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Paula Boggs

Founder & Singer-Songwriter

Paula Boggs Band

Seattle, Washington

Past positions include Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary Starbucks Corporation

BA Johns Hopkins

JD University of California, Berkeley

Achieving harmony in an incredible life

paula boggs

On being Michael Dell’s mentee

Advice for lawyers seeking to get on corporate boards

Listen to interview:

Full Transcript

ex judicata: For the benefit of our community who may not be familiar with you, I’m just going to tick off some highlights. Undergraduate degree Johns Hopkins. ROTC Captain in the Army, Paratrooper. attorney service in the Pentagon, service in the White House as a staff attorney, AUSA Western District, State of Washington. First African American female partner at Preston Gates Ellis (now KL Gates), Law Department at Dell Computer where you are the first African American female Vice President with Michael Dell as your mentor. Starbucks General Counsel where you are the first African American Executive Vice President at the company.  Service on several public company boards and the ABA Board of Governors.  And then in the midst of your role at Starbucks, you create your own band with you as singer-songwriter, the Paula Boggs band.

Did you know growing up that you wanted to be a lawyer?

PAULA BOGGS:  No, I didn’t. Becoming a lawyer for me was 100% an act of convenience and delay. I was a four-year Army ROTC cadet.  I was clear at the time that I wanted some kind of career in the international realm.  I had lived in in Europe in a couple of different countries from age 13.  My major at Johns Hopkins was International Studies. I was clear on wanting to do something related to international.  But I had a four-year military commitment hovering over me because I’d been a four-year Army ROTC cadet.  With ROTC between your junior and senior years of college they send you to six weeks of what they call ‘Advanced Camp.’ At Fort Bragg.  The immediate three weeks, before training at Fort Bragg I had been at Fort Benning, Georgia for Airborne School.  So, for nine weeks I had someone telling me when to get up, when to go to bed, what to eat, how to eat it, what to wear and how to wear it.  When I got back to Johns Hopkins at the beginning of my senior year I was often paralyzed.  I couldn’t decide things.  I’d open my closet and not be able to figure out what I was going to wear because someone had told me that for the last few months.  I realized I wasn’t ready for the Army but the Army was ready for me unless I figured out a delay strategy.

PAULA BOGGS: One of the beautiful things about attending a place like Johns Hopkins is I think in the history of Army ROTC at the school, no cadet who sought an educational delay to pursue graduate studies of some sort had ever been turned down.  I had that going for me.  So, in the fall of my senior year, I first took the LSATs because the LSATs were the earliest test I could take.  

My strategy was, okay, I’ll take the LSATs and see how I do. And if I flame out.  I’ll take the GRE.  But if I don’t, I’m going to go to law school rather than graduate school, because that’s three years versus two in my plan to delay.  I’ll get to do Army as a lawyer versus if I had my Master’s in International Studies, where the Army could still send me to Field Artillery or something like that.  That was my strategy . I really thought it was going to be four years and done with the law.  I had this little motto, “Life begins at 29.”   And I thought law was going to be part of that rearview mirror thing after I finished my military commitment. So, the joke was on me. Something that began as a bit of a scam I was still doing a generation later.

ex judicata: Paratrooper jumping out of a plane.  Frightening.  How does that compare with your first night performing before a live audience with your band?

Speaker2: Both were very similar. I don’t know which was scarier.  Actually, the thing with Airborne School, for me, a person who fears heights and I still do, is learning how through discipline you can manage fear and that skill set has helped me throughout my law career, business career and music career.   It is a skill set of tricking yourself into moving through fear because fear is human.  Sometimes it’s incredibly rational but it can sometimes be paralyzing too.  So, the gift Airborne School gave me was helping me figure out how to manage myself, manage my fear and get through it to the other side, whatever that other side was.

ex judicata: You mentioned a couple of minutes ago that you had a motto for yourself at 29.  Did you come up with another motto then after you crossed the first threshold?

