She’s into the details. She’s not a fluffy person. She gets things done.” 

What she’s getting done is nothing short of a full re-alignment of CEO Kevin Johnson’s vision of a mature and enduring global company. That’s Brewer’s job. “Some leaders have difficulty scaling their ideas or an opportunity,” Brewer says. “I learned that at Walmart.”

If you want to have a good day, go get yourself a double shot low-foam macchiato, or some such. If you want to have a great day, click through and see how the Starbucks stock price has fared since she joined the company. 

And then, keep your eye on Brewer.

On Point

Now, there’s a doll for them too Imagine being the parent of a gender neutral or gender fluid child. Through your eyes, the stores of the world are only filled with things designed to make your kid feel like an 'other': Pink and blue themed toys, gendered supermodel dolls, camo-colored soldiers, and the like. Mattel debuts a new option today for those kids and also the rest of us, a gender-neutral doll that can be male, female, both, or neither, complete with accessories—tutus and camo pants!—that fit the fashion mood of the adolescent moment. Mattel is going all in. The new Creatable World series is perfect for kids who use any pronouns—him, her, them, xem, and boasts an inspiring tagline: “A doll line designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in.”

When will we achieve true diversity on conference panels? This is the question posed by author and inclusion strategy expert Ruchika Tulshyan, who gives us the good news/bad news on conferences. Yes, gender diversity seems to be becoming more mainstream. But true intersectional gender diversity—race, ethnicity, ability—is not. She begins by challenging the assumption that polished (male) showboats are the only type of speaker that audiences will accept, and cautions that true subject matter experts may not have important-sounding titles. Click through for her excellent tips, many of which include opportunities for allies to make a stand. "Refuse to speak at or attend an event with a homogenous lineup," she says. "The more high-profile you are, the more impact you’re likely to make when you take this action."

A new 2019 MacArthur Fellow charts 'the afterlife of slavery in American life' There’s always something for everyone in the annual list of grantees, all dedicated creatives who are poised for a breakthrough. This year’s list offers much fodder for the inclusion crowd. Here’s just one: Saidiya Hartman. The Columbia University professor has developed an impressive body of scholarship that offers deep insights into the experience of enslavement in America, and the legacy of that experience in the lives of people who would otherwise remain overlooked. "Hartman defies the conventions of academic scholarship and employs a speculative method of writing history, which she terms 'critical fabulation,' to interrogate the authority of historical archives as the singular source of credible information about the past." One book about the trans-Atlantic slave trade combines research and memoir as she travels to the Ghanian origin point of the diaspora; another uses sociological surveys, archival photographs, and legal records to explore acts of organized resistance among Black women during the height of the Great Migration. Please put her on a panel immediately.
MacArthur Foundation

Chinese vloggers offer an uncensored view of their lives in Africa While there has been significant Chinese investment across Africa, most of the state-run media present a biased view of the continent. Beijing-born video producer, Fyjo Molly, moved to Johannesburg three years ago and became determined to rebut the negative stereotypes perpetuated by Chinese and Western media. She joins a small group of video creators, mostly women, who have taken to social media to spread their unfiltered and enthusiastic view of the art, culture, food, music, and spirit they find in their new lives and travels. While they’ve built a fan base of young, aspirational people back home, they’re also finding that their videos do double duty. "While the average Chinese person might have absorbed a lot of negative stereotypes about Africa, the average African knows very little about China," says Molly. Enjoy.
Quartz Africa

On Background

White Mississippians abandon their racist roots Speaking of allies, this extraordinary piece from The Guardian does triple duty. First, it sketches out a roadmap for having difficult conversations, in this case, about the legacy of slavery and oppression in Mississippi. It also helps explain how deep certain beliefs go, and how alternative histories allow otherwise good people to justify terrible things. And finally, it will give you hope: It is possible to reconsider one’s position and come out stronger for it.
The Guardian

Poor white people are often written out of history Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian and author who focuses on race, inequality, and poverty. In this Q&A about her book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, she describes how poor white people were forced to compete for work in a pre-Civil War economy with "brutalized, unpaid enslaved people." The population was both encouraged to believe in the fiction of white exceptionalism, yet systematically denied opportunity by white Southern elites. Desperately poor and working-class white workers banded together in "associations" in the mid-1800s, looking to protect their jobs and wages. "I argue that this push from poor and working-class whites essentially created a three-front battle for enslavers: not only were they defending the institution from Northern abolitionists and the enslaved themselves, but also from lower-class Southern whites," she says. What the elites feared then (and some would say now) was that enslaved people and poor white workers would join forces. "Slaveholders had little chance but to secede to preserve slavery."

Can corporations really help solve pressing social ills? Author and Columbia law professor Tim Wu makes the case for optimism that large and medium-sized corporations, who employ the majority of Americans, can successfully re-orient from shareholder value to a culture of "corporate virtue." Only then can they address issues from climate change to gun control. Clearly the government isn’t going to do it. "I happen to be in favor of many such legal reforms, but to imagine that they alone will suffice is a liberal fantasy," he says. But when Wall Street spurs on a culture of "profit-squeezing," a reset is in order. "It is essential to dispel the myth that chief executives have a legal duty to maximize short-term profit and are therefore powerless to act responsibly," he says. It's time to reframe the role of leadership. "The running of a business is a test of character, rich in intellectual, practical and moral challenges. A better future depends on meeting that test, not pretending that it does not exist."
New York Times



Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

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