Decorated with framed posters of young female superheroes and slogans like “You’re Awesome,” “Believe in Yourself,” “Never Give Up,” and “You Can Do Anything,” Alethia Jackson’s office radiates with positivity and motivation.
Except she’s not working from her office today. She’s taking meetings from the offices of the Chicago Foundation for Women, a nonprofit that invests in women and girls as catalysts to building strong communities for all.
This is a day in the life of Jackson’s current chapter with Walgreens Boots Alliance. She took on the role of senior vice president of environmental, social and governance (ESG) and chief diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officer for the U.S. in October 2022, her 11th year with the company.
After showing her strength in diplomacy and advocacy in roles like vice president of federal government relations, head of federal advocacy and chair of the COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Task Force at Walgreens, Jackson is proof that when you tap into your community and put your determination to work, you can, indeed, do anything.
A ‘girl gang’ member for life
Community was ingrained in Jackson from birth. One of six daughters, she grew up in a two-family home in Brooklyn with her maternal grandparents. Though the living spaces were separate, her grandparents, who migrated to New York from the South in the 1930s, brought with them the belief that extended families should share a roof. Two of her uncles lived two blocks away and seeing her cousins and extended family nearly every day was a part of life.
Jackson and her grandmother, Alma Salley.
True to form, four of her sisters are still on the East Coast, save for one who is a rural health nurse in Alaska. Of the four close to her current home in Washington, D.C., one is a surgeon, one is an accountant, one works in the criminal justice system and one for the public school system. Her grandmother was a nurse.
“I’m very accustomed to strong women,” says Jackson. “Math and science—it’s in the family. Most of my sisters went to specialized high schools for it. When we’re all together, it makes for very interesting conversations around the dinner table.”
Finding her passion for public policy
Despite not considering herself a math scholar, Jackson pursued accountancy at the University of Albany, SUNY. In high school, she became involved in a volunteer income tax assistance program, Vita, and visited diverse accounting firms while building up her resume to apply for colleges. But she found her interests shifting to public policy once she started her undergraduate program and pursued an internship with the state legislature and the chair of the insurance committee, Alexander “Pete” Grannis. He had a passion for healthcare and was an environmentalist, helping to write the New York State Clean Indoor Air Act, which prohibited smoking in nearly all public and private indoor workplaces. Jackson found herself fascinated by the process of turning a passion into law.
Jackson went on to the Syracuse University College of Law and then moved to Washington, D.C., where, she figured, she could have the most influence. Only she’d quickly learn that healthcare-related policy was mostly regulated at the state level. She accepted a role as assistant counsel for health policy at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) and began to liaise between state insurance regulators and the federal government to monitor and flag trending healthcare issues and new, critical legislation to Congress and other federal agencies.
“I learned that healthcare is an incredibly personalized issue,” recalls Jackson. “It is a kitchen table issue. If you don’t have insurance or access to healthcare, it impacts every other aspect of your life, whether you are able to go to work, whether your kids can go to school. And if you can’t go to work, what are your living conditions like? Health is the cornerstone of how we live.”
Making a difference in communities with Walgreens
After 12 years on Capitol Hill, Jackson joined Walgreens as a senior director of federal government relations, overseeing legislative, regulatory and advocacy efforts to further expand patient access to pharmacy services and advance the role of pharmacy within the healthcare system. Due to her unique ability to convert real patient needs into solutions, she was tapped to chair the COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Task Force upon its formation in 2021.
Established to address issues surrounding vaccine access and hesitancies in communities of color, the task force set out to make inroads with patients who have been chronically underserved in terms of medical access. The effort was mammoth—not only did Walgreens need to combat misinformation and mistrust, it also needed to get boots on the ground to get shots in arms.
“The foundation had been laid after my work in federal relationships. Getting the task force off the ground was all about partnerships,” says Jackson. “We figured out what we were uniquely positioned to do and went into it knowing we’d have to learn as we go and retool our strategies based off the data we had at the moment. So we’d listen to our partners, like universities and churches and community based organizations, hear what they needed and discuss what we could offer.”
