One of the phone calls that mattered the most to Rosalind Brewer on the day she was named CEO of Sam’s Clubs in February 2012 came from another CEO—Ursula Burns of Xerox. Burns, a member of the extremely small sorority of African-American female leaders of large organizations, reached out to congratulate Brewer on her new position.
“That really brought me back to center and reminded me that you have to give back and recognize the successes of other women,” Brewer said Friday at Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s fourth annual Women in the World Summit, where she was interviewed by Pat Mitchell, the president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media.
Sam’s Club, a $54 billion retail chain owned and operated by Walmart, has 600 outlets and more than 100,000 employees around the world. Brewer is the first woman and the first African-American to run a division of Walmart. The discussion centered on Brewer’s efforts to harness the power of the world’s largest retailer to create new opportunities for women across the globe.
In her rise from Detroit to Bentonville, Brewer—a member of the first generation of her family to attend college—says she has relied on women mentors. When she worked as a corporate engineer early in her career, a senior executive took Brewer under her wing. “She taught me about the unwritten rules of these kinds of jobs,” said Brewer, who majored in chemistry at Spelman College. “She was the one who spent the time telling me how to watch out and what to expect. I’ll never forget that.” Before joining Walmart in 2005, Brewer worked at Kimberly-Clark Corp., where she rose from the laboratory to become president of its Global Nonwovens sector.
One of the most significant pieces of assistance woman can offer younger women in the corporate world is to encourage them to find and use their voice. “There was a time in my career when I was quiet, even though I knew the answers to the questions,” Brewer said. “So when I mentor young women, I constantly tell them about leading with your voice and your guts.”
Brewer, a 50-year-old wife and mother of two, invests time in mentoring women through several avenues. At Spelman College, where she sits on the board of trustees, both Walmart and Brewer’s family have sponsored scholarships. “I do a lot of work at my alma mater,” she said. “There’s nothing greater that I can do than go to the commencement exercises and see 400 African-American women graduating.”
Sam’s Club also works intensively to train female entrepreneurs and businesspeople to be suppliers to the massive chain. Brewer cited the example of Rose Hill, an organic farmer in Alabama who has become a supplier to the company and is now teaching other women about sustainable farming. “We’re extending ourselves, teaching women how to grow their business,” she said.
Mindful of the way others like Burns have extended themselves to her, she is always conscious of the need to extend herself. A great deal of the mentoring Brewer does happens during the work day, as she walks the aisles of Sam’s Clubs, talking and listening to associates. In addition to discussing inventory, customer behavior, and logistics, “I share my story, I talk openly about my family, and I spend time making sure that they know” what is possible, Brewer said. “I create road maps for the people who work for me, because it’s not easy. I need to clear the barriers.”