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Being the "First" or "Only": An Interview with Paula Boggs, Former EVP & General Counsel, Starbucks

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

Paula Boggs has an incredible life story so far. From growing up in the segregated south to working in the White House and Pentagon to top executive jobs at Dell and Starbucks, she has the experience of often being the "first" or "only" - woman, Black person, lesbian, you name it.

Paula is also an accomplished musician and in 2013, President Obama appointed her to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and in 2018, she received the Seattle Mayor's Arts Award.

In this week's In My Network interview, Paula shares some of the pivotal moments in her life that shaped who she is and how she shows up today.

When and where did we first meet?

We met somewhere along my ten year journey at Starbucks. I can't pinpoint the exact time or place but you were there when I got there and you were still there when I left.

Who was one of your early mentors? Someone that really made an impact on you and that you learned some things from?

This may sound cliche but my greatest mentor is my mother. She has inspired me in many ways. When I was 13 years old, my mother did something extraordinary that reverberates at every stage of my life. She had never left the U.S. and had only flown on a plane once and she took herself and her four children out of the segregated south and signed up to become a teacher in the Department of Defense school system in Germany.

My dad was living in the U.S. and, six weeks before we were scheduled to return (and after my mom had already given her notice), my dad asked her for a divorce. The principal of the school she was teaching at invited her to come back and told her that she had what it takes to be a principal. It was a magic mentoring moment because he told her which summer school course she should take to become a principal. And she did, in the middle of her divorce. When we went back to Germany, she was offered a principal position and ended up being one for twenty of the twenty-three years she lived in Europe

She's now living in San Antonio, Texas and is a very feisty eighty-three years old.

Transitioning to your career, what are some of the obstacles that came up for you along the way? Are there times or places you've found yourself drawing off of the resilience and boldness your mom demonstrated?

For most of my career in the military, in law and in business, I've often found myself as the "first" or "only." Way back when I began my career at the Pentagon, there were about 23,000 people who worked there and, as hard as I try, I can't think of another Black female I met the entire time I was there. And, there certainly weren't any Black females in the White House except those working in the mess hall.

But, I feel fortunate because there have been tools at my disposal that have mitigated those obstacles.

The first is my ability to read culture and figure out how to not be the new kid. In my five years in Europe, I went to three different high schools. People who knew me then joke that I was class president for four of those five years and the first time I was elected, I had only been at the school for less than a month. I couldn't tell you what my platform was but my ability to read a room, read a culture and figure out what the cultural norms are quickly led to my election.

Another thing I learned was when we lived in segregated Virginia. My dad was a biology professor at a historically Black college and that meant that most of the Black people I knew had advanced degrees and the Black kids I hung out with were children of people with advanced degrees. So, to be Black for me was to be someone who was smart and accomplished with advanced degrees. Not to mention I was attending the only integrated school in Petersburg, Virginia which was a Catholic school. I joke that the nuns were equal opportunity terrorists - they did not care if you were male or female or if you were Black, white or brown. No one could escape their wrath.

The last tool, or story, I'll share was when I was an Assistant U.S Attorney and federal prosecutor for five years. When I started, I was a twenty-nine year old skinny Black. woman and the youngest federal prosecutor in that office. I worked with mostly white male FBI agents, DEA agents, local police and the whole gamut. When I got settled in my office, my strategy was to put my Army Airborne certificate displayed prominently so that you couldn't reach my desk without seeing it. I cannot tell you how many times some burley federal agent with attitude would enter my office, look at me with disdain and then see the certificate. Right before my very eyes, their attitude would change. It enabled me to shift the dynamic of being the young, skinny Black woman to someone that was respected.

Let's talk mentoring. What have you learned about being mentored and/or mentoring?

People tend to gravitate naturally to people that remind them of themselves. So, if someone wants to be mentored or wants to mentor someone, you need to find commonality even though it might not be readily apparent. One of my most impactful mentors was this middle aged white guy I met at the White House.

He and I had nothing in common on the surface but we learned that what bound us together was that we were both Roman Catholic. He had the same nun terrorist stories I had even though we grew up in different cities. It was a shared experience that bonded us.

Another story was when I was at Starbucks. There was a guy that didn't work there that was trying to get in front of me - he had been trying to schedule a meeting with me for two years. I didn't know him and I'm a very busy person but eventually I was worn down and agreed to give him twenty minutes of my time.

When he showed up in my office, he's this thirtysomething white guy and, before I say anything, he says "I suppose you're wondering while I've been persistent in trying to meet with you?" Then, he begins to describe his background, where he grew up, where he had worked and what he was doing now. Turns out he was an entrepreneur that was devoted to helping families work more efficiently and he realized that he had built a company but had no women business leaders in his circle. As he started asking around, my name kept coming up as someone that could mentor him.

My mouth was open at the end of his spiel and I told him, yes, I'd mentor him but that I wanted something in return. I wanted him to teach me how to be the CEO of a fast growing, entrepreneurial company. I wanted to understand the decisions he had to make and why he made the decisions he did and how he hired people. I told him if he'd agree to do that, I'd mentor him. He said yes and we still stay in touch to this day.

Did you ever feel like there was a time in your career where you were limited by your race, gender or other identifying characteristics?

I think the low point in my career happened almost thirty years ago. The precipitating event was in 1991 when the U.S. Navy suffered one of its biggest scandals in the form of the Tailhook event. The Navy was at a convention in Las Vegas and over eighty women were sexualy assaulted there.

An outcome of that event was that I was asked to serve as staff director to an advisory board that the Secretary of Defense was forced to create to examine the investigative capability of the Department of Defense.

There was an open question as to whether the Pentagon's investigation of sexual orientation in the military fell within the scope of our work and, at the time, I was a closeted gay person. My staff was having the debate about whether investigating gay people under "don't ask, don't' tell" should be included in our charter and I allowed my staff to talk me out of including it. The shame and frustration I felt was enduring and it was after that that I understood my days as a closeted gay person were numbered. I never again, in my life, wanted to be in that situation.

When headhunters at Dell approached me not long after I told them that I don't want them to make me an offer unless, not only are they good with me being who I am and who my partner is, but that they were supportive of us. I accepted the job and left liberal Seattle and moved to conservative Texas.

What would you recommend to leaders that want to creative an inclusive culture?

Diversity and inclusion is about creating a culture where each and every person can be their full self in the workplace. Having the experience of being a closeted gay person and knowing for myself and others how stressful wearing a mask is, it's really important as leaders to do what we can structurally create an environment where people can be their whole selves.

One of the things I did at Starbucks to help further that was create an open invitation at our monthly staff meetings for anyone to share his or her diversity story. Not all the stories were about race or gender or sexual orientation. There was one story told by a young woman who was a paralegal and not a naturalized American citizen. She had lived in France and Spain and came to the U.S. Her language facility was not where she wanted it to be initially but her story was that people assumed she wasn't smart because her English wasn't quite where she wanted it to be. Creating a forum for people to share and acknowledge one another was powerful.

Thanks so much for sharing your story Paula. It's time from your rapid fire round!

  • Favorite past time: Writing

  • Book you are currently reading: The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry

  • Memorable concert venue you've performed at: Charleston Music Hall; Charleston, SC Something on your bucket list: Returning to South Africa

  • Leadership trait you highly value: Empathy

You can learn more about Paula and what's she's up to at her website.

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