Paula E. Boggs, A&S ’81
The next time you’re in line at a coffeehouse, take a good look at the woman in front of you, the one carrying her guitar. It could be Paula Boggs, a top Starbucks executive who’s not afraid to step away from the boardroom and perform her own music with nothing but a microphone standing between her and a live, heavily caffeinated audience. Sound intimidating? Since her days at Homewood as an ROTC cadet-scholar, Boggs hasn’t backed down from a challenge. As a freshman, she led the charge to establish the Blue Jays’ women’s cross country and track teams, then went on to build a distinguished law career that has taken her from the Pentagon to the White House to Starbucks, where she is now executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary. Today, she’s also following another dream as she puts the finishing touches on a debut collection of 12 original songs she honed while playing the Northwest music circuit. Boggs, who was honored with the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2009 and has been a university trustee since 1998, recently spoke with the magazine from Starbucks’ corporate headquarters.
With your first CD set for release this summer, you’re on a rather unusual parallel track to an impressive legal career. How did you become a serious musician?
I’ve been writing music since I was about 10, and performed occasionally on stage in my 20s. But as I climbed in my career, a lot was going on and the music just stopped. With encouragement from family, I picked it up again in my mid-40s after facing a tragedy that became a trigger: My sister-in-law died suddenly in an auto accident at age 36, and it made me think, “I’ve got something here and I need to do something with it.”
How did you make your return to music?
I auditioned and was accepted into the graduate songwriters program at the University of Washington. It was the one evening every week when I wasn’t general counsel of a Fortune 500 company, I was just another songwriter. At the end of the year, when it came time to perform for my peer group there, I was terrified. But at the end of the recital, my instructor said, “You have a gift, and it would be a shame if you don’t continue.” I made a New Year’s resolution to play once a month at coffeehouses or clubs, and later open mics.
Why open mics?
In that format, there is no space between the musician and audience. It’s a highly vulnerable format for performing, with instant feedback. Learning to connect with an audience turned out to have a direct application for connecting with my team at Starbucks. A leader’s job is to enable a team to be the best it can be, and the process of music discovery taught me how to better empathize with others. You are able to better know, “How can I give them what they need in a way that enables them to achieve their potential?”
You’re still doing that with student-athletes—helping them fulfill their potential. Ever since you started the women’s cross country and track teams, you’ve been contributing to their success.
When I arrived at Johns Hopkins University in 1977, the school was still learning how to serve a female student population—there were still buildings on campus without women’s bathrooms! The women had no track team of their own. A female fencer, Wendy Galfand, A&S ’87, and I began recruiting for a club, and the women’s fencing coach offered to coach us. A Johns Hopkins supporter named Larry Goldfarb volunteered to underwrite our trip to a major club meet. Only after winning did we finally secure official status as a team from the school. Today, I follow the team and still contribute financially to the program. It’s pretty rewarding to know these young women are following the same path that Wendy and I and the others started all those years ago.
When you graduated, did you think you would someday be recording your own music while serving as the top lawyer for a Fortune 500 company?
I don’t think I was preordained to be a lawyer; it is a profession I stumbled into. In me there’s a CEO who flourishes as a leader, an anthropologist who is interested in people and their cultures, and a social worker who likes to help others—and working in law has allowed me to satisfy these aspects of my personality. The lesson for students is that at the end of the day, labels only take you so far. Understanding and being true to what I really needed to be fulfilled has been the key for me.