Rosalind G. Brewer
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Whitney Pennington Rodgers: Hi, Roz Brewer. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Rosalind Brewer: Thank you for having me.

WPR: We can just dive right in. We're right now in the last quarter of 2020, and I think that a lot of people would agree that we're in the midst of what's probably one of the largest reckonings around racial equity that we've had in this country in decades. And it's something that you've been such a vocal advocate for, both through your role at Starbucks and throughout your career of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. And so I'm curious just to hear from you to start off the conversation, what this moment means for DEI efforts, not just in corporate America but in business in general.

RB: You are right that this has made many of us that are in the corporate setting and beyond to rethink the position on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. You know, let me start the conversation about where are we actually in diversity and inclusion in the corporate setting, and I will tell you that this is actually putting a spotlight on the weaknesses and maybe the lack of forethought and intensity that we should always have maintained on this subject all along. One of the things that I think it's been highlighting for most of us is that our biggest opportunity is inclusion. Because, you know, I have heard the stories so many times about how there's no Black talent out there, no Latinx talent for these particular roles. The talent is out there. I will tell you that it's underdeveloped, because I think we have spent more time trying to reach numbers than we have changing our environment where people feel safe, where they feel they can come to work and be their whole self, give it everything they've got, be their natural self and be respected for it and applauded for it, and for people to recognize and appreciate their differences and understand that they're differences, and if they're included in the conversations, that they're just a better resource for the companies. So I think there's so much opportunity in the inclusion space, because we focus too much on meeting metrics.

WPR: And, you know, I think earlier this year when the protests began right after the death of George Floyd, we saw lots of organizations put out these statements of solidarity, these commitments to do more to be inclusive both in their workspace and for their customers and people who support their work. But then you also hear — I've heard a lot of business leaders say things like, "You know, we want to do something but don't really know where to start." And so I'm curious to hear from you just sort of what do you think are ways that you actually can make a real difference when it comes to thinking about diversity and inclusion and avoid sort of this performative justice?

RB: Yes. So there's a few things that I think about in this space. First of all, when you think about an inclusive environment, you think about: Am I being heard? And most people with differences, they want to know that you are heard and that you are seen. And I really applaud the companies who have been spending time just putting themselves on a learning journey, you know, holding listening sessions, trying to make sure that we've got different viewpoints when big decisions are made. You know, there are some companies who are engaging their partner networks in ways that they've never done before. I think those are some early success factors that could lead us to different kinds of conversations. And I've been listening to a lot of my peers in different industries, and they're having their own personal aha moments, and they're actually checking themselves at the front door, saying, "I never thought," "I never knew," "I didn't know what I was doing when I said X, or when I did this." Right? And so I think it starts with some very simple things. I'd say that there are a lot of steps to take before training and development, that's for sure. So those that are jumping quickly into training and development, I'd say put a pause on it and just get back to grassroots and hold listening sessions and then decide, what do you want to do? And then help those people of diverse backgrounds engage in those conversations about how they want to see change happen. They're the best resource for a lot of this and a lot of these discussions. I mean, I learned so much. I have breakfast sessions with the baristas and partners at Starbucks regularly. I just had one yesterday, and when my screen popped up, I had nine diverse randomly selected partners. We call our employees "partners." And it was such a rich conversation, and they began to network while I'm talking to them, right, they were learning from each other. And this wasn't a diversity conversation. We were actually kicking off our new financial year at Starbucks, and so this was actually a business conversation and a touch-base to see how you're doing while we're working remotely. And, you know, it starts there with building relationships and learning people for who they are and engaging them and saying, "I see you, I hear you." That goes such a long way that I think if we do more of that, I even think the engagement and performance just goes through the roof.

WPR: And so what I hear you saying, then, is that it's less about this short-term "how can I respond to this moment right now?" and it's more about long-term engagement with people and making this part of the fabric of how you do your work. And so I'm curious also to hear a little bit about, just, I guess if there is a timeline, when people think about how quickly they should be responding to protests and to what's happening in this cultural moment. What should we actually be looking at as far as when we see this change actually materialize and take effect?

RB: Yes. So I think there are some short-term things. There are some really key partnerships in the communities around our localities that are really important to also engage in some of the listening and learning sessions as well. I learn tons from organizations like the Legal Defense Fund, from the NAACP, and engaging those partnerships that we've had over the years, but changing the discussion of the conversation about how do we partner together. Because one of the things that I fear for being a retailer like Starbucks and many other companies is that I want my partners to feel not only safe, comfortable, heard and seen in the company, I want them to have that same experience in the community. And so that's when it comes full circle. I really want diverse BIPOC employees to feel like, you know, "I make a difference." First of all, I vote every year. I'm engaged in my community. And then I'm engaged in work. So I have value. And so I think there are some key partnerships that should happen right now so that we can make sure that our employees feel like they have a full way to engage in this change that's underfoot right now.

WPR: And then I wonder, conversely, what sort of pitfalls have you seen business leaders fall into that are actually just not effective and are not supportive of efforts to be more inclusive and to diversify? What are some of the things that haven't worked?

