SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon.com has named its first black director after facing growing pressure to diversify the all-white board overseeing one of the world’s most powerful and valuable companies.
Rosalind Brewer, chief operating officer and board director of Starbucks, is one of corporate America’s most prominent women and black women executives. She is joining Amazon as the board’s 10th member and its fourth woman, according to a securities filing from the company Monday.
The appointment comes after Amazon resisted pressure from shareholders, employees and the Congressional Black Caucus to adopt a shareholder proposal to increase the diversity of its board. In May, Amazon agreed to the proposal which calls for Amazon to consider women and minorities for board openings, similar to the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which has increased the diversity of coaching staff by mandating that teams interview at least one minority candidate.
Amazon says it has a “longstanding commitment” to diversity and was already actively recruiting Brewer when it amended its corporate governance guidelines last year. “We have been focused on diversity on our board for some time,” the company said in a statement.
Amazon is the latest major technology company to add its first African-American board member. Former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, one of the nation’s highest-profile black executives, joined the boards of Facebook and Airbnb a year ago.
Pressure is intensifying on companies to increase the diversity of their boards. More diverse corporate boards get better long-term results and are better able to spot new opportunities as well as threats, according to research from BlackRock Inc., the world’s biggest asset manager, and others in the investing world pushing for diverse representation.
There are no national requirements to have more women or people of color on boards. California last year passed a law that will require at least one woman on corporate boards with headquarters in the state by 2019 and three on most of those boards by 2021.
Like other major technology companies, Amazon’s is mostly white, Asian and male, particularly at the upper echelons of the company where women and people from underrepresented groups are scarce. Late last year, Amazon hired two Capitol Hill staffers – Troy Clair, former chief of staff to Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and LaDavia Drane, former chief of staff to Yvette Clark, D-NY, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus – to work on diversity issues.
Brewer’s appointment is the most significant step yet to address the gender and racial gap at Amazon. Brewer, the former CEO of Walmart’s Sam’s Club division, replaces John Seely Brown, the former chief scientist at Xerox Corp., who did not stand for reelection.
“Roz is a perfect example of the extraordinary minority and female talent that exists in corporate America, that is all too often excluded from the boardroom and the C-Suite,” Robin Kelly, co-chair of the House Tech Accountability Caucus and a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement. “It is my hope that this barrier-breaking appointment serves as an example to other industry leaders regarding the positive economic, business, innovation and inclusion benefits offered by increasing board diversity, especially to companies leading the way in our modern innovation economy.”
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Tech companies are looking to recruit workers from a range of backgrounds to brainstorm and build products for a global marketplace. The sharpest deficits in the tech industry are African-American and Hispanic women, who make up 1 percent or fewer of workers while, across other industries, they are represented at much higher rates consistent with their proportion of the overall U.S. population.
The second highest ranking executive at Starbucks after CEO Kevin Johnson, Brewer was already a Starbucks director when the coffee giant tapped her as group president and COO in September 2017. She runs the company’s businesses in the U.S., Canada and Latin America as well as its operations.
In a commencement address in Ma at Spelman College, her alma mater and a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, Brewer talked of belonging to Generation P, as in perseverance, as she climbed the ranks of corporate America, where she was routinely handed assignments no one else wanted or that management thought she’d fail at. “Most of the time I was counted out even before I was considered in,” she told graduating students.
She says she kept her head down and delivered results. Today she’s one of the few black women executives of a Fortune 500 company. Yet the barriers remain. “No matter how high we fly, we still hit the glass dome constructed by our biased culture,” she said.
At an exclusive CEO roundtable with 25 invited guests, a fellow corporate leader asked if she headed marketing or merchandising before she took the podium as the event’s keynote. In 2015, during an interview on CNN, Brewer made the business case for diversity and was subjected to death threats to herself and her children and calls for a boycott and her resignation.
Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon stood behind her but, she says, “it was a nasty reminder that every day, people of color face systemic racism so blatant, so emboldened and yet so normalized.”
She was on the front lines of a public relations disaster in 2018 after two black men were arrested while waiting at one of the coffee chain’s Philadelphia stores. Brewer called the incident a “teachable moment for all of us” and said that as an African-American executive with a 23-year-old son, the arrest captured on cell phone videos was painful to watch.
“It would be easy for us to say that this was a one-employee situation, but I have to tell you, it’s time for us to, myself included, take personal responsibility here and do the best that we can to make sure we do everything we can,” Brewer told NPR at the time.
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