Karen Boykin-Towns was on an Amtrak to Albany, N.Y. one Sunday night when she received a phone call from Leon Russell, the Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He wanted to nominate her for the position of Vice Chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors.
And though she had been on the Board for 14 years, was president of the Brooklyn branch and previously served as the chairman of the Health Committee, she did not think she was qualified. Still, she ran and was elected not one, not two, but three years in a row.
Boykin-Towns’ work in policy, advocacy, communication, and change management spans across government, the nonprofit world, and a Fortune 50 global biopharmaceutical company.
Her career began while serving as Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to New York State Senator David Paterson who later became the 55th Governor of New York State. She then spent 22 years at Pfizer where she held senior executive positions in public affairs, government relations, global policy, and human resources. She was also selected by Pfizer’s CEO to serve as the company’s first Chief Diversity Officer.
Now, along with serving on the New York Task Force for Vaccine Equity and Education, Boykin-Towns owns a consultancy boutique called Encore Strategies which focuses on integrating business and public affairs initiatives. She is also a board member of the Visiting Nurse Services of New York, Brewster Academy, American Airlines Community Council and L’Oréal USA Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board. The Vice-Chairman previously served as Co-Chair of the Business Council of New York State.
Her Agenda: You have quite the resume and you’ve accomplished so many amazing feats in your career. Where did you get your start?
Karen Boykin-Towns: I got my start from a man named David Patterson. He was the 55th governor of New York State. When I met him, he was a newly elected state senator from Harlem, where I’m from. I was a junior in college lobbying for increased financial aid for independent colleges, asking legislators for support. He was very nice and he understood the issues. That summer, I went to work on his re-election campaign. I thought it was really nice, so when I was a senior, I went back into lobbying for the same thing. He remembered me working on the campaign, and he said that if I was interested in working with him when I graduated, he would love to have me as part of his team. So, I got my start working with him in politics, and I worked in the state senate for nine years. I think that was a foundation for me to then be able to go into corporate America and have a successful career and all the other things I do.
Her Agenda: Do you have any advice for young women who want to go into government?
Karen Boykin-Towns: By getting involved with your community, going to community board meetings or school board meetings, you get to meet the elected officials. You get to meet some of the players within the government. You have to be involved.
Her Agenda: You’ve done a lot of work in government as well as business. How has your passion for advocacy and change led to your success in business environments?
Karen Boykin-Towns: My time in government and politics really helped set me up for success in navigating a company as big as Pfizer. Regarding my passion for advocacy, I’m really lucky because my lives have been kind of intertwined. Part of my job was to advocate for Pfizer, in terms of its patients and its business model, and the programs we had in order to get support for it. Advocacy is something that we have to do in all aspects of our lives. In a company you have to be an advocate for yourself in terms of looking for opportunities and finding ways to stand out so that you can be recognized so that you can be promoted.
Advocacy is something that we have to do in all aspects of our lives. In a company you have to be an advocate for yourself in terms of looking for opportunities and finding ways to stand out so that you can be recognized so that you can be promoted.
Her Agenda: What advice do you have for women who are put into a position where they have to sacrifice their values for the sake of the business they’re working for?
Karen Boykin-Towns: I feel really really blessed that I’ve never had to do anything, or had to make a decision about doing anything, that went against my values. And I think that it is a case of who I made decisions to work with or work for. That’s why it’s important when you’re looking at companies where you’re going to work, you’re spending time making sure that the company is a good fit for you. You have to have a sense of your own values of what’s right and what’s wrong, and the internal fortitude to know that if the situation doesn’t feel right, to move on. If they tell you, you can’t be there anymore, so be it. At the end of the day, we should never compromise our values for anybody or anything.
Her Agenda: What impact do you think your work at Pfizer made on the company?
Karen Boykin-Towns: I retired back in 2019, and I’m really pleased to say that I still have a bit of a legacy there even though I’ve been gone. I was someone who was very much connected to Black and brown people within the company. I was someone who was accessible, who they could come to and get advice. I was part of initiatives that the company was doing externally to help impact health disparities in communities around the world. I still get calls from the company, just in terms of giving me updates. I spent a large part of my life there, and it’s a great company, and I’m proud of the work that I did.
Her Agenda: So now you’re involved with a lot of different organizations including the New York Task Force for Vaccine Equity and Education. So how have some of your previous work helped you with this role?
Karen Boykin-Towns: When I was at Pfizer, the vaccine business was one of the businesses for which I was responsible for within our corporate affairs. That included communications policy, government relations, that sort of thing. So, I am well aware of vaccines and their benefits. The goal of this task force is to ensure that we help people have confidence in the vaccine, but more importantly, to ensure that they have the information necessary for them to be comfortable. My time as an advisor helped me to do that because I had to help educate communities all over the world about the value of vaccines and try to beat back the anti-vaxxers. It also helps to be someone who is a leader in a major civil rights organization to really talk about how to reach out to the community and try to ensure that you can identify those who would also be good ambassadors to help get out the word.
Her Agenda: Working to undo the effects of systemic racism can be very emotionally taxing. How do you keep yourself motivated to push through and continue the work?
Karen Boykin-Towns: Know that self-care is not selfish. Sometimes, I am so busy thinking of the next three or four things I need to do that even when I’m supposed to be relaxing, I’m still thinking about the things I should be doing. I’m trying to get better with it. I get acupuncture. I try to get enough sleep each night. We try to balance as much as we can, and we do the best that we can.
Her Agenda: What advice can you give to women who want to pursue a career where they can bring a positive impact on their communities?
Karen Boykin-Towns: I think that sometimes we get duped into thinking that we need to have some big job or some lofty title in order to have an impact and that is so not the case because we all have power. We all can have influence in the sphere in which we operate. It’s about using your voice. That may be in your tenant association, it may be within your block association, it may be church, it may be within your division or your department of your job. We need to be courageous. Understand that you can have an impact, big or small, regardless of the issue. The NAACP is the vehicle that I use in which to be an advocate, but there are so many organizations one could look to be a part of. And listen, organizations need us.
Her Agenda: What is your motto?
Karen Boykin-Towns: If God brings you to it, He’ll bring you through it.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]