One strategy from the task force was to launch a mobile vaccine clinic, which visited 20 cities across the country to offer vaccines in underserved communities. Jackson attended the kickoff in Washington, D.C., where she was able to observe patient-pharmacist interactions that reminded her how crucial healthcare access is to living an enriched life.
Jackson and Walgreens team members assisting at the mobile vaccine clinic in Los Angeles, CA.
“I would have these conversations with people who would say, ‘I don’t want to infect my mother,’ or ‘I didn’t think I was going to get the vaccine, but here you are.’ I could literally see the impact our pharmacists have every day. One woman arrived to the site wrapped in only a sheet—clearly, she did not have a home. And she got her vaccine. And while I knew there were so many things impacting this woman, and we may not be able to touch those other pieces, we knew we could give her some protection that day.”
As of Aug. 31, 2022, 60 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters have been administered through clinics.
The path ahead at WBA
Now four months into her role as SVP of ESG and chief DEI officer for the U.S., Jackson will be able to affect more change, and now on a global level—for both WBA team members and customers, the planet and business partners. What’s key to Jackson is the knowledge that by making progress on WBA’s ESG and DEI goals, the health of the planet and health of communities will be improved, directly or indirectly.
Jackson at a recent Congressional Black Caucus Foundation event.
“There is a host of positive change we can make just based on the size of the company,” she says. “Looking at social determinants of health metrics so we can address inequities will continue to be a priority. We’ll be thinking about environmental impacts like waste to landfill and our carbon footprint. We’ll continue our focus on supplier diversity, because that brings about economic security, which impacts people’s ability to access healthcare. That also improves our suppliers’ ability to make progress on sustainability. It all feeds into each other.”
Also under Jackson’s purview is DEI initiatives for WBA team members.
“Our workforce reflects the communities we serve,” Jackson says. “We want an inclusive workforce to help us better service our patients and our customers. That is going to impact the products that we have on shelves because we can better represent the communities that we're in, and it's going to impact our approach to providing access to healthcare.”
Alethia’s lessons for the workplace:
- Let everyone sit at the table. At NAIC, she and her colleagues would act as a mock Congress, hosting consumer advocates, health insurers, state regulators and federal regulators to role play in committee meetings that included “everyone in the ecosystem” to develop potential solutions for healthcare-related issues. Having different perspectives made it easier for all involved to understand the ins and outs of potential changes to legislation because, as Jackson puts it, “You can only impact where you sit or stand, so you’ll need these partners to turn solutions into action.”
- Tap into your company’s networking and learning opportunities. “People are always dumbfounded by the fact that I’ve been with the company for 11 years, especially here in Washington, D.C.,” Jackson laughs. “Nobody stays at a place more than three years. But I’ve found it exciting to be able to grow here. I’ve benefitted from a number of development programs that the company has partnered with, like Leading Women Executives. That’s a testament of a company when you’re able to develop talent and see the work I was doing in one space and the potential I had to bring my skill set to a different part of the company."
- When you see a need, don't be afraid to speak up. “People may think somebody else has identified a problem or maybe think they don’t have the right title to try and offer an opinion or a solution or an idea. But if you’re a part of a workforce, you have a right to vocalize your thoughts and, I’d even say, think of yourself as an intrapreneur. We all bring this unique sort of brilliance into the workforce, and that collective voice is what makes us all better, and it’s what makes any project we're working on better.
- Share praise. “When I started at Walgreens, one of the first aspects of company culture that I noticed is that when someone helped you or went above and beyond, it was standard to email the person they reported to. Whether it was, ‘Thank you for organizing that store tour,’ or ‘Thank you for speaking on a panel with a member of Congress,’ recognizing and appreciating people for their work really made a difference.”
In March 2023, highlights from WBA's 2023 ESG Report will be shared with the world through a broadcast event, and Jackson will take to the stage to review the company's progress and speak to her plans for the future.
One thing is for sure—she’ll have plenty to speak about at the dinner table this year.
Tune in to “More Joyful Lives Through Better Health,” the 2022 ESG Report Virtual Launch Event on Thursday, March 9, 2023 at 10 a.m. CST / 11 a.m. EST / 4 p.m. GMT to learn more about WBA’s commitment to a Healthy Planet, Sustainable Marketplace and more.