You may know your local pharmacy as “My Walgreens,” however, the 116-year-old brand is global in reach. And, Steve Pemberton is the Global Chief Diversity Officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance, which is the first global pharmacy-led health enterprise, as well as the largest retail pharmacy, health and daily living destination across the US and Europe.
So how does Walgreens evolve in a world where global business and culture collide?
“You have a demographic base that’s really shifting the way in which we interact and engage accordingly.” Pemberton says, “So, that means in our world certainly, that if we are not attentive to that changing customer base, then we are going to struggle to be competitive and relevant to these emerging customers.”
And, how has Pemberton’s own life evolved?
Pemberton grew from an adverse upbringing in the foster care system, to become a Corporate Executive, youth advocate, UCAN board member, best-selling author of his personal memoir, and the soon-to-be subject of his own feature film.
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Today’s guest is Steve Pemberton. Steve is the Global Chief Diversity Officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance. He’s also an accomplished author and is about to release a film documentary about his life story.
So, Steve, welcome on the show this morning.
Thanks, Brian. Thanks for having me.
Why don’t we start by telling our audience, just a little bit about yourself and your role at Walgreens?
Sure. I’m the Global Chief Diversity Officer for the Walgreens Boots Alliance. I actually arrived at Walgreens in 2011, after a similar role at the careers website monster.com. And then in 2014, my role expanded, as Walgreens’ married with Boots Alliance from Europe. So, my role went from being the Chief Diversity Officer, for then a 110-year-old very, very successful domestic company, to now, a first ever global health and wellness enterprise, that’s really in its infancy. So quite exciting times.
Very much so. And I was thinking about this topic of diversity, ’cause it’s come up once or twice on this show in the last two years. When I think about the industry that I’m in, marketing, it’s struggled a lot with diversity. Obviously, first, through gender, through race, even diversity of ideas. So, when you’re talking about, now, this giant global organization that you’re a part of, what does diversity look like at Walgreens?
If you look at the trajectory of diversity and where it’s been, it’s been anchored, and rightfully so, in corrective action, righting a wrong, whether that’s discrimination, sexism, racism, and rightfully so. We know our long history there. But I will also tell you, that in the business world, changing demographics has really been the denominator and the driver for diversity inclusion. So many companies have found themselves suddenly serving a very diverse customer base, because our demographic landscape has changed so dramatically. If you look at America this morning… And the morning is early… And by the end of the day, we’ll have a number of children who will enter the world for the first time. And one of two of those children will be of color, and this is gonna continue on for the next 40–50 years. You have a demographic base that’s really shifting, changing the way in which we interact and engage accordingly. So that means, in our world, certainly, that if we are not attentive to that changing customer base, then we’re going to struggle to be competitive and relevant to these emerging customers.
And then, it’s not just that diversity is changing so dramatically, it’s where it’s changing. Historically, when you talk about diversity in America, you’re thinking about the coast in some way, shape, or form, or the cities, and that has some historical relevance to it, because that’s been the early stages of diversity. But that’s not this current and ongoing wave. Communities, cities like Salt Lake City, Utah are roughly 10% Latino. Des Moines, Iowa, Lincoln, Nebraska, are seeing similar kind of trajectory. In the world of Walgreens, that means that the store managers and our pharmacists are seeing their customer base changing, seeing different kinds of interactions. And lastly, it’s why, I think diversity is gonna be far more sustainable than it’s been in the past. There’s a reason for these false starts that you’re referencing, and our inability, both in the business world and beyond, to truly wrestle and grapple with all the powerful implications that that could possibly mean.
Walgreens is a catalyst brand. It seems to be everywhere. Talk about how the company maintains that culture of diversity at such a massive scale.
A few things. It all goes back to that word ‘my.’ You talk to an individual and when the topic of Walgreens comes up, they always say, “My Walgreens.” And they’re referring to the one in their neighborhood, but they’re also very likely referring to the one that they went to as a child, or that their grandparents even went to, one of those very few, longstanding, generational brands. A bit of our secret has always been in our people, and understanding the local dynamics, and the nature of how our communities think, act, and operate. On the one hand, you have this common life event, that’s health and wellness. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, we’re all engaged in the pursuit of health and wellness for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for our country. But that takes on different forms in different communities. When our team members are coming from those communities, they often reflect the attitudes, the cultures of those communities, but it all stays under the Walgreens brand.