PAULA BOGGS:  I think the motto became, whether I was voicing it or just living it, it’s okay to jump out of perfectly well functioning planes if you’re prepared for it.  For example, my Starbucks position was a perfectly well functioning plane that I jumped out of.

ex judicata: On the lawyer side of your career what has given you the most satisfaction?  Associate, partner, AUSA, pentagon, White House, law department attorney, GC.

Wow, that’s a hard question because there were certain things in each role that were highlights.  For example, as an Assistant US Attorney, a federal prosecutor standing up in my opening statement and saying “I’m Paula Boggs representing the United States of America” there’s no higher high.

PAULA BOGGS: I used to begin every opening statement that way over a five-year period.  I guess that would be the highlight of my legal career.  Being able to say that, being able to serve my country that way, nothing else really comes close.  Even though when I was in the military that was a public statement of service as well.  At Starbucks, the greatest joy for me was candidly, not a client, not a legal issue.  It was the team I got to build and fuel.  

And as I look back ten years after working at Starbucks so many of those people I got to touch are doing great things.  That is something I’m incredibly proud of and brings me great joy.  I can’t tell you the number of people I hired around the world–the US, Great Britain, Germany, The Netherlands etc.–who are now general counsel or Chief Administrative Officers or Chief Operating Officers.  And, in one case, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.  It’s really fulfilling for me.  I am very grateful to Starbucks because, for the most part, Starbucks let me do my thing.  And because of that I had this gift.

PAULA BOGGS: Starbucks was growing exponentially during the time I was its Chief Legal Officer so I got that gift of being in a place whose values aligned with mine that was growing rapidly and for whom I could sell the idea, ‘Look, it’s cheaper if you build us up internally’. I sold that idea, and the company bought it.  We moved a lot of work, that before was done by outside counsel in-house.  With that, we attracted some of the best and brightest lawyers and legal professionals on the planet.  Our clients were happy because they were getting first rate legal support at a fraction of the cost.  It was all good.

Another highlight of my legal career was being at Dell Computer but in a wholly different way.  Dell taught me things and provided a suite of life experiences that I am forever grateful for.  Very different than Starbucks.  Austin was the first time I had lived in the South since childhood when I was 13 and we moved to Europe.  Yes, I was the first black female Vice President in the history of Dell, but I was also the first openly gay executive in the history of Dell.

PAULA BOGGS: When I got there Dell did not have domestic partnership benefits but by the time I left it did.  And I feel tremendous pride about my role in that.  We lived in Texas and it was the only time in my life I’ve lived someplace in the US other than the East Coast or the West Coast.  In those five years in Texas, I got a window into what the rest of the country is like.  I’m very grateful for this life experience because things happen in this country that many of my coastal friends have no clue as to why they happened.  I know why they happen.  There is no surprise.

Texas was the place where I came out in my profession.  I had been a closeted gay person before Dell.  And when my now wife and I were picking up to move to Texas I flat out said to my headhunter that Dell should not give me an offer unless they know the real me.  Because we’re not doing this anymore.  We’re not moving halfway across the country for that kabuki dance.  To Dell’s credit, they came back and said we don’t care if this woman’s purple.

PAULA BOGGS  For the first time in my career, everyone from Michael Dell down knew the real deal about us, and they were welcoming  The irony was I left liberal Seattle and moved to so called conservative Texas and it was there that for the first time in my career we were an out gay couple.  We had always been out in my partner Randy’s world.  She at the time was a news artist with the Seattle Times and we were out in that world.  But we were not in my world.  So, Dell changed that forever and I’m incredibly grateful for that. There are different moments that I look to in the rearview mirror and say, that was great. I was actually Michael Dell’s mentee and that was awesome.  I do not think I would have gotten the Starbucks job had Michael Dell not been my one-on-one mentor. I was his mentee for18 months of my first five years at Dell.  I was meeting regularly with Michael and seeing how CEOs make hard decisions through his eyes.

ex judicata: How did you come to be Michael Dell’s mentee?

