Glass ceiling slayer Roz Brewer dubs grads ‘Generation Quest’

ATLANTA—As Rosalind Gates Brewer approached the podium at Spelman College’s graduation ceremony Sunday, she was walking the last few steps of a full circle 34 years in the making.

Before she began the most dear-to-her speech she’s ever given, she took a deep breath and smiled at the sea of black and brown faces in caps and gowns. In 1984, she was one of those faces – a driven, hopeful young woman about to earn a degree in chemistry. This time around, she was the commencement speaker, and one of the most accomplished businesswomen in the United States.

“Those glass ceilings are real, but Roz Brewer has become an adept glasscutter,” said Mary Campbell, president of Spelman College, in her introduction of Brewer to the crowd of more than 8,000. “She has walked the same road as many of you … and with relentless determination.”

Campbell called the Starbucks chief operating officer “a game changer” – literally. Brewer’s photo, she noted, hangs in a game-changer exhibit at the Smithsonian between Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and Janet Yellen, former chairwoman of the Federal Reserve.

“Spelman women, you are today at an intersection between who you have been, and who you must become – full of hope and knowledge, staring down the face of a daunting challenge. Stronger than you have ever been, and also learning with every breath,” Brewer told the graduates. “The generation of Spelman 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. My generation is what one might call ‘Generation P,’ and that P is for perseverance— we’ve had the job of keeping the fires that our grandmothers and mothers fought for, lived for, died for – alive.”

Roz Brewer

Even as a girl Rosalind Brewer was academic and driven. The Starbucks COO graduated with honors from Cass Technical High School in Detroit (center) and with a degree in chemistry from Spelman College in Atlanta (right).

On the day of her own commencement 34 years ago, Cicely Tyson was the speaker, and young Brewer listened as the renowned actress recited the poem “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes, warning the graduates not to expect life to be a crystal staircase: “Well, son, I'll tell you: Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. It's had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor – Bare.”

Brewer, now 55, used her address Sunday to take the graduates by the hand and show them scenes from her own winding staircase. She said she sometimes worries people will think she has a perfect life – a husband of nearly 30 years, two great kids, a job she loves in the c-suite – but things have not always been as easy as her bio makes them sound.

“When you’re a black woman, you get mistaken a lot. You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have the top job. Sometimes you’re mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people assume you’re in the wrong place,” Brewer said. “And all I can think in the back of my head is, ‘No, you’re in the wrong place.’ The wrong place – that ‘sunken place’ – is everywhere, deep inside our culture. If there’s a place where bias doesn’t exist, I haven’t found it.”

Brewer said shortly after she was named chief executive officer of Sam’s Club, she was invited to an exclusive, CEO roundtable in New York City. During the reception, she met a fellow CEO and introduced herself.

“Hello. Roz Brewer, Sam’s Club.”

They exchanged pleasantries, and he asked what she did at Sam’s Club – marketing? Merchandizing? Before Brewer could answer him, it was time for her to take the stage – she was the day’s CEO keynote speaker.

“I enjoyed the look on his face as my bio was read,” Brewer told the graduates, to ripples of laughter and applause. “The women of Generation P have always had to show exceptional performance while enduring suboptimal circumstances. We broke into the top ranks while enduring the indignities of being ourselves.”

Four-deep on a love seat

Last week in her eighth-floor office at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, Brewer – whom just about everyone calls “Roz” – ate lunch as she looked over pages of handwritten notes for her commencement speech. Her shelves are piled with books, mugs and bags of coffee beans; behind her, on the back of her office door, hangs a trademark Starbucks green apron embroidered with her name from when she worked as a barista for a few days, as all new executives do. (She loved it.)

“I jotted a few more ideas down here of what I want to say,” Brewer said, reading as she turned the pages over. “Never lose your sense of possibility. Never lose the sense of safety you gained at Spelman. Always consider that you are part of something bigger than yourself.”

