Roz Brewer on what it feels like to be 1 of 2 Black female CEOs in the Fortune 500

The new CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance is one of only four Black women ever to lead one of America’s biggest companies.
October 4, 2021, 9:30 AM UTC

Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO Roz Brewer took the No. 6 spot on Fortune‘s 2021 Most Powerful Women list.

Rosalind Brewer became the CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance in March, soon after the struggling pharmacy giant took on a key role in the COVID-19 battle as a vaccine provider. We talked with the new chief (No. 6 on this year’s MPW list) about her path to the corner office, the historic nature of her appointment, and what health care and retail might look like in a post-pandemic world. 

This edited Q&A has been condensed for space and clarity.

Getting to yes

I’m sure you got a lot of calls about CEO jobs. What was it about WBA that made you say yes?

Brewer: This was a tough one because I was at Starbucks¹ and having what felt like the time of my life being in the coffee business. I was about to become an empty nester, thinking about things like, do I want to start painting? Do I want to start doing something creative in my spare time? But I never thought about a career change.

Timing is everything, and when this call came in, we were dead center in the pandemic. I couldn’t think of anything else more important than keeping people healthy. I would not have done this for any other company except for WBA, quite honestly.

We’ve heard a lot about the challenges that come with starting a job during a pandemic, but I imagine it’s unique for a CEO.

The first thing I do in a new role is take 90 days and just immerse myself. I always visit stores, but when I would go into a Walgreens, they’re not operating the way they typically do. The question was, how do I feel about this interim operating model? I did something a little different this time as well. I went to the competition to see how the new operating models compare.

I also had to be very intentional about meeting my direct reports one by one by video. This just doesn’t fit my natural style whatsoever. I never would recommend starting a new job during a pandemic.

CNV.11.21.Roz Brewer-vertical
RETAIL RENAISSANCE WOMAN: With a background spanning bulk goods and coffee—and now, makeup, mouthwash, and prescriptions—what can’t Brewer sell?
Photograph by Lucy Hewett

Blazing a trail

Your accomplishments have often been framed as you being “a first” or “an only.”² Tell me honestly, how does that make you feel?

When I got into the throes of evaluating this opportunity, one of the members of the WBA board said to me, “You do realize that this is going to hit the news like crazy.” I had not thought about that, because in my mind I wasn’t going after the CEO job. I was like, this is interesting—health care and vaccines. 

But it hit me one day, when I reached out to one of my mentors, [former PepsiCo CEO] Indra Nooyi, and she said, “Whoa, this is huge.” I began to think about it—this is 2021. This should not be that huge or that big of a deal. And it’s unfortunate that it is. Shame on me if I’m still in this role and there are not other minority women making it to this level.

This is 2021. [A Black woman becoming a Fortune 500 CEO] should not be that big of a deal. It’s unfortunate that it is.

Rosalind Brewer

Better leading through chemistry

You started as a bench chemist at Kimberly-Clark. I doubt many other CEOs have that background. How do you think that led you to this path? 

I enjoyed chemistry and science, but I was always in the lab. It’s a very isolating job. But I really learned to home in on my critical thinking skills. I’m quite analytical. I love to make decisions based on some form of data. That’s in my DNA. I’ve never been comfortable with the status quo. So if things are going smoothly, I want to mix it up. 

As someone with a deep background in science, are you worried about the anti-science sentiment we are seeing that’s contributed to some of the vaccine hesitancy? 

I am really adamant about letting science lead your decisions, especially in this case. This is about the science of the virus, the chemistry of our bodies, and the environment that we’re in. This is well-understood science, and I try to get people to respect that. This is why we’ve mandated vaccines here in the office, and I’ve been speaking openly about taking that broader in our company all the way through to the store level. It is very frustrating for me, being a scientist by nature, that people are not paying attention to the facts. I try to be the messenger because the vaccines are saving lives. It is the game changer.

When you look at the trends in vaccinations right now, what does that tell you about the stage of the pandemic we’re in?

This pandemic has shown us that parts of our communities are very unhealthy. We have to ask ourselves, why is that? Are these environments physically unsafe, or are they food and health care deserts? This pandemic struck them the hardest because they came into it in a very compromised position.³

The other part of it is we all need to understand how important it is to keep ourselves generally healthy because you may be less of a target to these kinds of viruses. It speaks to how are we going to take care of ourselves and how are we going to provide health care in places where there’s a medically underserved population. We’ve got places in the United States that operate almost identically to third-world countries. 

