Rosalind Brewer, COO Starbucks

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Rosalind Brewer is in the business of making history. She is the very first African American woman to hold the position of president and chief executive officer of Sam’s Club, one of three major divisions of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and the nation’s eighth largest retailer. Brewer leads more than 100,000 associates across 616 stores that generate close to $54 billion a year. She joined Wal-Mart in 2006 as regional vice president overseeing operations in Georgia. From 2007 to January 2012, she was division president of the Southeast before taking the helm at Sam’s Club. Despite being one of the most powerful women in corporate America, it’s her “realness,” her approachability, and her outright brilliance that wins over skeptics who find it incredulous that a woman could achieve and sustain this extraordinary level of success. 

Brewer’s father was born in 1929 in Bessemer, Alabama where he lived until he fled the South after being falsely accused of making a pass at a white woman. Brewer recalls talking with her dad about racial incidents that he and his eleven siblings endured, particularly the three male children in the Gates family. His mother, fearing that she would one day find one of her sons hanging from a tree, shipped all three boys out of the South when they were roughly 18yearsold. George went to live in Gary, Indiana where he worked in the steel industry. After a couple of years he moved to Detroit while he looked for work in the burgeoning auto industry. He moved into an apartment building with his first cousin where he met his future wife, Sally, and found a job with General Motors. George and Sally married in the 1950s and had five children. Rosalind, born in 1962, is the youngest of their children.

Despite putting in long hours, Brewer’s father came to every school event and was present for every award she ever received. “I don’t care where it was. If I got an honorable mention, I’d look out in the audience and he’d be sitting there,” Rosalind says. “I was the youngest of five and he was present at all of my violin recitals and piano recitals. He never missed one of them.” This show of love from her father is indelibly stamped on Brewer’s heart. It made her feel a huge sense of responsibility because she felt like someone was always watching, that someone cared—and that someone was her father. His absolute presence in all areas of her life, from the grandest school plays to the smallest violin recitals, made her raise her standards because her dad was going to come regardless, and she realized the sacrifices he made to show up to each and every event. Above all, she wanted to make her father proud.

Despite working three jobs, my dad came to every event and was present for every award I ever received. I don’t care where it was. If I got an honorable mention, I’d look out into the audience and he’d be sitting there. For all of my violin and piano recitals, my dad never missed one of them.”

As she has ascended through the ranks to one of the very highest positions in corporate America, Brewer has thought a lot about her father and the lessons he taught her. She feels that her dad would be absolutely beside himself to see the level of success she has achieved. Her position as the president and CEO of Sam’s Club she believes would have far exceeded her father’s expectations. “In actuality, the day I left for Spelman to start my first year of college did it for my dad. A college education was his wildest dream for all of his kids. “The level of success I have achieved as an executive,” Rosalind beams, “I think would be breathtaking for my father, and I try each and every day to honor his legacy and make him proud.”