RB: Yeah, you know, I worry about the race for numbers, to meet numbers, because what you will find, I've found many times in my career, is that some of our best leaders have good intentions, but they don't understand. They don't understand the partner sitting next to them that looks different from them. And so I worry about when we race to numbers, because, you know what? The kind of country we live in, the world we live in, we all know how to make numbers work. What we don't know how to do is to build strong relationships that are lasting, that are valued. And I think that's where we need to start, is relationship-building and key partnerships. So I worry about the numbers base.

WPR: And so, of course, I think we all remember a few years back, Starbucks had a very public issue. You were embroiled in that incident in Philadelphia around racial discrimination that led to Starbucks taking a step back and thinking about inclusion and implicit bias and racial sensitivity. So how did that experience help prepare you for this year, both as an individual business leader and then also as an organization? How did it help you approach what we've been experiencing in this country in the past few months?

RB: So, that was a real example of leadership and, actually, where Starbucks had failed in selecting the right leadership for that store. And to give you an example, the person that was running that store was a very young, up-and-coming leader for the company, and to put her in a store in 18th and Spruce in Philadelphia was an opportunity for all of us. So in retrospect, one of the reasons why we did the antibias training was to make sure that we began those conversations. And when I talk about not just training — that training was very unique because it was self-engaged. They weren't being taught by an instructor. They had to have conversations with their peer baristas around diversity and inclusion amongst themselves. So it wasn't moderated by any leader in the company. It was self-instructive. And the conversations that were created once we had that kind of relationship-building — you know, we had some of our baristas asking us, "Can I take this home and talk to my father, who never let me take the Black girl to the prom?" You know, we started what we felt like a movement and a discussion that we have been able to really use from that point on in terms of the way we want to escalate the conversations and make change happen at Starbucks, and not only at Starbucks but in our communities, because there were quite a few organizations that we reached out to that we're still engaged with today that are helping us build community leadership as well.

WPR: And is that the goal? I mean, you mentioning an employee who wanted to take their learnings home. Is the goal in thinking about how you approach these issues as an organization for your employees and your partners to see how they can move this beyond just their work life?

RB: Sure. You know, a lot of this starts at home. It starts with what happens at your dinner table. Right? And so we can correct what happens and we're responsible for what happens when you come to work at Starbucks, but we also realize that we can only get them ever so far, but if you're at the table having some conversations that are counter to what you're learning in the workplace, you can't help but slow down your growth and your change. And so a lot of the work that we do around diversity and inclusion is open-sourced. So when we created the materials for the work when we had the closing of our stores on May 28th, we had given that to so many other companies for them to use, and even we're doing some work right now around Courageous Conversations. And in this remote world, we're allowing our partners to bring their families onto the camera or listen in the room as we have courageous conversations on diversity. So if Starbucks has a keynote speaker on a certain diversity topic, we invite the family in. And it's been really, it's been great. A lot of our senior executives have said, "This is starting new conversations with my teens at home," who are either getting bullied ... These are changing the conversations about why we question some of the actions that we had around our house. And so we need to understand that to embrace this issue, it is not as small as numbers, it's not as small as just the workplace. It is very comprehensive. So we're trying to do something different here to change the conversations and then actually grow inclusion in a very, very grassroots way at Starbucks.

WPR: And, of course, I would imagine as a Black woman and a business leader that these issues hit really close to home for you. And I'm curious just with your interactions with colleagues and counterparts at other organizations that perhaps there isn't that same level of investment because it isn't something that's as important personally. And I'm curious how you are able to begin those conversations with colleagues and counterparts who are in positions to bring about this sort of change in their own organizations or within Starbucks. How do you get them invested, and how do you, frankly, get them to care about this?

RB: Yeah, that's a very good question. So, I have two children. I have a daughter who is 17 and a son who is 25. And quite honestly, when that situation happened in our Starbucks stores back in 2018, my son was the same exact age as Donte and Rashon and looks a lot like them, by the way, and would have been sitting in the Starbucks dressed the same way they were. So that incident alone was deeply personal to me, actually made me grab my chest, right? Because I knew at any given moment my husband or my son could get pulled over, and I'd get that call in the middle of the night. So it's deeply personal for me, and what I try to do is I share stories, and I talk very openly about my family and what we do on the weekends and our holiday traditions and all of those things. And I have no issue with someone leaning over to me, maybe one of my white counterparts, saying, "I don't understand that. What are they talking about?" when they hear something that's a little bit different than their culture. And I'm wide open to explain and have those conversations, because I feel like I really want to be a conduit for that. I always tell everyone, no question's too small or too big. Even with everything that's going on right now in our environment around social unrest, I've gotten tons of calls from my white peers at different companies saying, "Roz, what do you think? What are you hearing? Help me out here." I'll drop everything, because if I can help, and I'll tell the story, and I think most people know if they've known me over the years. I'm pretty frank and outspoken. And I'll also tell them when they've really messed up and what they need to do about it. And so I think I want more Black leaders to feel just as confident in doing that. I see no risk in it. I do realize that it begins a new relationship with some people, and some people can't take the tough conversations, but it's time for tough conversations.

