Meet Donise Brown, a trailblazing lawyer who talks about ‘being the first’

This February, during Black History Month, Starbucks is proud to celebrate the unique stories of our Black partners. We honor them and we see them, and we encourage you to see them too. Move past the stereotypes, the assumptions, the misperceptions, the things you think you may know, the skin color. And get to know them as individuals. Learn the breadth and depth of their distinct lives.

Look closer.

In the late 1980s, shortly after she graduated from law school in Washington, D.C., Donise Brown moved to Phoenix, Ariz., to work for a national bus company. She was the first Black female lawyer there.

One day, she was in a conference room with an older lawyer – a white man and company vice president – when, in reaction to something in the news, he turned to her said: “Do you think all the Black people support this?”

“My first reaction was, ‘for real?’ In my mind, what I’m thinking was, ‘How the hell would I know?’ ” Brown recalls. “What I told him was, ‘Next time I’m around all the Black people, I’ll ask them.’ ”

They looked at each other, awkwardly, and after a beat, they laughed. He realized his mistake and apologized. He ended up being a mentor to Brown.  

“There’s diversity within diversity,” Brown says. “To ask a global question like that makes it clear you don’t understand that. Why are you making the assumption that all Black people think the same way?”

Brown is a trailblazer in what has long been a mostly white, male-dominated legal profession. After leaving that job, she went back home to work as a lawyer for a Florida utilities company that had been around since 1925. She was the first Black lawyer ever hired by the company.

For the last 13 years, Brown has been with Starbucks and is the L&CA director, corporate counsel, supporting the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast Store Development and Corporate Real Estate teams. She’s based in Coral Gables, Fla.

Donise Brown, Director of Corporate Counsel for Starbucks, at the Bethesda, Wisconsin Ave

She’ll be honored by the American Bar Association in February with the Spirit of Excellence Award, for exemplifying and championing corporate diversity and inclusion, long before most companies had even thought about engaging in that kind of work.

She helped establish employee affinity groups, raised awareness about workplace issues important to African Americans, chaired and led different diversity committees and helped connect and mentor younger minority lawyers.

“I’m just trying to be the best person I can because I have lived it,” Brown says. “I’m very grateful for the exposure and the opportunity. But I’ve also had some hurdles. I want to make sure that we haven’t gotten so comfortable with what we think is diversity, that we think it’s no longer an issue.“

Being the first means you have to deal with it before everyone else – the jokes, the insensitive comments, the misperceptions, the stereotypes, the micro-aggressions, the burden. Being the first means that maybe you’re seen as an agitator, when all you might be doing is speaking up for yourself. Brown has experienced all that. 

Brown grew up in Miami and attended a new high school that also served as a social experiment in desegregation. School planners designed it to be a third white, a third Black and a third Hispanic, bussing in kids from different neighborhoods to get the exact demographic mix. The school was located in a predominantly white community.

“It was an interesting thing to be part of as a teenager,” Brown remembers. “People didn’t want an African American (principal) leading the school, or African Americans at the school. Stereotypes and the biases were really in our face as kids. It wasn’t the students as much as it was the adults.”

In retrospect, Brown thinks that experience sparked a desire to become a lawyer, to learn how to debate and to go deep on complex issues. After graduating from Tuskegee University in Alabama and Howard University in D.C., she started her legal career in Phoenix.

“There are so many vignettes I can think of over the years,” Brown says. “Knocking on the door and saying hi and the person is like, ‘You can come in but I’m waiting on the lawyer,’ and seeing that surprise on their face (when they found out I was the lawyer), or being in meetings where people think you’re the secretary or the paralegal and the business client you’re supporting is the lawyer.”

While she doesn’t discount how much progress society has made in the last 30 years, recent events also make it clear to her that there’s still work left to do. She tears up when recalling the talk she had to have with her son, then 12 years old, after Trayvon Martin was shot in 2012 and his killer was acquitted. She’s exasperated when recalling a conversation she had last year with her daughter, then a senior in high school, who was upset after a friend implied she’d been accepted into a prestigious university only because she was Black.

As she’s grown, Brown’s ideas have expanded too, from seeing diversity as a predominantly black and white issue to realizing it’s much bigger, and trying to figure out how diversity works for other groups: women, LGBTQ, parents of young children, older people in the workplace and older parents with college-aged children.

“I’m an advocate for diversity, not just for women or African Americans, but for everyone,” Brown says. “We all need to have a fair chance to do what we want to do. How you live, how you love, what you want to believe. That’s how I want to be seen.”

thumbnail for ‘See me as me’: Starbucks honors Black History Month

‘See me as me’: Starbucks honors Black History Month