On Oct. 31, The President’s Speaker series featured Steve Pemberton.
Pemberton is the Global Chief Diversity Officer and a divisional vice president for Walgreen’s. At the company, he puts his many foundational views on diversity and inclusion into practice, views that were formed through a background of perseverance.
In 2012, Pemberton published “A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, A Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home,” a book about his past and upbringing.
Pemberton was raised in the foster care system to abusive parents, both physically and mentally. He survived and thrived off the small acts of kindness from others, and has dedicated himself to the same life of helping others.
“It was always drilled into me that you were at your greatest value when you act as a servant,” Pemberton said. “That had an additional implication for me because of what I had come through as a young boy, having lost my family, having, in all candidness, been betrayed by those who were supposed to take care of me, and a foster care system that did not know what to do with me. But because I got the message early on that I was to take that experience and parlay it into opportunities for others, it never allowed me to play the victim or feel sorry for myself. So that cord is still within me. How can my struggles be a value? That plays out in daily value for me.”
Walgreens, a business focused on health and wellness, might not be a place expected to prize diversity. Pemberton thinks the opposite. While challenging, finding the common ground between groups makes any large system, such as a campus or business, a great place to start.
“The larger the organization the more complex it actually can become,” Pemberton said. “If there are any secrets to it though, focusing specifically on the commonality between all of those groups and organizations and anchoring ourselves in that commonality, in those common threads as opposed to those different threads is a good starting point.”
Diversity is an active concept to Pemberton, not a checkmark goal to be achieved. The dangers without it are striking, and he cites two practical examples for the good that can come from acted out diversity.
“While it’s true that great minds think alike when taking on big challenges you don’t want a group of people who see things exactly the same way,” Pemberton said. “You develop herd thinking and make really bad decisions; and when they unfold you ask, ‘Well how’d this happen? Interestingly enough, two of our most enduring institutions in this country is our federal system of government predicated on checks and balances or said differently, diversity of thought. You want different approaches and directions. The other is our financial system, specifically investing. So, a fundamental rule of investing is diversification. It is one of the few times we use diversity as a verb, investing money. We know that the one reason you diversify is to mitigate risk. And what’s the best way to mitigate risk? By expanding options. We sometimes hear of diversity being risky, but when applied correctly it’s a lot more than that. It’s a strength, an asset.”
Pemberton notes that this doesn’t need to be a fight for the few and beleaguered, that it falls to everyone to be perseverant in the face of obstacles in society.
“I try to lean in on things that don’t affect me, things outside my causes or concerns,” Pemberton said. “I have learned as a result so much, because of that.”
There is a historical aspect to Pemberton’s thinking as well, one that illustrates with marked clarity why many find his ideas radical.
“The importance of being of service is part of something we have gotten wrong in the last couple generations,” Pemberton said. “You look at the history of America, and look at how we became what we are today, regardless of generation, there was a thread of service, of service to generations yet to come. That is how they thought, and they did not want to go do it. Women who walked for the right to vote didn’t want to get spat on or hit over the head with their signs. Those men who went off to fight Hitler, like my grandfather; my grandfather didn’t want to go off to war, he wanted to stay home with his new bride! Those who got on freedom buses and sat on lunch counters, the most debasing of experiences, they didn’t want to do that, but they did it. And in most cases, they didn’t even think they were going to see the changes in their lifetime.”
“They understood this was not for them, this was for their children and grandchildren,” Pemberton said. “You balance that against our “me-first”, prosperity gospel type of culture. How many Facebook friends do I have? Twitter followers? That is highly antithetical to American history and American success. It is no wonder we have created all the collisions we have. So, to the degree, whether its driven by our faith or love of country, however, we can return to those same principles, however, we can be reminded that even in the most challenging times what got us through… it was those fundamental arguments of being internally consistent.”
Being internally consistent, holding everyone to an equal and high standard and encouraging it at every step, seems to be at the heart of Pemberton. He sees college campuses as a breeding ground for inclusion and intelligent thought on tough subjects, and recognizing societies duplicity is among the important work being done.
Pemberton, though, asks of students that they persevere, commit themselves to the fight, and hold internally consistent views on hard work, diversity, and the struggle for progress.
“If we start thinking of the commonality we have and start focusing on that,” Pemberton said. “There will be a time we look back on our struggles as a country and say, ‘Okay, we got through that.’”