By Candice Richardson
Special To The Seattle Medium
The first thing I noticed about Paula Boggs was her smile. It’s broad, and radiant, taking over all other features – the petite frame, ebony skin, and honey blond highlights in her closely cropped curly hair.
It’s also unceasing. She wears it throughout our interview, when she’s greeting colleagues from Starbucks, and on stage while holding her guitar. Her smile radiates the exact type of energy a top executive from one of the biggest international brands in our country would need to have in order to retire early to first join a strenuous presidential campaign and then break entirely from the corporate world to embark on a brand new music career.
As Boggs says about her music, her life and how she chooses to handle it is “not predictive.” Inspired by the adventurousness of Prince, Quincy Jones, and Jack White, she refuses to box herself into any one genre – or career – because “it keeps it fresh.”
And figuring out how to keep it fresh started very early for Boggs.
As the oldest of four, Boggs’ family had settled in segregated Petersburg, VA in the 1960s. Her mother, Janice Barber, was from Washington, D.C., an African American Methodist Episcopalian, and an educator in the Richmond public school system. Her father, Nathaniel Boggs, Jr., was born in Alabama, was a Catholic and a biology professor who received his first Ph.D. of Zoology at Howard University and served as the Dean of Science at both Virginia State and Florida A&M.
In 1972, Boggs’ parents divorced and her mother took the kids to Europe where she accepted a position teaching military children in Germany and Italy through the U.S. Department of Defense.
“I became very used to navigating in a multi-cultural world,” said Boggs. “I was one of the few Black kids in any scene. We were exotic. I consider that a gift.”
Boggs’ world was a lesson of non-conformity from the start. In Europe she attended three different high schools in five years, her mother was the head of a household in an environment where the norm was a two parent households that was led by a male, and even back in Petersburg her family was a part of the few Black Catholics who attended a primarily White Catholic church — where her father served as a Canter, reading and leading the congregation. It was the Catholic Church that would introduce Boggs to folk music at a time when Simon and Garfunkel and Peter, Paul and Mary were being introduced to elementary schools. The music was different from the gospel and soul music from her mother’s church but no less inspiring.
“My experience taught me how to not be the new kid and reading cultural norms and fitting in,” said Boggs. “But it’s really important to know who you are and when you’re playing a role and when you’re not.”
The role Boggs would take early on was that of a leader. Every school she attended she ran for and became class president every time. She credits her mother for showing her what courage looks like.
“How adventurous was it for a Black woman to leave the country with four kids? She was incredibly courageous,” Boggs said of her mother whose parents were from Georgia, the progeny of slaves who migrated north.
“My mother grew up in D.C. surrounded by Black people who were making things happen,” said Boggs. “She taught us to be very proud of who we were. Never in my life have I felt a need to apologize for being African American…I have never considered myself a victim. I thank my life experience for that.”
That life experience would include a somewhat unconventional approach to a career as a lawyer. At the age of 16, Boggs, realizing that her single mother couldn’t send four kids to college on her own, knew she’d go into the army. She was a great athlete and got good grades and knew she could rely on the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) for college scholarship support while attending Johns Hopkins University.
However, Boggs said, “I was not a model soldier.”
Calling herself a “goof-off,” Boggs said she wasn’t at all courageous. That is until she was challenged to attend airborne school for three weeks by a superior. Boggs said learning how to face her fears by earning her Infantry Parachute Badge (i.e. jumping out of airplanes) became one of the most valuable things she’d ever done.
“The most amazing experience of my life became the bench mark for accomplishing something. Had I not had that benchmark I might have given up along the way,” says Boggs.
That benchmark also became a notice to anyone who may have tried to underestimate her throughout her career. During the period of time when she was the only Black female federal prosecutor across 10 states, that airborne certificate was positioned in her office where no one could miss it.
“It always resulted in an automatic attitude change when dealing with men,” said Boggs. “I would have gotten more discrimination if not for that certificate… It’s amazing when people have low expectations of you and you’re not those things. It’s almost too easy [to prove them wrong]. Then they think you’re the second coming.”
“By action you do something that comes into conflict with what’s on the table. In my experience, I’ve been able to leverage that. I don’t give those vibes any energy. The vibe I put out is you know I am as good as you or better,” she continued.
To achieve that vibe was well-earned. Boggs said by the fall of her senior year of college she became paralyzed at the thought of leaving school for active duty. She decided to delay that moment going to either graduate school or law school and subsequently took both the GRE and LSAT exams. Law school won and she attended the School of Law at University of California – Berkeley.
