Over the Horizon
Starbucks' Paula Boggs isn't intimidated by 1,200-ft. drops, military brass or sitting presidents
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® 2008 magazine
on December 1, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
In jump school at Fort Benning, Ga., future paratroopers learn that plenty can go wrong when you leap out of a cargo plane traveling 120 knots, more than 1,200 feet in the air. The lines of the main parachute can become tangled, the chute can wrap around your body or simply fail to open, or myriad other stomach-turning possibilities may require cutting away the main chute and deploying a backup while descending through the atmosphere.
Not surprisingly, weeks of ground school and leaping off towers can’t fully prepare one for that moment over the drop zone when the jump master yells, “Go!”
More than 28 years after her first jump, Paula Boggs, now general counsel and secretary of Starbucks Corporation, says she remembers it “as if it were yesterday, in too-minute detail,” including the fear.
“It was, for me, a calculated risk to jump out of a perfectly well-functioning plane and to trust a static line would catch me at the right moment, and thus my parachute would deploy,” says Boggs, who earned her wings in 1980, less than a decade after the first women graduated from Airborne School. “I have used the memory many, many times to help me get through difficult moments.”
The 5-foot-6-inch Army paratrooper-turned-attorney has stood toe-to-toe with U.S. presidents, military brass and corporate chiefs. As a White House attorney, federal prosecutor, partner and trial lawyer at Preston Gates & Ellis, and as one of only four African-American women serving as general counsels for Fortune 500 companies, the 49-year-old Boggs has broken down significant barriers for women and minorities.
Today she heads a global team that has partners in London; Essen, Germany; Amsterdam; Hong Kong; and Shanghai, which was the locale of an important intellectual property case for Boggs and Starbucks.
“One of the cases we are most proud of is Starbucks v. Shanghai Xingbake,” Boggs says. “In early 2007 the Shanghai courts released a list of the top 10 IP cases for 2006. Our case was mentioned as the first in which the Shanghai Intermediate Peoples Court made a ‘well-known’ determination for a trademark.”
After a two-year battle, Starbucks won its case against Xingbake, a chain of cafés in Shanghai whose name is the Chinese equivalent to Starbucks. The café’s logo was also similar to that of Starbucks, boasting a round graphic with green characters against a white background. “This case received worldwide attention,” Boggs says.
With the Pentagon as her training grounds, Boggs learned early on in her career how to handle conflict and power. In the mid-1980s, she served out her ROTC scholarship as a desk officer for Southern Africa for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. She worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative and helped negotiate a compact maintaining a Marshall Islands atoll for missile-defense testing purposes.
Her White House boss, Bill Lytton, was immediately impressed with his new hire. “She struck me as a physically very small person, but then I learned she jumped out of airplanes,” he says. “So I knew she was pretty tough. I found out quickly she was also very bright.”
As deputy special counselor to the Reagan White House, Lytton tapped Boggs for the Iran-Contra legal task force in 1987. She was one of 10 attorneys working with National Intelligence analysts and National Security archivists to respond to queries from the Office of the Independent Counsel and congressional committees about an arms-for-hostages deal.
At one point, Boggs briefed then-vice president George H.W. Bush for testimony before Congress. “It was the old iron fist in a velvet glove,” Lytton says. “She’s just somebody who’s not going to be blown away by the office or by the individual.”
A few blocks away at the State Department, Boggs also made a lasting impression on Libby Keefer, who, in the Office of the Legal Advisor, was “scrambling through the Iran-Contra maze” at the same time.
“Paula is totally fearless and clear in her views,” says Keefer, now general counsel for Columbia University. “That was a hard time for everyone, a little bit of chaos, and Paula was very mature and grounded.”
Boggs received a Presidential Service Badge for her efforts in 1988.
Her mettle has proven equally important on corporate turf, says Lytton, who went on to become the general counsel for Tyco International Ltd. and is now retired. “She’s not overwhelmed or intimidated by either senior executives or members of the board,” he says. “That is a very valuable asset to have in this job, someone who in a fearless manner but using great judgment will speak out and provide good counsel.”
As much as she’s suited to her latest role, the private sector was not the direction Lytton first suggested for his young protégé. In 1988, when Boggs completed her Army stint, he urged her to become a federal prosecutor. She moved to Seattle and served as an assistant U.S. attorney for more than five years. “She was a star,” says Mike McKay, U.S. attorney for Western Washington from 1989 to 1993. “I knew that coming in, and it was confirmed. She was and is very articulate and confident.”