Brewer paused and looked up and smiled. “Oh, and my daughter emailed me some advice as well. She said, ‘Mom, don’t try to tell them what to do because they’re Spelman women – they already know.”

Camryn Brewer, 15, later confirmed this.

“I also told her not to try to be too funny or cool to try and fit in with the graduates because it could just come off as cheesy,” Camryn Brewer said. “I told her not to tell the girls to ‘go find their passion’ because as young adults people always tell us to ‘be ourselves’ or ‘go try and find our place in the world,’ but we know that already. People rarely address how to do that in this judgmental world we live in.”

Brewer met her husband, John, while she was a sophomore at Spelman – he was studying at the neighboring men’s college, Morehouse. Along with Camryn, the couple have a 23-year-old son, John, who graduated from Brown University in 2017 and now works as a real estate investment banker in New York City. The family is extraordinarily close. They call themselves Four-Deep, and even have matching t-shirts to this effect. When they are apart, which increasingly is more often than they’d like, they text, Skype, talk on the phone and, on Sundays, stream the service from Impact Church in Atlanta led by the Rev. Olu Brown. When they are together, they hang out in the kitchen cooking and laughing and playing loud music, sharing their favorite songs and artists.

“We are a foursome and sometimes feel incomplete when we are not in one place,” Brewer said. “And when we are all in one place, we all sit on one couch together, even if it's a love seat.”

Philadelphia, and conversations that matter

The following morning, Brewer spoke to a room full of new Starbucks vice presidents. She was relaxed and in her element – no notes, iced green tea nearby. She began by mentioning a few of the leaders by name, both newcomers and those who had been promoted from within the company. Those who have worked closely with her over the years say one of Brewer’s many hallmarks is an uncanny knack for preparation; she had already read the resumes of everyone in the room.

Roz Brewer

Rosalind “Roz” Gates Brewer speaks to a group of new Starbucks vice presidents in May. Brewer became the company's chief operating officer of Starbucks in the fall of 2017.

Brewer spent nearly an hour taking questions from the new vice presidents, ticking off operations numbers from memory and sharing business insights from her first seven months with Starbucks – the importance of investing in partners (employees), digital and growth; the importance of getting to know customers and their changing routines; the challenges and opportunities of being a worldwide “third place,” or popular community gathering spot between work and home.

“Part of what we’re doing is taking a white sheet of paper to what the third place of the future looks like,” Brewer said. “And a big part of that is the café experience. It needs to be full. We’re elevating our food, and really getting back to core coffee – the romance of coffee.”

Brewer also spoke about something on the minds of almost everyone at Starbucks: Philadelphia. It’s a topic weighing heavily on the hearts of Brewer and her fellow executives, so much so that Brewer was planning to discuss it in her commencement speech the next week as well.

On April 12, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, both black men, were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks after a manager called the police on them for being in the store without ordering anything. The two arrived for an afternoon business meeting, asked for the restroom code, and were told it was for paying customers only. They sat down to wait for their colleague, and police arrived a few minutes later. The men had been in the store less than 10 minutes when police arrived; they were arrested and led out of the store. The manager is no longer with Starbucks, and the company has since updated its policy to make the café spaces open to all customers – defined as anyone in the store.

“The whole thing made me stop what I’m doing and clutch my chest, especially as the mother of a 23-year-old, black son,” Brewer said. “I’ve sat with a lot of sadness about what happened over the last few weeks.”

When the incident surfaced, Brewer was visiting a friend in San Francisco and immediately boarded a plane for Philadelphia, where she spent the next several days speaking to all involved. She said she believes when people (and companies) make mistakes, and they always will, it’s not the mistake that reveals true character, but what happens next.

“There were some quiet moments as we were working around the clock in Philadelphia when I thought, ‘What kind of society do we live in? How has this happened? How did we get here?’ In just a few weeks since this happened there have been many similar incidents since in the news. This is not confined to our stores. What we’re looking at is a national conversation around how people interact with each other,” Brewer said.

