The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Talking Diversity With Walgreens CDO Steve Pemberton

Pemberton_SteveWalgreens Chief Diversity Officer Steve Pemberton has a story to tell — a story about overcoming adversity, breaking down barriers, and rising above stereotypes. But it’s not just any story … it’s his story, and he’s shared it countless times with countless audiences. As he details a childhood rife with trauma, abuse and abandonment, and how those experiences have shaped him as a person, a father, a friend and a professional, he has one goal in mind — to reinforce the notion that none of us look like our stories.

Ahead of CUPA-HR’s Annual Conference and Expo 2014 this fall, where Pemberton will be a keynote presenter, he spoke with us about his story, how his past plays into who he is today, and why it’s important to continue the dialogue around diversity and inclusion.

Q: You have an incredible and inspiring personal story. How has your past and where you came from shaped who you are today? And how have your past experiences and your values shaped the messages you share with your team and your colleagues around diversity, equity and inclusion?

Pemberton: We’re all impacted in some way, shape or form by our own life experiences. My early years and the challenges I faced as a child have definitely had a profound impact on the way I see the world around me. I learned early on the importance of having a vision and direction in life, and that mindset has trickled down into so many other things I do, including my work. I have a firm grasp on what it means to overcome obstacles and push forward, and that’s the message I try to send to my team — the work we do around DEI is hard work, it’s slow work, but it’s also very important work, so we must push on.

Q: Can you tell me a little about the “next practices” model you and your team employ at Walgreens and the impact it has had on your workforce?

Pemberton: As an organization, we want to go above and beyond “best practices.” In order to truly make headway with our DEI goals, we need to employ next practices. So our goal is, within the next three years, to be an organization whose culture, people, perspectives and workplaces reflect the current and future customers we serve. We are committed to incorporating diversity and inclusion into our day-to-day work and all facets of our organizational culture. That’s really the only way to move forward with DEI work.

Q: What kinds of challenges have you encountered in your work, and what advice do you have for campus leaders who are looking to more deliberately focus their efforts to ensure a diverse and inclusive workforce?

Pemberton: I think one of the biggest challenges around this work is that we have to stop looking at diversity as “categories.” Diversity is so much more than race or gender or nationality or ability/disability. Our life experiences and the way we see the world, the way we approach our work, the way we interact with one another – these are all facets of diversity. We have to break out of the “check this box” mentality and embrace all the vast and varied dimensions of diversity. And for campus leaders this is especially important. Our student body is changing dramatically, and will continue to change for the foreseeable future. In order to continue to serve this shifting population, the higher ed workforce needs to shift alongside it. And the mindset around diversity and inclusion must change.

At CUPA-HR we’ve begun an initiative called “Share Your Story,” because, as you’ve said, none of us look like our story. Through this project, we’ll encourage our members to share their observations and personal journeys as they relate to diversity, equity and inclusion. As someone who has been open with your own story, why is it important to share our stories and create open dialogue around DE&I?

Pemberton: We all have a story, and whatever that story is, it’s likely not evident to others just by looking at us from the outside. We’ve all rushed to judgment at one time or another, maybe making an assumption about who or how someone is based on a last name or an accent or a political affiliation or any number of “defining” characteristics. But those are all just labels. By sharing our stories, we’re helping to break down stereotypes and peel back labels. We’re helping to advance the cause and deepen the discussion about what diversity really means.

Steve Pemberton currently serves as Walgreens’ first-ever chief diversity officer. Prior to joining Walgreens in 2011, he was chief diversity officer for He recently published his first book, an autobiography called A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past and How He Found a Place Called Home. To hear more from Pemberton, join us in San Antonio September 28-30 for the CUPA-HR Annual Conference and Expo 2014.