“I am your quintessential accidental lawyer,” said Boggs. “Called to be a leader and law was expedient…I had no intention of being a lawyer beyond the four years of military commitment.”
Those four years turned into an illustrious two decade career that included a White House position as a staff attorney and member of the Iran-Contra Task Legal Force, an Assistant United States Attorney where she investigated and prosecuted federal crimes including fraud, smuggling and immigration violations in the Western District of Washington State, and the Staff Director for the Investigative Capability for the Department of Defense, before joining the law firm of Preston, Gates & Ellis (now K&L Gates) in 1995.
Boggs said her legal career showed her how important human relationships were, and that she also needed to utilize her leadership skills.
“I know I need people. I’m better with them,” said Boggs.
“I’m best when I’m able to lead,” she continued. “Innately law firms aren’t that. [They’re about] all for one and one for all aiming for one mission.”
In 1997, Boggs left Preston Gates & Ellis and moved to Texas to join the executive staff at Dell where she served as both Senior Deputy General Counsel and the Vice President of Legal for Operations, Product Groups, and Information Technology. While she was there the company quadrupled in size. In 2002, having felt she accomplished all that she aspired at Dell, Boggs was ready to return to Seattle, a city she had fallen in love with during school and early career.
“Seattle is the only city I’ve lived in where I was here because I wanted to be here,” said Boggs. “I didn’t move her for a job, family or school…There’s something about this city that speaks to me in ways I can’t describe.”
While on the phone with a friend in Seattle Boggs learned of an open General Counsel position at Starbucks. The only problem was she didn’t know anyone at the company who could act as her entrée. For the first time Boggs said she felt a level of uncertainty and fear.
“This is the opportunity and I don’t know how to make it happen,” said Boggs.
Falling back on the importance of her relationships, especially throughout her community work in the Seattle area, Boggs called on friends who served on the board of the YMCA in Seattle where she had volunteered, and asked if they could assist with an introduction. The result was that several members of the board mobilized and advocated on her behalf and created such a buzz that she ended up with the interview and subsequently the job being named as Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary, and later, the Secretary of the Starbucks Foundation.
Starbucks ended up being a perfect fit with Boggs’ personality and the most enduring position of her legal career. Over ten years she left a mark and legacy – especially as it pertains to diversity.
Annie Young-Scrivener, who’s currently the President of Starbucks Canada, was the Global Chief Marketing Officer for Starbucks and the President of Tazo Tea in 2009. Young-Scrivener and Boggs sat on the senior leadership team together.
“Paula is very passionate and had very strong views on diversity and diverse talent especially with women,” said Young-Scrivener. “She has done a lot for women…and for people of color. She was the only African American female on the senior team. I could only imagine early in her career what she had to go through. She’s always able to share her experiences with others in a loving and caring way. She is the epitome of ‘make your own way.’”
Lucy Helm who took over the Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary position after Boggs’ exit agrees.
“She had a big belief that people owned their own career,” said Helm. “She tried to push people out of their comfort zone. She said in order to grow and develop as leaders we were to manage people who were more adept at things than we are. She has a lot of trust in people and trusts you can do your work effectively. There’s a difference between empowering people to do their own work versus micro-managing. She’s definitely the prior.”
Helm said in addition to Boggs’ commitment to diversity, another key part of her legacy was helping grow their department to match Starbuck’s increasingly global presence.
“[Paula] is extremely bright and intelligent,” said Helm. “She’s very strategic. She hires good people. She had a real connection with Starbucks the company. Her legacy was she left this a global legal department. We had always had experts outside our department but she had set up the process of placing lawyers in Europe and Asia.”
“When’s something’s hard it’s not a deterrent, it’s more of a magnet,” said Boggs. “I gave a lot and built a world class legal organization that was enduring. I felt I completed my task of grooming more than one person who could do my job…I could not be more proud of my successor.”
Boggs said that after serving Starbucks for 10 years, President Obama’s re-election campaign was “something hard in front me.”
Realizing she could take the time to volunteer for the campaign in 2012, Boggs said she retired from Starbucks in April so she could work as hard as she needed to for a cause that she completely believed in.
“This different campaign was inspiring…I don’t know another presidential candidate would have those attributes in my lifetime,” said Boggs.
Boggs said that she also knew the campaign trail would have a definitive end date. Once the final votes were counted in November, she could turn her full attention to a new road that had been calling her name for quite some time. She was ready to start a new journey in music – both an early love and a comforting tool for dealing with an unforeseen family tragedy.