It’s a conversation Starbucks is making significant space for: The company plans to close its U.S. stores on May 29 to offer racial bias education designed by “some truly bright minds” from inside and outside the company, including Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“I made a very deliberate decision to join Starbucks roughly seven months ago based on mutual values and I know this is the place where I’m supposed to be, with my head and my heart, having conversations that matter,” Brewer said.

She concluded her remarks to the new vice presidents by saying they’re going to see Starbucks do things the company has never done before.

“We need to take risks,” she said. “We need to be bold. We need to stand out.”

These are all things she knows well.

Hard work in the DNA

Brewer remembers her own commencement day at Spelman, a historically black liberal arts college for women, as a carnival ride of emotions. There were all the usual ones, of course – pride from working hard for four years, and excitement for the future and trepidation about leaving her friends to start her first job – but there was also a fresh swath of grief. Her beloved father, George Gates, had died of colon cancer just six weeks earlier. She remembers missing him and worrying that her mother, Sally Gates, was missing him, too – her parents had been a formidable team for 37 years.

“I can’t underscore enough the influence of my parents and hard work,” Brewer said. “It’s hard-wired into my DNA. There is no substitute.”

Brewer, born and raised in Detroit, is the youngest of five children – one brother and three sisters. Her parents didn’t finish high school before going to work for General Motors. It was shift work -- hard, physical labor – and her parents often worked differing shifts.

“At four years old, I would be home alone for a couple of hours between when my mom had to report to work and my older siblings came home from school. My mom would prop me up in the window, and the neighbors would all look to make sure my head was still there. Sometimes, as they walked by, the neighbors would yell, ‘Don’t you get off that couch!’” Brewer said. “You wouldn’t leave your 4-year-old like that now, but it took a village to raise all of us. We knew all of our neighbors. It was no big deal. My mother told me to stay in the window, so I did.”

Elizabeth Syrkett, Brewer’s friend from kindergarten who also attended Spelman College, lived five doors down on Cherry Lawn Street. Syrkett was in Atlanta Sunday for Brewer’s commencement speech.

Roz Brewer

Roz Brewer, right, with her friend Elizabeth Syrkett. The two have been friends since kindergarten, and attended Spelman College together. Brewer named her daughter after her childhood friend.

“We walked to school together, she was in all my classes – we did everything together,” Syrkett said. “I'm not very athletic, and in school Rosalind would always be chosen the captain in kickball or softball or whatever sport we were playing, and she would always lean over to me and whisper, ‘I'm going to pick you, don't worry.’ She’s always been that kind of friend.”

Syrkett laughed at all that has changed, and all that has stayed the same in their 50 years of friendship. “Who would have thought when we were walking down Seven Mile Road to buy candy that she would become one of the most powerful businesswomen in the United States. She’s still completely down-to-earth.”

Brewer graduated with honors from Cass Technical High School in Detroit and with some encouragement from her sister and her high school guidance counselor, headed off to Spelman College in Atlanta with six other friends from home. They were all in the same dorm that first year. On a campus where you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman out and about in sweat pants, the Detroit girls were known for being particularly stylish and cosmopolitan. Brewer said she made a little cash on the side from helping her fellow students do their hair and eyebrows before going out.

“I worked hard and got good grades, but I also didn’t miss a party. I’d go, and then stay up all night studying,” Brewer said, adding that she had a little help from Vivarin and Mello Yello soda. Oh, college.

Brewer’s father was diagnosed with cancer during her sophomore year at Spelman. He was still at General Motors, and had worked his way into management, but was working three jobs to support his four children still in college. Though Brewer had worked every summer since she was 16 to save up for the $5,625-a-year tuition at Spelman, with her father sick and three other siblings in college as well, the family feared they’d come up short. They told her when she came home for Christmas break she should plan to stay and attend a more affordable local college. When Brewer went to a Spelman counselor to explain her situation, she was encouraged to apply for the Charles Travelli scholarship, which provided full tuition for students with a commitment to community service (Brewer had spent time volunteering with senior citizens in Atlanta). She won the scholarship for her last two years and was able to finish her degree.

