The topic of racial equity has been top of mind for business leaders this year, and WBA is no exception. Statements from our Executive Vice Chairman and CEO, Stefano Pessina, and our EVP and Global Chief Human Resources Officer, Kathleen Wilson-Thompson have shown our stance, from both a global and U.S. perspective.
During Black History Month in the U.K., WBA colleagues have been examining these issues from a British perspective. Fauzia Somani, Future of Pharmacy director, and executive sponsor for the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) business resource group (BRG) at Boots UK, shares how her experiences in the U.S., UK and Canada have shaped her work at WBA in the interview below.
How has the racial equity movement affected Black and BAME people, and BAME allies, in the UK this year?
Obviously, this current racial equality movement started in the U.S., with the killing of George Floyd, but very quickly spread globally. Within a couple of weeks there were marches and protests here in the UK as well. For me, and in the UK especially, it's given people from BAME backgrounds the opportunity to talk about the issues they've suffered through quite silently. It was a catalyst to start the conversation, and it's given us permission to speak, to share and to help problem solve.
I think one of the most positive things to come from it is this idea of allyship, which is quite new. You often hear people say, “I'm not racist,” but I think what we really talked about this year is that that is not enough. You actually need people to be anti-racist, to be more aware and to self-educate. But what’s so valuable, I think, is allies’ desire to understand. You see it in the number of books that are being read and in the number of new people coming to our BRG meetings with the intent to understand and keep the conversation going.
On the other hand, it’s been so hard for people to feel comfortable talking about this stuff. What people in our BRG meetings will still say, which I think is so sad, is that, “I've never had a place to be able to talk about this, and I'm glad I have this space to now share what I'm thinking and feeling.” So it’s still a common problem. You hear a lot of people from BAME backgrounds struggle with trying to fit in. The more we can create an environment where people can be themselves, the greater engagement we’ll see. I think giving people an opportunity to talk and share and realize they're not alone and that there are other people with shared experiences, helps to bring down some of those walls.
Having lived in the US and the UK, how would you say that your own BAME experience differs between the two countries?
I've actually lived in Canada, the U.S. and the UK. And I'll tell you, this is a tough one for me because I've experienced racism, both personally and professionally, in all three countries. In the companies I’ve worked for in the U.S. and Canada, the BRGs have been separate – for example, you have the African-American Leadership Network, the Hispanic BRG, the Asian BRG and so on. What we did at WBA in the UK was quite interesting in that, even though the groups are unique and separate and have their own issues, we brought them all together with the BAME group.
I’ll never know what it's like to be a Black woman in the UK, but I do know what it's like to experience racism. Giving us all the opportunity to share those different stories is really powerful.
For example, I was on a call with people from a BAME background talking about their experiences, and a pharmacist talked about the fact that they have customers who don't want to deal with them because of the color of their skin. They'll say, “Let me speak to another pharmacist,” and they'll point to somebody else who's white. Even if that person isn’t the pharmacist, they’d rather talk to them.
What struck me about this incident was that even though it happened in the UK, I experienced the exact same thing 20 years ago in the U.S. There are a lot of similarities between the experiences that we have.
I think Walgreens has made tremendous progress in part because the BRGs have been around for over a decade. At our WBA divisions in the UK, the first BRG was set up in Feb 2019 which was WBA Pride UK, followed by the Women’s BRG and the BAME BRG at the back end of last year. As I look at the leadership in Walgreens, I see diversity. I see not just BAME people, but also women across the leadership teams. Is there work to do? Yes. But we have come a long way, and I think the introduction of the BRGs in the UK will certainly start to accelerate some of that change here, as well as the D&I report that was released last month. The things that we've committed to do as an organization will really help WBA colleagues in every country to progress.
Speaking of our D&I Report, how far do you think that goes toward giving this message a global platform?
First of all, when I watched the video that helped launch the report, I felt really proud to work for WBA. It's quite remarkable that we have 440,000 employees in 25 countries, which makes us diverse by nature of where we exist. The report itself highlighted how far we’ve come. The fact that we've set new goals where performance is going to be tied to diversity and inclusion sends a really strong message from the organization about how seriously we're taking this.
We've done a lot of really great work, but we're also not just standing back and saying, “look at how great we are.” We're also saying, “look at how much more we're going to do.” It's definitely about celebrating our teammates and progress so far, also holding ourselves accountable for things that still need to be done.
What inspired you to take on the role of executive sponsor to the BAME BRG?
It's a few things. One is around our purpose. At WBA and Boots UK, we serve customers and patients regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic status or education. And we have a responsibility to help in the care of everybody in the world who chooses to trust us. The best way to do that is to reflect the communities in which we serve at every level. The BRGs do that. They support their colleagues, they support customers and they support communities.
