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She's a Black woman leading a Fortune 500 company and says she's here to stay

Rosalind Brewer, the CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, discussed her experiences with discrimination and advocating for diversity at major companies with TODAY's Hoda Kotb.
/ Source: TODAY

As one of the only two Black women running Fortune 500 companies, Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, has a long list of accomplishments, thanks to her innovative approach that's demonstrated, time and again, her strong business acumen.

At her first company, she helped grow sales more than $1 billion. At Sam's Club, she also boosted profits, and at Starbucks, as chief operating officer, she overhauled the way customers are treated.

In January, she was named CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, the parent company of the Walgreens pharmacy chain. It's the largest company ever to be run by a Black woman.

Joining the pharmacy giant at the beginning of the pandemic wasn't easy. But given the company's role in COVID-19 vaccine administration, she sees it as "a time for me to step into something that I've always wanted to do," she told TODAY co-anchor Hoda Kotb in an interview aired Wednesday.

"That's to have impact, make change happen, lead something that would leave an impression on people's lives," she added.

Still, though, Brewer, a mother of two, has had to deal with discrimination, she told Hoda.

Asked if she's been told she's advanced because of her race, Brewer said: "I have had several similar comments to that, as if I'm a token. ... I've had the comment that, 'You're not as smart as you think you are.' I've had a lot of those."

She then shared a story about attending a meeting of less than 25 people just for CEOs.

"I had one gentleman ask me constantly, what did I do for a living, almost like, 'Why are you here?'" she recalled. "He must have asked me 20 questions like, 'Marketing? Sales?' I was like, 'No.'"

"It was so funny because I happened to be the keynote speaker for the private luncheon. I assumed my position on the stage, and I just saw his face just totally drain."

"I feel as if I'm going to teach a couple of lessons through this, and I'm going to be my best," she added.

Today, Walgreens is the largest company ever run by a Black woman.

Brewer's dedication to excelling started from a young age, when her parents, who didn't attend college, made it clear that she and her siblings would pursue higher education.

"It was from day one. There was no other option," she told Hoda. "My dad worked three jobs. But for every event that I had in my life, he was always there. And I remember one event where I thought I was gonna get the gold ribbon. And I ended up getting an honorable mention. And I remember feeling guilty because I was like, 'He left work early, one of the three jobs. And all I got was an honorable mention.' And it broke my heart, but he was so proud."

She went on to graduate from Spelman College, a historically Black women's liberal arts school in Atlanta. But her father didn't see her get her diploma. He died just six weeks before.

"I clearly know he would be quite excited," she said of her current success. "He would be. I think about that a lot."

The path to her success, though, has been met with pushback at times. As the CEO of Sam's Club, she said that diversity makes for good business, an assertion that prompted death threats.

"I was surprised by it. I mean, the comment was pretty unremarkable," she recalled. "It had been said the day before by another male CEO, white male CEO. But within a matter of probably 24 to 36 hours, I had security surrounding my home. ... It was scary, and it was a reminder that we aren't really as far as I thought we were, and it reminded me that there's hate."

At her next position at Starbucks, her commitment to diversity became invaluable. In 2018, a manager of a Philadelphia store called the police after two Black men sat without ordering, prompting widespread criticism. In response, Starbucks apologized and closed 8,000 stores for racial bias training, making headlines in the process.

"It was very personal," Brewer said of the incident. "I saw these two young men, and what really struck me was they were the same exact age as my son, John, and I knew right away that I had to dive into this one. ... This could have happened to him."

She added that she heard about the incident from her son.

"He texts me right away because this hit Black social media before it hit anywhere else, and so he knew right away, and he texts me. He said, 'Mom, you have to get after this right away.'"

Brewer plans to continue to advocate for diversity, among her many other responsibilities.

"I'm somebody's mom. I'm somebody's wife and I am somebody's leader, but I'm not that activist. So I feel like this is divine order," she told Hoda.

Asked when she thinks her work will be done, she answered simply, "Likely never."

"I see so many ills that still need energy and need a voice," she added. "I hope that I can still be that person to make change happen. I really hope so."