In 2010, Brewer established nine annual scholarships awarded to first-generation college students who attend Spelman College.

“It’s tough to be a first-generation student,” Brewer said. “The Travelli Scholarship taught me the importance of giving back. Education is the absolute unlock to success and achievement.”

Two weeks after she graduated from Spelman College, Brewer began her first job at Kimberly-Clark Corp., makers of Kleenex, Huggies diapers and Cottonelle paper products. She would spend 22 years at the company, eventually making the jump from scientist to business operations, and advancing to become president of one of the company’s global divisions.

In 2006, she was hired as a regional vice president at Walmart, and in her 11 years with the company, she ultimately became President and CEO of Sam’s Club.

Bill Simon, former CEO of Wal-Mart, interviewed Brewer when she joined the company. She reported to him for nearly seven years and he later championed her promotion to CEO of Sam’s Club, when she became his peer.

“Obviously she's brilliant and carried some gravitas well beyond where she was at the time,” Simon said. “She’s everything you want in a colleague and leader – tireless, positive, supportive, honest and sincere. She sets the mission and expects people to deliver, but also gives them adequate coaching and time to get it done. People want to do well for her.”

Brewer was the first woman, and the first African American, to lead a division at Wal-Mart. She says the limits society wants to put on her and the moments of indignation she’s experienced only fuel her, like the time a boss told her she thinks she’s smarter than she is, or the time a fellow executive mistook her for a staff member even after she clearly introduced herself as the CEO of Sam’s Club.

“In some ways I have always felt like I’m cut out for this journey,” Brewer said. “I’ve always been up for it from an athleticism standpoint. I like to stay up late, and I like to get up early. I knew I was physically and mentally prepared.”

Simon said he has been triply impressed by Brewer’s innate capabilities as a business leader as well as her graceful pioneering as an African American and female executive.

“(As a white man) I literally never had to think about whether people thought I was capable because of what I looked like or who I was, and she has navigated it so well,” he said.

Tracey Brown, the incoming CEO of the American Diabetes Association, worked directly for Brewer at Sam’s Club. She said she knew of Brewer well before interviewing with her.

“There are only a handful of African American CEOs of large, Fortune 500 organizations, so in my circles, Roz is legendary,” Brown said. “When I met her for the first time, the thing that resonated most was the total lack of arrogance. She’s just this naturally warm, authentic person who you feel a connection with immediately.”

Brown said Brewer’s employees sometimes lovingly referred to her as “The Velvet Hammer.”

“I will tell you, she is a fierce businesswoman. She has her act together. She is always on point,” Brown said. “You have to come correct with your business with her – there is no slouching. But when you do deliver value, Roz makes sure to shine the light on you and not her, which I found refreshing and amazing and rare in today’s business world.”

Added Brown, “I will also say, she’s legendary for her style. At her last Wal-Mart shareholders meeting, people were tweeting about her shoes as much as the content.”

Brewer sees her directness as an investment. She’s worked in jobs where she did not receive feedback, and it usually meant she’d been “counted out.”

“I am very open and direct, but never want to be mean or hurtful,” Brewer said. “I honestly believe people deserve to know how they are performing, and that feedback is a true gift.”

In a December 2015 interview with CNN, Brewer spoke about the importance of emphasizing diversity in corporate leadership and observed the lack of diversity among Wal-Mart suppliers. She said it was important to set an example, and to “nudge” business partners to do the same.

“I thought it was a pretty unremarkable thing to say … but I ignited a hailstorm,” Brewer told the graduates at commencement, her voice thick with emotion. “I received death threats. My children's lives were threatened. My resignation was called for by people that didn’t know me. And here’s what I’d said that triggered such strong emotions.  I said, ‘Diversity makes good business sense.’ How dare I?”