I'll give you an example: At Boots UK, our BRG can serve as a focus group for Global Brands and No7. So if you want to learn about skin tone and your product line, BAME is a focus group that's ready to serve you as both consumers and colleagues. You don't have to go out and find people. We’re here and we'll tell you exactly what we think. There's an opportunity for us to do things like that and create change from within the organization. Having an influence on that impact was really important to me.
Another reason is that as somebody who has experienced racism, it's a terrible feeling. It's hard to describe. I want to help create the platform through which people can share their voices and be part of the solution that reduces how often that happens – ideally eliminating it from happening in the places we work and the communities we serve.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black and BAME people and communities. What are some of the ways Boots is addressing this issue?
There are a few things that we've done. I have to give Marc Donovan, our chief pharmacist at Boots UK, credit; he worked with Government authorities and external expert advisors to understand more about risks in our environment and then created a risk assessment that can be done by any colleague. Those highlighting risk are invited to undertake more detailed risk assessment with their line manager and referral to colleague health if necessary. If a colleague is at high risk, it shows them that they absolutely shouldn't be coming into the workplace – whether that's in our shops or offices. Our intent is to keep you safe. As of the beginning of September, we have completed 28,922 risk assessments in England, including 6,456 assessments of pharmacists, pre-registration pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. 21.5 percent of those assessed shared that they were from a BAME background. In addition, Marc provided line manager guidance, supported me with a BAME BRG briefing call and discussion, a video call for pharmacists and a briefing for senior field leaders.
The other thing we've tried to do is to use the BRG monthly meeting as a listening session and to provide COVID education. This allowed people to have a platform through which to share their voice, concerns, best practices and ideas. And I think that has really helped during COVID, because we've been able to address very specific things with each group.
At another one of our sessions, Marc and Asif Aziz, colleague who sits on the Global Inclusion Council, talked specifically about COVID as it affects people of a BAME background and gave opportunities for colleagues to ask questions and have a better understanding of how it can impact them and steps they can take to remain safe.
Boots UK has recently taken the opportunity to introduce its own Racial Equality Charter. Why is this so important?
A charter is intentional. It says that we are going to look at this, and we are going to make a difference, and we're going to think about how we change this. Again, it's this idea that saying you’re not racist isn’t enough … you need to be anti-racist. The charter is that commitment from leadership.
It allows people who have a BAME background to look and say, here's something in writing that we absolutely are going to work toward, and I can hold my leadership accountable to it and track progress.
One of the things we offered to do to support the charter, for example, is reverse mentorship. We offered to assign every member of the Boots UK Executive Team somebody from a BAME background who can reverse mentor so they can better understand the challenges or hear what it's like to be the only person of color in a meeting.
Another area of focus for the charter is unconscious bias training. Being aware of what unconscious bias is and having examples of it is very important as we continue to learn, grow and improve. But you've also got to ladder up with a level of accountability. So how do we ensure that if we're informing you of how your hiring practices might show unconscious bias, we are then holding you accountable to actually change those hiring practices? We'll educate you through the training, but there should be a level of individual accountability that goes with it as well.
Another thing we’re focused on through the charter is our commitment to building product lines and services that represent the communities we serve, doing everything from casting more diverse models for ads to expanding the testing panels for our products and making sure we’re collaborating with a diverse range of suppliers. I will tell you that, as a woman of color, I struggled to find foundation that matches my skin tone. I talk to a lot of my Black friends who say that the range may exist, but the testers are only available in light colors or not made at all. So when I think about WBA and its intent to serve all, we need to make sure we're carrying the right range of products, whether it's hair products or cosmetics or anything in terms of things that might be specific to a diverse group of people.
We’re also looking at our suppliers and thinking about how we can ensure we're giving businesses that are run and owned by minorities a place in our shops. To have that commitment to say, we're going to give people an opportunity – because often, they're addressing the needs of the communities they represent. It ties back to our purpose. It’s how we make sure we’re there for everybody – in our products and services, for our customers, and with our partners and colleagues.
What advice would you give to BAME colleagues in the workplace today?
For all colleagues, I would say don't be afraid of having a conversation. I often hear people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. And they are so fearful of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing. I think there just has to be a really high level of positive intent and a desire to learn.
For BAME colleagues, when I hear that people have kept experiences in, or not talked about an incident from 10 years ago, it just … makes me sad. They sat on that and held that for so long. And now, finally, somebody's asking them to share. And it doesn't have to be in a BRG format! Any two people can sit down and have a conversation. I encourage people to be open to those conversations and to share openly. I know it's hard, but I think it's critical.
I encourage allies to ask the questions and not worry about the wording, because the intent behind it is to learn and to make a difference. Keep the conversation going. Don't be scared. Don't wait for a monthly meeting, but find somebody to sit down and have a conversation and say, how can I be better? Or, how do I share with you the experience that I'm having? And together, can we figure out a way through this?
There are enough articles and studies that show that companies that are more diverse and more inclusive have better performance and better engagement. If we can create an environment where, on a day-to-day basis, colleagues can come to work and be themselves, we all win.