Meet the Only Black Female CEO of a Fortune 500 Company

On March 15th, 2021, Rosalind Brewer became the CEO of Walgreens, making her the only Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company at this current time.

While she is currently the only Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, Rosalind Brewer, the recently installed CEO of Walgreens, is well aware of everyone who paved the way for her. “The generation of [women] who came before me were all first-of-a-kinds. The first black woman to… the first black leader to… the first black judge to… the first black surgeon to… a generation of way makers,” she said in a 2018 commencement address at her alma mater, Spelman College. “My generation is what one might call ‘Generation P,’ and that P is for perseverance.”

And persevere she has—with gusto. After Brewer completed her undergraduate studies at Spelman College, the prestigious all-female, private, historically Black college in Atlanta—she was part of the first generation of her family to attend college—she went on to earn her graduate degree from the Director’s College at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business/Stanford Law School. She later continued on for an Advanced Management Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Post-college, Brewer went on to work as a scientist for 20+ years at the Kimberly-Clark Corporation before taking a position with Walmart in 2006. In 2012, she was named the president and CEO of Sam’s Club, which made her the first Black person to lead any Walmart division. When Brewer transitioned to her role as COO of Starbucks, she ran the businesses in United States, Canada, and Latin America. Brewer serves on the board of Amazon, Lockheed Martin, The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, the Board of Councilors for the Carter Presidential Center, and is the Chair of the Board of Trustees for her alma mater, Spelman College.

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Racial bias in the workplace

Despite her impressive achievements, Brewer has not been immune to racism. “When you’re a Black woman, you get mistaken a lot,” Brewer said in the same Spelman College speech in 2018. “You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have that top job. Sometimes you’re mistaken for kitchen help. 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.” Time and time again, Brewer has proven herself to be in exactly the right place.

Brewer is not just a leader who says all the right things to appease others—she is a woman who is known to take action. Brewer recently initiated one of the largest fundraising campaigns in the history of Spelman College. According to Black Enterprise, this initiative aims to raise $250 million to facilitate the ushering in of the next generation of Black female business leaders and world-changers.

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Confronting racism head-on

Throughout her career, Brewer has never shied away from using her platform to speak up and advocate for racial equality and inclusion. She stepped into the national spotlight in 2018 when two young Black men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, were racially profiled and arrested while doing nothing more than sitting at a table waiting for a potential new business partner to arrive at a Philadelphia Starbucks. Brewer, who was COO of Starbucks at the time, went above and beyond simply releasing a politically correct statement to the press. She met with both Robinson and Nelson personally to apologize and she further committed not just to talk about racial injustice, but to take action and create protocols and systems for change at the coffee company that has $20 billion net profits every year. Brewer immediately headed up changes to Starbucks store policies and publicly pledged to initiate change in 8,000+ company-owned operated stores nationwide. Under her leadership, Starbucks closed all stores nationwide for racial-bias educational training for the first time in its history shortly after the incident with Robinson and Nelson.

The privilege to lead as a woman

The narratives around women are slowly shifting towards more female leadership and diverse representation. “You have to speak up, and speak out,” Brewer recently asserted in a CNN interview. Though opposition comes with the territory of breaking barriers and charting new territory, of her widespread support on becoming Walgreens’ new CEO, she stated in an interview with fellow Spelman alum and TV host Shaun Robinson, “It signals to me every time that my work, our work, is never done.”

Brewer is not the first Black woman to head a Fortune 500 company. Ursula Burns was the first Black woman when she stepped into the role of the CEO of Xerox in 2009 and Mary Winston was the second when she served as the interim CEO of Bath, Bath & Beyond in 2019, making Brewer the third. A powerhouse businesswoman and mother who has proven herself to be a force that is not defined by the perceptions of others, Brewer is consistently breaking glass ceilings in the corporate world. She’s not only a trailblazer for Black women, she’s forging a formidable path for all women.

Giving back with the Rosalind Brewer Gates Scholarship

Brewer also wants to smooth the way for the younger generation, just as she acknowledges those who came before her. One of the ways she’s doing exactly that is through the Rosalind Gates Brewer Scholarship, nine scholarships awarded annually to first-generation students at Spelman College. “They are what I call purposeful students. They are on a mission. But as first-generation students, they face several challenges. Often, they are carrying a lot of responsibility. There may be a lack of appreciation from the rest of their family, who did not go to college and don’t appreciate the hard work it takes,” Brewer stated in a statement to the Spelman Messenger about the students who receive her scholarship. “When they think the odds are against them, I think they’re in their favor because they are fighters. Nine times out of ten, these students are breaking the mold when they come to Spelman College.” Though named by Forbes magazine in 2020 as one of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,” Brewer has a heart that remains close to the people who need it most, and that’s everyday people.

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Lynnette Nicholas
Lynnette Nicholas is a culture expert, children's media consultant, on-camera host and certified Rotten Tomatoes film critic covering the latest in Black culture, parenting, books, film, TV and faith. A graduate of the University of Florida, Lynnette also writes for Essence, Common Sense Media, Your Teen Magazine, HuffPost, Taste of Home, Parade and more. She is currently based in New York City, and when she's not writing or traveling, you can find her at an art gallery, theater performance or film screening.