Interview with Paula Boggs on Business, Music and Finding Your True North

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From paratrooper to litigator to the Board room, Paula Boggs has shattered multiple glass ceilings and is working on the next. As a former officer/paratrooper in the U.S. Army, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, an attorney in both private practice and the corporate world for top Fortune companies including Dell and Starbucks, and having been appointed by President Obama to serve in his administration as White House Council for Community Solutions, it’s easy to see that Boggs’ skills, focus and tenacity have made her a successful woman in business and she has proven to be an inspiration for others.

After beginning on piano at the early age of six, Boggs was drawn to the guitar at the age of 10. It wasn’t until her late teens that she decided to put her music aside and pursue a career in business — and what an amazing and successful business career she had! However, when a personal family tragedy struck in 2005 and as a way of healing, Boggs decided to pick up her guitar and start writing. During this time, she attended some song writing classes and ultimately formed The Paula Boggs Band with their “Seattle Brewed Soulgrass” style of music.

Retiring from her position as Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of Starbucks back in 2012, Boggs began her new journey which she describes as her “True North.” And now Paula Boggs shows no signs of slowing down with a calendar full of national tour dates in support of the band’s latest album Carnival of Miracles which was released earlier this year, as well as public speaking engagements, Board meetings, and family time. She is the founder of Boggs Media LLC, and is passionate about speaking out against social issues and racial injustices.

If her past is an indicator of her future, Paula Boggs will surely achieve success in the music world.


To learn more about Boggs’ career, her mentors, what she feels are good leadership qualities, on being a role model, her band and her music – her True North – read on in our Q&A with this talented lady.

You’ve achieved quite a bit as a woman in male-dominated fields – an officer in the Army, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and Corporate Legal Counsel. What was it that drew you to these various professions?

From Day 1, I was nurtured to “go for it” and I’m very grateful for that.  The example set by my parents — both educators, and maternal grandparents — both small business owners, living on a college campus as a child surrounded by male and female scholars, being Catholic and witnessing first hand Church hierarchy, being a part of military communities, living outside the US as a teen — all contributed to my sense of self, my comfort with questioning convention and ultimately setting my own unique course.

Mentors in any endeavor have a huge impact on success.  Who have been your mentors in the business world and if you could point to one, who had the biggest impact on you professionally?

I’ve had many mentors in business though I also had mentors long before I knew business interested me. My first boss at Starbucks, then CEO Orin Smith, taught me the power and necessity of becoming a “servant” leader — the people you are privileged to lead are your customers.

RELATED STORY:  The Paula Boggs Band Premieres the Official Music Video for “Look Straight Ahead”

Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz stated you were “an extraordinary leader for the company” and that you helped build one of the “strongest legal departments of any Fortune 100 company in America.” What do you feel is a “must have” quality to be a leader?

I’m not sure what is “must have” for others but in my experience, you can’t lead without followers and others will not follow voluntarily unless they trust you. If they’re forced to follow, that’s not leadership — it’s coercion.

What was one of the biggest challenges you have faced during your corporate career and how did you tackle it?

One of the hardest things I had to do in my corporate career was lay people off.  These were good people but the demands of the economy and our business required a downsize.  I tried to handle it as transparently and humanely as possible.  Others can judge whether I achieved that goal.

What decisions in your life have made the greatest contributions to your success?

In my adult life, perhaps the greatest talent I’ve nurtured is knowing when/whether to leave/stay — whether it’s a job, a personal relationship or geography and if the answer is “go” perfecting as best I can “the dismount.”

You are an amazingly accomplished woman, and for that matter throw the labeling out, an amazingly accomplished person!  So, how do you see yourself as a role model, and what message do you want to send?

The biggest question I pose to myself and others is, “what do you need in life to be whole?”  The answer is as varied as there are people on this planet.  And as the Rolling Stones so famously said a generation ago, “we can’t always get what we want.” I get that.  So understanding what is most important, and if not achievable what might be next on the list — and going for that — is really important personal insight.  I urge folks to be honest/self-aware, know why they’re doing whatever it is they do and seek as much fulfillment as life allows.

You’re retired from the “corporate” world and pursuing your love and passion for music – your “True North” as you refer to it. When was it that you made this decision and what was the driving force behind it?

I’ve been on a “True North” journey for some time.  I didn’t though begin to understand how central music needed to be in my life — again — until about 10 years ago. A tragedy was the trigger and it was an evolving realization.

When were you first introduced to music and who were some of your early musical influences?