So, you’re not trying to impose this ivory tower mothership view of diversity. You’re understanding that, while diversity’s a global discussion and/or national phenomenon, it’s really operationalized locally. And to understand that, first and foremost, is the pathway, I think, and the key to maintaining it on such a large scale.
And just kinda building on that, can you talk about how this culture of diversity that you are building, and refining, and scaling, improves the customer experience on the backend?
There are two factors going on. One, it’s no secret that retail is under enormous pressure, largely because of ecommerce. It takes us a lot of effort to get you to the store. And we have to be absolutely certain, that the experience that you have in that store, is pleasant, is reflective of you, your community, and your needs, and therefore, will lead you to come back. That does require looking at this through the lens of the customer. And I’m thinking about something that we did most recently in our San Francisco market, where we partnered with Hallmark to deliver greeting cards, that reflected the number of Asian celebrations, Chinese New Year, Diwali, and that specific customer base. And a certain kind of local phenomena has unfolded, because now, we have customers coming from all across San Francisco, but they’re coming to this specific store, for those cards, in particular.
And yet, if we took a snapshot of the customers who walked into those stores, at first glance, you’d think that these would all be customers of Asian descent, but they’re not. Because we all have friends from different cultures, and backgrounds, and experiences, and we want to recognize their culture, their celebrations. And it gives us much more empowering, inspiring messages around diversity, when it’s operationalized, and looked at through the customers. They’re always our best guides. They tell us what they’re looking for, why they’re looking for it, and most importantly, how we can continue to refine our products and services to meet those ongoing needs.
Can you also talk a little bit about, from your perspective, this integration with Boots Alliance and bringing together this very iconic American brand, with a European brand. And did you encounter any bumps along the way, in terms of being able to roll out this same diversity, experience, and inclusion throughout the global scale?
One of the biggest challenges that companies, global or multinationals, often run into with diversity, is that they try to impose a US view of diversity inclusion on the global market and it never works, because it means different things in different places. So, while Walgreens and Boots Alliance came together, we all had learning to do. We were highly cognizant of the importance of understanding, right down to the exact countries in which Walgreens Boots Alliance operates, that we are highly attentive to those countries, that we’re on the one hand, consistent in our execution around innovation, partnership, dedication, trust, care, but we also must localize those efforts. So, we didn’t have as many learning curves as most multinationals do.
Having said that, the biggest challenge is the anticipatory change, specifically. Whether you’re dealing with issues of gender equity as it relates to compensation in England, that’s long been the standard here in the United States, we had to anticipate that, and to be prepared for the experience that our customers had, but also the experience of our internal team members. This was our way to avoid a lot of those false starts.
We talked about corporate branding with Walgreens located all over the world, but now we wanna switch gears a little bit and talk about your own personal brand. We understand you faced a lot of adversity growing up and we were wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that?
My approach to diversity, is summarized by the idea of the iceberg, that which is above the water line is much smaller than that which is below. In many ways, that’s a lot like us as individuals. There are things that we see when we see someone. We see their age. We see their height. We see their ethnicity. We see their gender by and large. Whether or not they have a physical disability. Those are things that you see when you see someone. But the things that you can’t see that are below the water line, that are not as evident, are applicable to all of us. So, while I have this wonderful role of Global Chief Diversity Officer for Walgreens Boots Alliance, below the water line is a much different story, of a child growing up in foster care, taken from his mother at three years old, a father nowhere present. And then I subsequently got lost in the gaps of the foster care system. And there are many wonderful, outstanding foster families across America. I encounter them in some way, shape, or form every day. But there are also those, and there are far fewer of them, but there are, nevertheless, those who are, not to be impolite, but are exploiting the system. And that’s where I found myself, regrettably so, for my entire childhood.
And the intersection, actually, of diversity in my own personal story, happened quite a few times. Probably, the first was when a social worker told me that the reason that they could not find me a permanent placement, was because they couldn’t figure out whether or not I should be in a white home or a black home. That really confused me, because at that age, five years old or so, about the only thing that I had experienced in the way of color was a box of crayons. So, I thought that they were referring to the color of the house. I had no idea what they were talking about. And as the years went on, and the inability to find a safe, secure home unfolded, it still came down to that basic conversation. And that was something quite instructive for me, make sure that you spend more time trying to figure out who someone is, what their life journey has been, and what their experiences are, rather than what they are.
