Overcoming Obstacles and Protecting Diversity’s Legacy
"None of us look like our story," says Steve Pemberton, divisional vice president and Chief Diversity Officer at Walgreens. It's a concept he weaves throughout his work, and one he understands from personal experience.
At first glance, Pemberton—an accomplished African-American corporate executive, husband, and father of three—belies his life experiences. He doesn’t look like someone who was taken from his mother at the age of three and never knew his father. One would not assume that he spent the majority of his childhood as a ward of the state, enduring physically and verbally abusive foster parents who attempted to deny him the basic joys of young life. Yet, that is his story.
Pemberton was able to rise above the dysfunctional environment in which he grew up to graduate from Boston College and become the first person to hold the Chief Diversity Officer role at both Monster.com and Walgreens. He chronicles his harrowing formative years and his quest to find his biological family in his newly published memoir, A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home. He spoke with Diversity Best Practices Editor-in-Chief Angela Johnson Meadows about how his childhood has shaped his work as a diversity professional, his mission at Walgreens, and why the legacy of his generation of diversity practitioners is in danger.
You had an extremely difficult childhood. How has that experience influenced how you approach your work as a diversity professional?
It is so much a part of what I do. Diversity and inclusion can be a very emotive topic. It means different things to different people and I know that it has historical weight. What I’ve learned from my personal life is you can overcome those things. I don’t necessarily accept the fact that because this is how it is means this is how it has to be. It’s a lot more important to try to understand where people are and spend some time on their side, understanding their perspectives on things.
Having a vision matters a great deal, as well. It’s what helped me as a young boy—a vision of a different life than the one that I had.… As Walgreens’ CDO, I also realize that change doesn’t happen because we say it. Change happens because you fight for it. It doesn’t necessarily mean fighting others per se. It’s also wrestling with your own realities of how you see things. I learned that from meeting my mother’s family and my father’s family—each who struggled with my arrival for different reasons. I did not grasp that early on, but I better understand it now…. Things aren’t what we think they are and you do have to ask harder questions and longer questions, but all with a vision of trying to realize something that is greater.
You often say, “None of us look like our story.” Explain what you mean by that.
There are folks who look at me from my purported perch in corporate America and don’t have any clue [about] what I’ve come from. But that’s true of everyone. Everyone has a story, but their experiences rarely are written upon them…. You have to look beyond those traditional borders of race and gender and religion that define us and, at times, force us to make quick assumptions about others that rarely are accurate. I learned that lesson from my parents because they didn’t look like their story and I don’t think their story was fully told until I wrote [the book].
What are the key challenges you’re facing in your current role as Chief Diversity Officer at Walgreens?
This is a very large company, over 8,000 stores and 250,000 employees literally and figuratively in the middle of a common life event. Like the rest of the country, people come at it from very different perspectives and different lenses because we comprise all elements of the workforce. It’s just fundamentally different.
[One challenge is] meeting folks where they are. Articulating a vision that encompasses all those different perspectives, and by that I also mean those who might not be immediate supporters. How do we incorporate and mainstream diversity into everything that we do? How do you create something that endures beyond you, that’s not driven by your personality, but is ingrained into the company?
This seems to be a challenge for many diversity professionals. Why do you think this is?
We [diversity professionals] have really put our ladder against the wall of discrimination and decided that as the primary challenge. We haven’t spent as much time on talent development. We spend a lot of time on corporate social responsibility, and rightly so, but not succession planning. Those elements haven’t always been in the main conversation.
What role does the current generation of diversity professionals have in shifting this discussion?
In the same way that I can look back upon the previous 20 years and say those Chief Diversity Officers were responsible for moving the conversation beyond compliance, 20 years from now the next generation ought to be able to look at our generation and say they were the ones who took on the very significant challenge of mainstreaming and incorporating diversity into organizational systems and processes. That ultimately is going to be our measure.
We have not yet reached that point where we can comfortably say we’ve done that. We’ve been derailed by “get diversity quick” kinds of approaches and we haven’t stood up and said these aren’t working…. The previous generation of CDOs took harder stances both internally and externally…. We’ve got some work to do.
What do you hope diversity professionals will take away from your book?
Professionally, the biggest take away I hope people will have is the importance of looking beyond labels. We’re good at telling white men and white women that they need to look beyond labels. We’re less candid about telling ourselves the same thing, but I think we need to. The work that we’re doing in the time in which we’re doing it is critical. Future generations are going to build upon us.
Personally, I hope the book will uplift and inspire… That phrase “A chance in the world” [the book’s title] is never offered up in a positive way…. I’m hopeful that when we’re done that phrase will mean something that implies a certain degree of responsibility. The woman who gave me books, the teacher who took me in, that’s what they were doing. They were giving me a chance, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. We all have that power within us to give somebody a chance.