My parents required us to play an instrument and I started with piano at around age 6 or 7.  I didn’t like it — I actually didn’t like my teacher — and after a few false starts, I found guitar at age 10. My early music influences were diverse.  My dad was Catholic and mom African Methodist Episcopal.  I would attend their respective churches every other Sunday and so one Sunday it’d be gospels and spirituals, the next either folk mass songs or the minor chord music of high mass.  I started Catholic school in the late 1960s when our nuns played the music of Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul & Mary and Judy Collins.  Not long after I discovered Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Cat Stevens and others.  At home I heard stuff like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Aretha Franklin. I did not really hear much jazz or classical (other than church) music until moving to Europe at age 13.

Paula Boggs Band

Let’s talk about your band. Tell us about your band mates and how the band was formed?

My bandmates are awesome (!) and the band formed pretty organically.  I met percussionist Tor Dietrichson first — through MySpace! and then lead guitarist/banjo player Mark Chinen — a fellow lawyer — in 2006.  At the time Mark wasn’t interested in performing; he just wanted to jam.  Tor has been in an amazing array of bands and played with some really great folks.  They both dug my music even though I was very green.  Sandy Greenbaum, our drummer is a music veteran too and I met him through our former bass player in 2007.  When Brian Miller left the band in 2013, we needed a bassist and Sandy knew Jarrett Mason from another music group he was in.  Jarrett brought Tim Conroy to us last year, an accomplished keyboardist, trumpeter, accordion and melodica player.  Tim and Jarrett moved to Seattle from Sacramento with another band and have sung harmony together for about 10 years.  Adding those two in particular has really shaped the sound we call “Seattle-Brewed Soulgrass.”

And your latest album Carnival of Miracles? What was  the inspiration behind the music and the recording process?

We did our first album, Buddha State of Mind, in 2010 and though proud of the accomplishment, all of us in the band knew we could do better on a second album.  I continued to write and at the end of 2012 the Newtown tragedy propelled me to write Carnival of Miracles.  We decided to re-do a few of the songs on Buddha — such as “Lenny’s in The House” and “Look Straight Ahead” and add new songs like “Carnival,” which really set the tone for the entire album.  Though we first returned to the recording studio in 2013, ultimately, we needed a different vibe and so went back at it in 2014, recording the album entirely at Bear Creek Studios and with producer/engineer Trina Shoemaker.

Tell us about your gear.  Our readers seem to love this topic, you know, your guitar “collection,” how many you own, your favorites, electric vs. acoustic?

My goodness! I own one electric guitar, a sweet PRS.  However I’ve got several acoustic-electric guitars — Gibson J45, Gibson J200, a Larravee, 3 Breedloves — including a 12-string, 1 Taylor 300 series 12-string, an Ovation semi-hollow bodied, a Deering 6-string banjo and 4 ukuleles.  My favorite guitar — both in writing music and performing — is the Gibson J 45.

You serve as a Board member for various organizations relating to music, one of which is of the School of Rock, what do you see as the main goals for this organization?

I resigned from the School of Rock board in June after more than 3 years of service.  I love the organization and its main goal is to provide an after school program for kids 8-18 that is cool enough in its teaching and music performance programs to make money while also nurturing a life-long love of music and personal growth.

Whenever I ask the question, “what’s the best piece of advice you would give someone about pursuing a career in  music?” the answers are always – be tough and practice, practice, practice. With your vast background, what’s the best piece of advice you would give to an aspiring young woman choosing a career – whether it be music, technology, medical, legal, business, or serving in the Armed Forces?

Not always of course, but too often, it’s just frankly harder to be a woman in some of these professions, even today.  Trina Shoemaker is one of only a handful — as in one can probably count on 2 hands — female music producer/engineers of any renown. Trina “made” it by working really, really hard, sometimes being in the right place at the right time, trying never to burn a bridge, learning from the best, and developing tools to shut out the inevitable negative noise wafting her way.  It’s a good recipe.

Is there any one thing that you know now that you wished you had known 20 years ago?

Well it’s been more than 20 years, but at age 17 I thought I had to choose either a “music” or “academic” path. It never occurred to me I could do both.  I now know that was nonsense.

With all that you’ve accomplished and now pursuing your next career, I get the sense you don’t slow down. What’s next on your agenda?

Right now the band is touring nationally, I’m on a couple boards, give speeches when I can and am still learning to be a mom and “ideal” spouse.  That’s a pretty full agenda!

For more on Paula Boggs and her band, visit her site HERE.

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