And that was all, I think, crystallized for me around the second narrative that unfolded. I’d been in the particularly cruel clutches of one family for well over a decade. And every day was a battle to eat, to be safe, to learn, to try and find someone, anyone who would see you as more than this broken boy. The foster family was shrewd and manipulative. And because they were paid for taking care of me, in their world, it was necessary to keep money coming in, and that meant hiding the truth. And so, I just fought them. That was my reaction to it. I fought. And my way of fighting was reading every single day. And that gave me a certain kind of armor to deal with their constant salvos, and, ultimately, resulted in me escaping after 13 years, just a couple of days after Christmas, when I was 16 years old.
Steve, we appreciate your vulnerability on this topic and what’s really interesting, as I said earlier, is that I had known you for a few years, but actually not known some of the back story. You then went on to write a phenomenal bestselling book, “A Chance in the World,” but then you took it even a step further and you started a foundation. Why was creating that non-profit important for you?
Well, to do anything else would have been to retreat. I have managed to have my victories. I’m a husband and father of three. And so, in many ways, I’ve managed to navigate that, and come out on the other side, I’d like to think whole and intact. But when you write a book that shares some of those tough years in the pathway to adulthood, one of the things I just could not anticipate, as I was writing it, was the number of stories that others would pour into me, and they do every day. And I think that would be true for any of us, if we got our life story down. Invariably, you will be writing the chapter of somebody else’s life, who will find strength, and sustenance, and direction from yours. But I also wanted to do something to help, guide, and assist, because for as long as I breathe air, I’m never going to forget what it was like to try and get my chance. And that’s all I wanted, was just a chance. And I wanted the duality of the responsibility of a chance. I need a chance, but I have to do something with the chance when it comes to me. And the number of people I continue to meet, who are asking for exactly that, in the smallest of ways, a kind word, a gesture, an introduction, career advice, they’re all looking for a chance.
A Chance in the World, the foundation based off the title of the book, was intended to do just that. And that takes on many different forms, whether I’m supporting UCAN in Chicago for children who are the most vulnerable in our society, who have suffered trauma, and inherited tragedies. Can they get a chance? Or Bernie’s Book Bank, which is focused on childhood literacy, or delivering scholarships to a middle school in the community of New Bedford, Massachusetts where I grew up. It’s all around this central need for us all to have a chance, and then the opportunity to do something with that chance. The story for me was never going to be complete, until I was doing something with this improbable life story that’s unfolded, which many times, still surprises me.
Wow. Well, thank you. Yes, that’s wonderful, that you’ve taken your experience and been able to bless so many others. That’s truly impressive. Beyond the book and the foundation, you’re debuting a feature film documentary based on your life story this week. Tell us a little bit about the decision and the process to make that film.
Well, Natalie, almost immediately after the book was published, I started hearing from movie producers, who said, “This is absolutely a movie.” I was wondering how exactly they were going to distill a near 100-year story down into a couple of hours. So, I found myself on a lot of trips to Los Angeles, and meeting with certainly interested and well-intentioned producers. But in so many of those meetings, Natalie, they gave me this look that I’d come to recognize as a boy. That look always said, “So who are you and what are you doing here?” I recognized that look.
And I realized that I had a vision for how I wanted this to unfold, that would be empowering, and inspiring, and impactful, and deliver a central message of accountability, and responsibility. And sometimes, it was… The way I’d say it, “If it was meant for them to see, then they would have seen it.” But in many cases, they didn’t. And so, what we decided to do here, was go the independent route. A very good friend of mine in Chicago, a businessman, Mike Bousis, and, long story short, he approaches me after a basketball tournament, he says, “I keep hearing about this amazing life story of yours. What’s that about?” I’d known him for a couple of years. And so, he said, “Well, I’m going on a trip here. Do you have a book?” I said, “No, I have something better, since you’re driving.” I gave him the audio version, because I narrated the audiobook. And he calls me at 1:00 that following morning, and says, “I’m sitting in my driveway and I’d like to go inside, but I can’t, because I can’t walk away from this until it’s done.”