She was also one of a small and dedicated cadre that worked to help diversify the prosecutor’s office. “Diversity in our office was very important,” says McKay, now with McKay Chadwell in Seattle. “It’s a challenge to find the right person for the right job. Paula was one of two or three assistants who worked with me to make sure we accomplished that.”
In 1994, duty to country called Boggs back to the Capitol. She was hired by Jamie Gorelick, who, as general counsel of the Department of Defense, was investigating the department in the aftermath of Tailhook ’91.
From a pool of all-star recruits, she selected Boggs to head the staff of the Advisory Board on the Investigative Capability of the Department of Defense, created by Congress and chaired by the late Charles Ruff, who would defend President Clinton in his impeachment trial.
“She’s very bright. I thought she had a wonderfully optimistic, sort of can-do attitude. And she’s highly energetic,” Gorelick says. “By all reports, and it proved to be true, she had very good leadership skills.”
Leadership, toughness and integrity were essential to managing the sensitive and politically volatile investigation that reached into the top echelons of power.
“She was a young black woman not only in an environment in which most people were considerably whiter, but in the particular job I gave her, she had to corral people well senior to her, in many respects more credentialed, who had their views,” says Gorelick, now a partner at Wilmer Hale in D.C. “She did it with ebullience and hard work. What’s fascinating to me about Paula’s career and the thing I admire is she hasn’t let ordinary views of what’s possible constrain her.”
Indeed, low horizons have never plagued Boggs. “I have been really fortunate because in my life I have rarely been in situations where people have low expectations of me,” she says. “But I think overall it is an obstacle that some, perhaps many, people of color encounter and thus must chip away at.”
Some of the highest expectations for Boggs came from her own family. “In our house growing up, it wasn’t as if there was any question about whether you were going to college or anything,” says brother Cornell Boggs, the chief responsibility and ethics officer for MillerCoors. “We just assume each other is going to succeed.”
She grew up in the Washington, D.C.-Virginia area, where her father was the first student to earn a Ph.D. in zoology from Howard University. He went on to be a biology professor at historically black colleges. After he died in 1997, Paula endowed the Nathaniel Boggs Jr. Memorial Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, where she earned her B.A. in international studies.
When she was 13, her parents divorced and she moved with her mother, two brothers and one sister to Germany and Italy. There her mother taught in Department of Defense schools and eventually became an elementary school principal.
“My mother would say I’m a very directed person and I’ve been that way since infancy,” says Boggs, who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley-Boalt Hall School of Law. “This is nothing new.”
After her stints working for the federal government, Boggs joined Seattle’s Preston Gates & Ellis, where she became a partner and trial lawyer specializing in corporate civil litigation. She left in 1997 to join Dell in Texas. True to form, Boggs was quickly promoted to head up legal affairs for products, operations and information technology—and later, to vice president.
In September 2002, she joined Starbucks to lead its 50-person legal department. She has made diversity initiatives a priority. “For us, embracing diversity in everything we do is the guiding principle, directly below treating everyone with respect and dignity,” Boggs says. “So it’s real and I certainly try to practice it. A little less than 50 percent of our lawyers are women, and about 25 percent are lawyers of color. About 10 percent are openly gay. We also have tremendous age and culture diversity in our department.”
There’s plenty of speculation about what Boggs might do next. Teaching, president of a university, making policy and political office are some possibilities cited by friends and colleagues.
“She can probably be whatever she wants to be,” Libby Keefer says.
Even a rock star? “I started writing music and playing guitar at 11, but stopped both at 30,” Boggs says. After taking a songwriting course at the University of Washington in 2005, she rekindled her passion. Now she is a fixture in Seattle’s open mic scene. “I often play with a fusion band called Random Code, partnered with two wonderful conga drummers,” she says. Boggs went bicoastal in October when she headlined at World Café Live in Philadelphia. “We hope to produce a CD soon,” she says.
But Boggs isn’t thinking about life after Starbucks. As usual, she’s focused on the task at hand—heading for the drop zone and not worrying about her reserve chute.
“I live for the moment,” she says. “And this is my moment.”