As a young boy, Steve Pemberton ’89 faced a world that worked against him. Entering the foster care system at age three and surviving a childhood of abuse, Pemberton grew up with a vision of overcoming the roadblocks that would have discouraged others from striving for success.
Now, with an impressive list of accomplishments including being named the Divisional Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of Walgreens, attending and graduating Boston College, becoming a father and husband, and presenting his best-selling memoir to the BC class of 2020 as this year’s First Year Academic Convocation speaker, Pemberton leads an inspiring life marked by his willingness to take on “the fight.”
“I wanted to overcome this—it was something I had been born into that I didn’t ask for,” Pemberton said.
As is detailed in his memoir, A Chance in the World, the summer read for incoming freshmen, the emotional and physical trauma of his upbringing exposed the extent to which the foster care system had failed him and others like him as they aged out of the system. Nonetheless he worked hard throughout his schooling, determined to disprove the stereotypes and stigma that surrounded him. This drive brought him to Boston College.
Pemberton describes his time at BC as “life changing.” Upon getting involved in such organizations as the NAACP and the Black Student Forum, as well as the Talented Tenth, a brotherhood of African American men on campus which he helped found, Pemberton found community, security, and belonging among his peers and the campus staff.
One of his most formative BC experiences occurred the summer after his freshman year when he worked on campus with the custodial staff. With this position came free on-campus housing—a major draw for a young man with “nowhere to go”—and the opportunity to connect with campus maintenance employees who had a profound impact on his life.
“They saw a lot of possibility in me, and not necessarily the circumstances,” Pemberton said. “We learn a lot from professors, as we should, and staff, but the people who beautify these grounds, they have their stories too, and they’ve poured a lot of those stories into me.”
Growing through the knowledge gained and relationships built during his time on the heights, Pemberton notes major differences between the person he was when he entered BC and the person he had become by graduation.
“I think I arrived here an uncertain freshman and still wrestling with some broader issues that some freshmen have resolved: Where is home, and identity and family and those things, I was still trying to figure all that out when I got here,” Pemberton said. “Four years later, by the time I left, I didn’t have the answers to all the questions that I had, nor did I know where I was going, but I certainly knew that I was on my way.”
He went on to become an admissions officer at BC, then took on the role of Chief Diversity Officer at Monster.com before being named Chief Diversity Officer of Walgreens, making him the first person in the company’s 114 year, four-generation history to do so. He worked with Walgreens to tailor the role to his wants and needs, which has allowed him to create a position that celebrates all types of inclusion and diversity—a term he defines as “a verb, an active thing that you do that at times might not appear to be natural.”
“In many ways it’s exactly what I’ve done in my personal life, I had a vision for where I wanted my life to go but I wasn’t certain how to get there, so I just sailed at it and pushed as aggressively as I could towards it. I did the same thing in this role,” Pemberton said. “And to be the first person to do something in a historic company, how can that not get you excited? That got me really excited, it still does, actually.”
In reflecting upon his achievements, Pemberton thanked his BC education for giving all students the “flexibility to choose what you want” and avoid “getting on the hamster wheel,” naming the university as an instrumental factor in allowing him to preparedly and successfully pursue any path he chooses.
“I’m often asked, ‘What’s next?’ And my real, honest answer is, ‘Whatever I want it to be,’” Pemberton said. “Because of what I learned here, I don’t feel like I’m confined to any one path. Over the course of my career, I’ve been a teacher, a college admissions officer, the COO of a start-up company, I founded my own company, I run a $40 million business, I lead a large team and a large company, a global company, but there isn’t anything that my BC education didn’t prepare me to do. I’m an author as well, executive producer of a movie…you see? Pretty much, I can decide what it is, I don’t have to get on a hamster wheel. I don’t intend to, either.”
Returning to campus as the Convocation speaker and a featured author, Pemberton embraces the welcoming he has received while, at the same time, remembering his own journey.
“It really is quite an honor, because there isn’t a time when I come back here when I don’t remember what was hanging in the balance for me, questions I had, uncertainties I had, all those things I remember. And to have your book chosen as a read for everybody is quite an amazing thing,” Pemberton said.
In his advice for students, Pemberton encourages an acceptance of differences and an embrace of the diversity among the student body. Clarifying his usage of the word “diversity” to transcend categories like race and gender, he explained that beyond stereotypes and assumptions of a person’s background based on what they look like, diversity is an acknowledgement of the fact that “everybody has a story and they come from a story, and you don’t know what that story is by looking at them.”
“All the first year students here have come here with their own parts, from their own communities and different worlds, but their mission since they accepted their offer to come and did move in to the dorms is how you can make your part, how can you expand your part and then make that part a whole,” Pemberton said. “That’s, in a way, the unwritten homework assignment of every class.”