And he was the one who actually introduced me to an independent movie producer, Tom Bastounes of Mighty Small Pictures. And then Tom hired a great director in Mark Vadik, and they assembled an outstanding cast: Tom Sizemore, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Nick Turturro, Cynda Williams, Fred Williamson, and this amazing, amazing child actor, he is now 13 years old, Terrell Ransom Jr, who plays me. To watch that all unfold, to see parts of your life depicted in that way, it’s a bit like time travel. You’re literally going back in time, because you’re looking at movie sets that have been created exactly in the way that you described them. But there were also some central messages of fight, and fortitude, and faith, forgiveness, family. I’m really looking forward to this sneak preview, which we are also doing as a fundraiser for my foundation A Chance in the World, as well as another foundation, Love Without Boundaries, which is focused on international orphans and adoption. It promises to be quite a spectacular evening.
Well, I am privileged to have seen a little bit of a teaser of the film and it just blew me away. And I know you started to talk for just a minute about this, but I’m curious. As someone who just described a very challenging upbringing in a very intimate way, and then to write about it, and then to build a foundation about it, and now, this film, what is it like then, when you sit down, whether it’s just you, or maybe you and your family, what is it like to sit down though, and then actually watch this film on the big screen of your life?
When I find the vocabulary to express that I’ll let you know. It’s really humbling. That’s probably my first reaction. I don’t mean that false humility, that suggests that I’m better than you. It is more that awe, that in a way, something is happening through you, and not necessarily for you. And that perhaps, the reason you endured that all, was to help those who are also trying to come through something, and fight through something. That is the real hope and intention of the film, much like the book was. I want the film to be that too. And I’m saying that, because of the stories that I get every single day. And from all over the world, none of which I could ever predict would come my way, and they just astound you.
Just yesterday, I have a biological brother, who I didn’t meet until I was 24 years old. We all went off into foster care. And yesterday, on social media, a home where he was raised, another adopted child in a home wrote to me, because he had read the book. And I was writing about his adopted brother, who is my biological brother. I want you to imagine something like that happening every day, in some way. Not quite as intense as that, but something like that every day.
A 73-year-old man from Ireland, wrote to me to say, “Thank you for writing this, because I lost a great deal as a child as well, and I’ve never been able to put it down. But now that I’ve read your book, I can go to my rest in peace.” Oh. You have to pause for a moment when you get something so powerful like that. To have given that gift, I guess, of peace, to a man, who’s no doubt lived a wonderful life, but has carried a burden, who I will very likely never meet, that’s humbling. And yet, in these particularly dissonant times, where it feels to me that cynicism, and hopelessness are all around us, I really do think that our pathway through this, is for us to be reminded of the innate resilience that a lot of us have, of the commonality through adversity that many of us have. To look to our deeper human experiences, and connection, and though someone may be of a different gender, and look completely different than you, and of a different faith, that you can find a thread of your life in theirs, and they can do the same in yours. That’s the pathway through this.
So, as we come full circle and wrap up today’s show, what’s next for you?
That’s a great question. In an ideal world, unlimited hours in the day, I would write a second book. And it’s far less to do with my own story, but I really wanna tell the story of so many other people’s lives. And unravel this concept of resilience in the everyday hero. It is based on the everyday person who wakes up and they are dedicated to their communities, and their causes, their cities, and their country. And I think that there are stories getting lost in our relentless pursuit of celebrity. That would be, ideally, my next book. I’m very hopeful that the film, it’s currently an independent film, will find its way to the major festivals, and that a distributor will find it, and will see the same power and impact that we do, so those are things on the immediate horizon. But I’ve also learned that man plans and God laughs. So, there could be other narratives that will emerge too.
Well, Steve Pemberton, you are an inspiration to me, personally, as well as I know, many, many others. We’re very grateful for you to spend some time with us this morning on the Brand Lab Series. It’s just been a real pleasure hearing you tell your story, both at the corporate, and personal level today. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you, Brian. I truly, truly appreciate that. And Natalie, thank you, as well, for joining us this morning.
Thank you, Steve. Nice to meet you.
Thanks for having me.
Tags: B2C, Brand and Marketing, Customer Experience, Employee Advocacy
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