CNN is reporting that Amazon has named Rosalind Brewer, the current chief operating officer of Starbucks, and one of the most influential black women corporate executives, to its board. The news was revealed in a recent SEC filing. Brewer is only the second African American woman to sit on the company’s board in its 25-year existence; the first was Myrtle Potter, who served on the board from 2004 to 2009.
Brewer made history in 2012 when she was named as the president and CEO of Sam’s Club, becoming the first African American woman to be named as a CEO at one of Walmart’s divisions. Brewer announced her retirement from that role in January and joined Starbucks’ board. Shortly thereafter, she was appointed COO of the coffee chain.
Brewer was also listed on BLACK ENTERPRISE‘s 2015 50 Most Powerful Women in Corporate America and spoke at the 2013 BE Women of Power Summit.
A Personality for Business
The Detroit native and youngest of five children graduated from Spelman College in 1984 with a chemistry degree and thoughts of pursuing a career in optometry. Yet, she built a reputation as a strong consumer packaged goods professional at Kimberly-Clark Corp., maker of brand-name consumer products such as Kleenex and Huggies.
“I started out as an organic chemist for Kimberly-Clark, but during the interviewing process I really wanted to get into the business side,” she said in a 2012 interview with BE. “At the time, they were starting a research and development group in the Atlanta area and I decided to go with my discipline to just get the job. But I realized with my personality and how I interacted with teams that I had the ability to be more on the business side.”
In 2004, Brewer became president of Kimberly-Clark’s Global Nonwoven Sector, gaining oversight of manufacturing plants in Korea, Australia, Latin America, the U.K., and the United States. Her team focused on streamlining manufacturing operations and driving product innovations with commercial brands such as Huggies and Pull-Ups diapers and Kotex feminine products. The result: sales grew 28% from $900 million in 2003 to $1.15 billion in 2005.
Taking a Career Risk
In 2006, Brewer made a risky career move. She accepted an offer to join Walmart—a company in transition at the time, with falling sales and an embattled reputation, particularly around diversity practices.
By 2010, Walmart’s senior management realigned the organization to focus on consumer engagement and increasing scale; it grouped U.S. operations into three distinct areas. Brewer was tapped as president of its Eastern business unit, responsible for generating $110 billion in revenue through the operation of 1,600 stores—from Puerto Rico to Maine—and the management of nearly 500,000 associates. Her next promotion would make history. After Brian Cornell resigned as head of Walmart’s Sam’s Club subsidiary, Brewer was installed as president and CEO of Walmart’s Sam’s Club, a $53.8 billion division representing 12% of Walmart’s business
Upon the announcement of Brewer’s appointment to Sam’s Club, one of the first congratulatory calls she received was from another powerful executive, Ursula Burns, the former chairman and CEO of Xerox Corp.
“She probably doesn’t know how much I idolize her. I wasn’t breathing while I was speaking to her on the phone,” Brewer said at the time.
“She spent time telling me some of the pitfalls and how to manage myself and how to say no to certain things.” Burns, the only African American woman to run one America’s largest publicly traded corporations, also invited the newly minted CEO to her offices for some extended mentoring.
When Brewer decided to change industries, becoming a CEO was never her goal. She has always been professionally driven by a need for autonomy and an ability to make an impact within an organization. After more than two decades at Kimberly-Clark, she hit a dead end. Brewer recalls: “I knew I needed to do something totally different. I wanted to test out the things that I’d learned. After 22 years you’re usually in a silo and jump out of desperation. I didn’t realize how prepared I was until I did it.”
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on Feb. 8, 2019, to correct the original headline and text, which incorrectly noted Rosalind Brewer as the first black woman appointed to Amazon’s board. Myrtle Potter, who served on the board from 2004 to 2009, was the first African American woman appointed to the board. Brewer is the second.
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