WPR: And, I mean, to that point, I imagine there are probably also people who, because these conversations are tough and uncomfortable, think maybe it's easier or better to just avoid having to do that and to have those conversations and discussions to stir the pot in some ways. And so what do you say to the people who think "Let's just try to lay low," and I've heard some of this, too, in this moment, "Let the moment pass so that we can get back to business as usual"?

RB: Yeah. Well, I'd first start off by saying how disgusted I am by that statement, because leaders lead in the moment, and you never know when you're going to be called upon. And if this isn't a calling, I don't know what is. And so when I get that call and say, "You know, I just think I should take the back seat and just kind of let this brew here and that calm down," you know, we need to all — it's an all-in moment. And leadership is not designated by your title. It's designated about how great you can create followership. And having thought leadership, people underestimate the opportunity to pick up the phone and call someone, and say, "How are you? How is this affecting you? How can I help?" That's pretty simple. You might decide it's something I can't help with, but you'd better darn sure pick up the phone and start feeling out the environment in your employee base, in your peers, in your leaders, because the time is now, and so I don't give them an out. I actually try and push them over the edge, because sometimes they are just kind of stuck, like, "What do I do?" And then the other thing that I personally have to do is to make sure that they understand that because I am at this level where I am, I'm not excluded from these issues, right? I know that when my husband jumps in his vehicle, I worry every time if he's out in the evening that he may not come back home the same way he left. I feel that way for my son and for my husband. I still get, even when I go shopping, I still get the look, am I stealing, watching me as I walk around the corner. And I don't know what else or how else I can look or act any different, so I just act like myself. I used to get dressed to go shopping. Now I never do that. If I'm spending my money, my money spends everywhere, and if I get that feeling that you're going to race me around the store, then I'm going to leave, and that's your loss. But I still get that, and so I worry. So I also try to help people understand that this is not a socioeconomic, once you've sort of "made it," you're out of the water. No. We're still, as someone with differences, visible differences, you're still at risk.

WPR: And so much of this conversation also is about who's in leadership and who's making these decisions and representation at high levels. And I know that you've been really vocal about your own experiences as a woman color, person of color, as a Black woman, in these executive positions, and often feeling you are the only one in some rooms, and sort of the isolation of that, but also the challenges in making choices and getting things done when that's the case. And so I'm curious also, what are the opportunities that this moment presents for us to perhaps approach this differently, and how can people at different organizations who are looking to bring people in to positions of leadership, how can we approach this differently so that we can begin to see more people of color in these roles?

RB: Sure. It's been my experience that I see tons of great, diverse talent coming in to companies, and then they're stuck. And what I see is the pipeline is very weak at a certain level, and once it gets to the point of trying to decide on a succession plan for who's next in line for the big jobs, there's this great talent that's like that mid-level manager area, then there's a big gap, and then there's maybe two at the top. And it puts a lot of pressure on those two on the top to try and go down and grab those that are just, maybe been with the company for two to five years, and lift them up. So what I think about is: How do we give extraordinary experiences to our youngest diverse talent so that they can get that exposure early on and begin to develop early on just like their white peers? And I think sometimes we celebrate too much that they are part of the company, but what we need to celebrate is, where is their progression? Where is their opportunity for growth? Who's listening to them, and who has their hands on them? And one of the things that we're doing at Starbucks is really having structured mentorship. But the mentorship looks a lot more like being a sponsor. And so, our executive leaders will be responsible for the development of our young, diverse talent and making sure that they're getting that exposure and those opportunities. And just imagine if you're a new hire in the company, and someone wants to meet with you at a senior level once a month, twice a year, even — that's game-changing. And so we have to reach our young talent early, and now this pipeline has got to close. We've got to fill it up and close this gap, because if not, I don't see a pathway for diverse executives, C-suite executives, in the next, I would say, three to five years, I don't see a lot of placements happening.

WPR: And are you hopeful in this moment? Do you feel like we are making progress towards this?

RB: It's early days. I'm hopeful. I feel good about the conversations that are happening. I'm seeing change in people thinking more about themselves when my white counterparts are questioning some of their actions. And so I feel like we can't let this moment leave us, and what we're learning about it. I think what I'm really optimistic about is that now I think more people will understand that the less diverse and less inclusive we are, it's more than a business imperative. When we combine the pandemic and we see the inequities of a pandemic on a diverse community, and we talk about how that happens, how people are underrepresented in health care, underrepresented in their housing, they can see that this is a groundswell moment. And the more we realize that and talk about that complexity, then the solutions begin to happen. And I think that's happening more and more, so I'm optimistic about that, because we're looking at the ills of lack of diversity and inclusion, and maybe looking at much broader solutions for it than what we have in the past.

WPR: Thank you so much, Roz. This was such a meaningful conversation. It was great to hear your insights.

RB: Thank you.