Dell decided to get religion around diversity, equity and inclusion and as part of that, every Michael Dell direct report was required to select as a mentee a high-performing person of color.  Michael had to do it too and he chose me.  And I am forever grateful he did, because in that first meeting he said, ‘So, Paula, what do you want to get out of this?’  And I had to make a decision.  Am I going to be truthful or am I going to try to dance on that pin?  And I made the decision, fortunately, a good one, to be truthful.

I said, ‘You know, Michael, I someday want to be General Counsel of a Fortune 500 company.  I hope it’s here.  But even if it’s not, I want to be General Counsel of a Fortune 500 company.  And I think for me to do justice to that role I need to better understand that how CEOs make decisions.  What keeps you up at night?  Why you do what you do, not just what you do, but why you do it.  And, to his credit, Michael was like six years younger than me, he said, ‘Paula, I can do that’. And we were off to the races.

And, you know, leaving him was the hardest part of leaving Dell. But it was absolutely the right decision for us to return to Seattle.

ex judicata: You had mentioned a recruiter. Was that a direct call from a recruiting firm pitching you the Starbucks position?

PAULA BOGGS: Dell had used a recruiting firm to find me.  But with Starbucks it was an internal recruiter. They used a someone from their human resources organization to contact me.

ex judicata: There are so many questions I have but I have got to focus on our membership of lawyers leaving the law or thinking about it.  How do you think having a law degree has helped you throughout your Army and business career?

PAULA BOGGS: I think there is something to the adage ‘thinking like a lawyer’. It’s a problem solving mechanism and it is also kind of like editing but on steroids.  Because you learn as a lawyer how to prioritize, how to distinguish, how to build a hierarchy of important things.  And some things are core and crucial and other things are peripheral.  I think at the end of the day your legal training helps you to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak in ways that are helpful in business. music and life. 

The problem with legal education, or at least the brand of it that I was exposed to back in the dark Ages, is that there’s something to this belief that lawyers are conservative.  Lawyers are risk averse. Lawyers tend to be incremental rather than revolutionary.  And the problem with me intrinsically, I think you can tell from my life journey, is I’m a radical. I mean I am a revolutionary.

PAULA BOGGS:  And most lawyers are not. They’re not wired that way. They are all about what came before and you build incrementally on that.  So, there was always, honestly, a tension between me and the legal profession from the jump.  It was mitigated because I had cool jobs.  I mean, even my first jobs at the Pentagon were unusual lawyer jobs. Then I worked on the Iran-Contra investigation in the White House and my personal, natural way of doing things was actually valuable.  Why not connect these dots?  I mean, let’s mix up the facts and see what comes up.  Those tendencies were very much appreciated in the context of an investigation of a scandal.

ex judicata: We are talking about lawyers being risk adverse.  Our mission at ex judicata is to help lawyers, this risk adverse population, to totally step away from the law and pursue a dream or, at the very least, a job in business that they’d prefer to practicing law.  What advice can you give to this subset of lawyers which is growing every day?

PAULA BOGGS: Yes, the advice I give to lawyers who seek membership on a corporate board, it’s the same advice here.  There is, the way I’ll put it, an institutional bias against lawyers, Corporate boards in the main, and there are exceptions to this– those companies that are in highly regulated areas like health care and insurance–have a bias against lawyers.  Their prejudice is that lawyers are conservative, lawyers are risk adverse, lawyers are uncreative.  Those are the things that are out there that get in the way of lawyers being able to become corporate board members and headhunting firms/search firms also hold those biases.  

It’s not just the companies, it’s the gatekeepers that also have that bias.  And so to overcome that bias, first of all, you need to be real and know it’s there. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that the bias doesn’t exist because it does.  And then you have to figure out within your life story what you can celebrate.  It’s marketing.  What is your elevator pitch to help you bust out of that bias?  For example, one of the things I still do

when I encounter this bias is I say look I was a leader before I was a lawyer which is true.  I was an Army officer before I was a lawyer. And so then you talk about those attributes and how those attributes have informed the kind of lawyer that you are.  And I think the same thing applies to how you sell yourself for a non-lawyer job after you’ve been a lawyer.

ex judicata: We have heard from many of the attorneys we’ve interviewed who successfully moved to business roles that you have to tell a story, your story.  So your advice is right on target.

ex judicata:  Switching gears, during your service as Starbuck’s General Counsel you form a band where you are the singer-songwriter.  Was music always a passion and it was a matter of finding the right time to be able to concentrate and do it professionally?  Also how did your business background help you in navigating the vagaries of the music industry?  I mean you weren’t the typical singer-songwriter.

