By Jennifer Warnick, Special Contributor
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”