Prescription prognostication

Pharmacies have played a big role both as vaccination and testing sites. What do they look like when the pandemic is over? 

We have 9,100 stores across the U.S., 8 million customers interacting with our stores and online per day, and 78% of people in America live within five miles of one of our stores. The pharmacist is really a consultant, and in this pandemic they’ve become more so. Our pharmacy technicians have also stepped up. We have trained them, and even some of our store managers, on how to deliver immunizations. You can almost think about this as leveling up our talent, and our pharmacists are becoming more critical in terms of the whole care therapy around a patient.

Drugstores including Walgreens have struggled against Amazon. How do you compete?

The health care space is wide open. I think there’s room for all of us to play. We’re not so intimidated about what Amazon can do. To me it’s interesting to see what we could do with Amazon or do with Microsoft. I look at all the data that Apple has been collecting just by doing the health fitness apps—could we tie into that? What I want for WBA is to be able to partner with these companies, because there are ways for us to accelerate great health care globally. 

What has surprised you the most as you’ve gotten more steeped in the business? 

I really understand the true cost of health care, and who gets paid and who doesn’t. It’s totally out of balance in terms of who benefits, both financially and then intrinsically from the patient care standpoint. 

It’s a long stream. So you might go to visit a primary care physician and then there’s the insurance arm, and then you might need other services—physical therapy or getting your prescription filled. There are a lot of mouths to feed in this whole channel. We need to make sure that the person who doesn’t suffer is the patient, because they can’t afford it. 

We’re doing a lot of work to try to get our costs down, like automating everything behind the pharmacist. We want to be bigger and better than just dispensing pills. We want to help people maybe not be so dependent upon medicine. That’s another way to get costs down—to have a healthier society. 

You’re the youngest of five and became the only one to leave Michigan when you attended Spelman College. How did that shape you? 

My parents never went to college, so filling out a college application was foreign to them. My siblings helped me, but I really broke that umbilical cord more than they did. They’re all still in Michigan. It was a game changer for me because I was totally on my own. I was a working college student starting a whole new life.

My dad would tell me he did the same thing at 18. He left southern Alabama—a Black male getting out of the South at a time when things were risky for him to be there. He and I would have this thing about “the great breakaway.” We had that in common.

Shop or ship?

What’s the retail landscape going to look like in 10 years?

When the pandemic hit, retailers went into alternative channels that were so novel only a year ago. There were only a few companies that did pickup in-store, and now almost every store and every restaurant can do that.

We’re going to start to see the great reconnection that we were talking about as I was leaving Starbucks. People are going to want to go places where they connect. Specialty items and experiences that you can create in a physical building are going to be a real opportunity. And then everything else will be, just ship it to me. 

We’ll continue to see a wider spread of people using digital to purchase. I look at my tiny little nieces and nephews—they know how to order stuff at 3 or 4 years old. You have to watch your iPad. 

Between the lines

(1) Coffee talk:
Brewer joined the board of Starbucks in 2017 after leaving her role as CEO of Walmart’s Sam’s Club. Less than a year later, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson tapped her to be the company’s COO

(2) First and foremost:
Brewer was the first woman and first Black person to be CEO of Sam’s Club, and subsequently also to hold such a senior role at Starbucks. She is one of four Black women to ever run a Fortune 500 company, and WBA is the largest company ever run by a Black woman.  

(3) Jabs for all:
Walgreens has made vaccine equity a priority, offering COVID-19 vaccine clinics in churches and community centers in underserved areas. In May, the company launched a mobile clinic bus tour.  

(4) A shot to the bottom line:
In July, WBA’s third-quarter fiscal year 2021 financial results beat analyst expectations thanks in part to its role administering the vaccine. The company also raised its fiscal 2021 guidance for the second quarter in a row. 

(5) Brewer meets Bezos:
She joined the board of Amazon in 2019, the week her noncompete with Walmart ended, and stepped down earlier this year after her appointment to Walgreens was announced.

(6) Your pharmacy is ready for pickup:
In September, WBA spent $970 million to take a majority stake in Shields Health Solutions, a specialty pharmacy that partners with hospitals.

(7) A proud Jaguar:
Brewer chairs the historically Black college’s board of trustees and funds an annual scholarship program for first-generation students.

(8) Retail revolution:
Walgreens launched curbside pickup in 2020 and said in July that it had completed 6 million curbside, drive-thru, and last-mile delivery orders.

This article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline, “The Conversation: Rosalind Brewer.”

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