PAULA BOGGS: The shorthand story is I got exposed to music early in life.  I started writing music and playing guitar at age ten.  Guitar was not my first instrument, but it was the first one I fell in love with.  Throughout elementary school and high school music was centering for me.  It was yeah I was good in school, yeah, I was an athlete but music was central to who I was.  I learned how to read music.  I was in the high school choir in Germany and Italy.  And my choir directors were really accomplished.  I’m thinking in particular about the two choir directors I had in Germany, They had access to professional classical and jazz musicians, some of them ex-pats who were, trying to make a living in Europe in ways they couldn’t in the United States.  And our choir directors moved in those circles.  So as a pre-teen and a teen I was exposed to all these terrific musicians.  I was also exposed to the popular music that was arising.  We heard the usual top 40 stuff, but I was in Germany when what we now call EDM was being born with Kraftwerk and groups like that.

PAULA BOGGS: That was the milieu into which I was becoming a better musician. So much so that at the end of high school I really felt I was at a fork in the road.  I had to make a choice, either academics or athletics or music.  I chose academics but I still wrote music and still performed it in coffeehouses.  And I continued to do that to a lesser extent in law school at Berkeley. One of the things that fueled my continued connection with music both the performance of it and the writing of it was my being Catholic then.  I was doing folk mass while in law school, even while in the military and in moving to Seattle. Initially I was still playing weekly in folk mass and some of the liturgy music in the Catholic masses I was attending.  

All that ground to a halt when I realized I was gay and met Randy and rejected the teachings of the Catholic Church on gay people.  And when I left the church for all practical purposes, I left music.  My career was climbing and demanding, and I no longer had that vehicle.  So, for 15 years, about 1990 to 2005, I never touched a guitar and did not sing publicly. In 2005, everything changed when my sister-in-law died in a car crash and left a two-year-old who Randy and I ended up raising.

PAULA BOGGS:  But oh my God. That act threw me into grief and my spouse urged me to pick up my guitar as a way to grieve, which ultimately, I did. Once that happened, I took baby steps . I was back on a road.  A music road.  I was still at Starbucks from 2005 to 2012. And across that time little by little, but determinedly, music became a bigger deal in my life. So much so that in 2012 I left Starbucks.

The Paula Biggs band first formed in 2007 So there was this five-year period where it was catch as catch can with the band.  We made our first album during that period.  But I had accomplished everything I could ever have dreamed.  Absolutely. In law, I mean, it just wasn’t going to get any better for me.  I was with this great company.  I had built a great team. There were two people I had groomed who could do my job. And so, I knew Starbucks was going to be just fine, which they were.  But I needed to be fine, too, and I was going to be finer if I left Starbucks. 

ex judicata: So powerful.  Everything that you’ve done, the bravery, the courage, raising your niece.  How old is she now?  How is she doing?

PAULA BOGGS: Randy and I raised her from age 10 to 18 when she went off to college. She’s now a sophomore at Cornell University. She loves it.

ex judicata: Congratulations on all of your success. We’re going to watch for when your band tours here in New York and come see you. Thank you so much for taking the time with us.

PAULA BOGGS: You bet. And thanks for what you are doing to help all those attorneys that are trying to figure out if they can leave the law behind, leverage their hard-earned legal skill set and find career satisfaction.  Really, life satisfaction.  So, thank you for that.

ex judicata: We’ll keep you posted. And, we’re already LinkedIn followers of yours. Thank you again for taking the time.

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