Brewer said she was shaken. Doug McMillon, the CEO of Wal-Mart, backed her up, reiterating the importance of diversity. Yet company security and law enforcement had to step in, and the family had to go on lockdown for a few days.

“The hailstorm finally blew over, but it was a nasty, nasty reminder that every day people of color face systemic racism so blatant, so emboldened and yet so normalized,” Brewer told the graduates.

In March 2017, Roz was appointed to the Starbucks board of directors. Though she was hired as COO late last year, she continues to serve on the board. Her fellow board member Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, said she felt she knew Brewer before she actually knew her.

“In the business world, especially as a black woman, I have been very, very aware of her for many years. But when I finally met her, she blew me away. Exceeded expectations,” Hobson said.

Brewer exhibits qualities that are rare to find in combination, and in one person – confidence and kindness, empathy and drive, gracefulness and graciousness.

“I immediately understood why she is a tremendous success. She’s just plain smart,” Hobson said. “And in the world of Starbucks, she's just beginning – just sinking her teeth in. We're really, really lucky to have her in this role. I mean lucky.”

David Burritt, CEO of U.S. Steel Corporation, echoed these sentiments. He met Brewer serving on the Lockheed Martin board of directors, and now counts her as a close friend.

“Roz has mastered the art of being a servant-leader – she has humility, but at the same time she’s in charge,” Burritt said. “I know what exceptional looks like, and it’s Rosalind Brewer. I'm a huge fan. When I grow up I want to be just like her.”

Roz Brewer

Roz Brewer addresses Spelman College graduates. In 1984, Brewer was one of them – a driven, hopeful young Spelman woman about to earn a degree in chemistry. This time around, she was the commencement speaker, and one of the most accomplished businesswomen in the United States.


Campbell, president of Spelman College, graduated from college in 1969.

“Dr. King and both Kennedy brothers had been assassinated. The Vietnam War was raging. This country was shuddering with all kinds of divisive issues,” she said in a call the week before graduation. “Here we are, 50 years later, and the country is shuddering with all kinds of divisive issues.”

Campbell said the senior class chose Brewer as a commencement speaker because she is generous, roots for women and continues to support the institutions that helped pave the way for her.

“The busier she got, the more time and commitment she's given back to Spelman, and that’s considerable,” Campbell said.

She believes Brewer and “Generation P” leaders like her can help the graduates envision and invent their own, unique place in the world.

“When I was young, we found a kind of activism that worked at that time. I think we have to think about what kind of activism is best to engage now. We have different technological tools, mass incarceration, hideous healthcare disparities, public schools not serving our children, a dearth of women and minorities in STEM fields and leadership. The question is, what kinds of tools are right to use now in order to effect the kind of changes that we were able to effect in the civil rights movement.”

Brewer told the graduates that if she came from Generation P for perseverance, it stands to reason they are Generation Q, which could stand for a number of things.

“It could stand for Queens which you are. Or Quakes which I hope you’ll start. But of all the Q words, I would hope that you become Generation Quest,” Brewer told the graduates.

She noted how movements and hashtag campaigns like #Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, #LoveWins, #TransEquality and #NeverAgain give ordinary citizens the ability to make their disapproval heard, to share their stories, and to show solidarity. She complimented the graduates on using their voices and helping to drive social change and dared them to continue.

“Protesting is no longer just a weekend activity, and I can guarantee you my recently graduated son calls his congressional representatives more than he calls me,” Brewer told them. “In the past couple of years, especially, we’ve seen an alarming rise in unashamed bigotry — in racism, authoritarian ideals, xenophobia and misogyny. These are trying times, absolutely. But what gives me hope is you, the very graduates sitting before me – the young activists who have taken to the street and harnessed technology to demand justice in unprecedented numbers. I hope you continue to seek out education and opportunity and influence and power and truth. That would be a glorious quest.”

thumbnail for Starbucks college admission program helps partners bridge to a better future, no matter the road they take

Starbucks college admission program helps partners bridge to a better future, no matter the road they take