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For Rosalind Brewer, the chief operating officer of Starbucks, the arrest of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson at one of the coffee company’s Philadelphia stores in 2018 was personal on a level that went beyond the impact of controversy on the company’s brand and reputation. Not only is she African American, she is the mother of a son who is the same age as Nelson and Robinson.

“When I learned about the two gentlemen, the thing that struck me most was these were two African American males, 23years old at the time. ... My son was a 23-year-old at that time,” Brewer told me during a live interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June. She later talked about how her son called her with an urgent message.

“It made me almost tearful. He was like, ‘Mom. I don’t know where you are or what you’re doing, but you gotta fix this.’... He was livid,” shared Brewer in our conversation that is the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “He really wanted me to get after it, but it gave me confidence to do everything I could possibly do. Because I could tell in his voice, I heard the fear in his voice. He was scared, he thought about himself.”

I asked Brewer a lot of questions about what happened that April day in 2018 and the lessons she and Starbucks learned. But our discussion was most powerful when we broadened it to the societal challenges African Americans face more broadly. “If there is a place where bias doesn’t exist, I haven’t found it,” Brewer said. Even a person as accomplished and powerful as Brewer has stories to tell, stories that informed her own response to Nelson and Robinson’s arrests.

“If I have gone from the gym, and then I wanna walk into a high-end department store ... and the store will be right here, and the gym way over here,” said Brewer. “I’ll go home and change clothes and come back, because I know I’m not gonna get the service I need.”

During the Q&A portion of our discussion, a young woman thanked Brewer for being a role model for black women in corporate America like herself. “I don’t think people understand what it’s like to be the only one,” she said. I asked Brewer to talk more about what it’s like being “the only one,” the only African American in rarified and some not-so-rarified spaces. “It absolutely does not feel good. And I will tell you that it’s actually quite lonely,” Brewer said.

Listen to the podcast to hear Brewer articulate the three lessons she learned as a result of the Philadelphia incident, the mentoring lessons she imparts upon young women and the three traits that make a good leader. But you really want to listen to hear Brewer recount what happened to her at a meeting of the CEO Roundtable when she was the CEO of Sam’s Club. It gets at what she told the women of Spelman College, the historically black college in Atlanta where she is chair of the board.

“When you’re a black woman, you get mistaken a lot as someone who could not have the top job,” Brewer said in her 2018 commencement address, “Sometimes you're mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people will assume you're in the wrong place, and all I can think is, ‘No, you're in the wrong place.’”

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

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