Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2012
Choosing His Battles: Frank A. Bolden MLK '69
An apartment and a dog led Frank Bolden MLK '69 to realize that his real battles to fight were not in the armed forces, but in the corporate world, creating progress from within.
After graduating from the University of Vermont with his undergraduate degree in English, Mr. Bolden enlisted in the United States Army, intending to become a career officer. Stationed in Germany as an Airborne Ranger Infantry Officer, he was rushed back to the United States in 1966 to redeploy to Vietnam. He and his wife and baby, along with the puppy they acquired in Germany, were posted at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina so that Mr. Bolden could be trained for his assignment in psychological operations.
Unable to find quarters on base, the Boldens began looking at newspaper ads for apartments. After several phone calls, his wife found a landlord with vacancies. "But he couldn't tell on the phone if my wife was black or not, so he asked to speak to me," recalls Mr. Bolden. While he had been raised in Georgia, Mr. Bolden's time in Vermont and Germany had changed his accent enough that his ethnicity was not recognizable by phone, and the landlord invited the Boldens to view the apartment. Before hanging up, however, Mr. Bolden said to the landlord, " 'Listen, there's something you should know before we get over there. We've just returned from Germany and we have a great big black German shepherd dog.' He said, 'Oh, the dog's not a problem. Come on over.'
"I put on my uniform with all my ribbons and badges and so forth and put my family in the car, and drove over. And when I got out of the car, the look on his face was one of absolute disgust. 'Oh no, I can't let the apartment to you.' Now, I was on my way to Vietnam, maybe to give my life, so that this guy could enjoy his freedom here, according to my thinking, and it was okay for my dog to live in that apartment, but my wife and my baby and I couldn't."
As Mr. Bolden served in Vietnam during 1967, the civil rights riots took place back home. He recalls, "I said to myself, I'm fighting the wrong war." In order to spend his time helping his own people enjoy their rights as Americans, Mr. Bolden resigned his Army commission. His Martin Luther King Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, an award designed specifically for veterans of color, helped finance his law degree at Columbia. He planned to work on Wall Street, learning how wealth and power are used to further progress, and to live with his family in Bedford-Stuyvesant, helping to revitalize the community from within.
It soon became clear, however, that the demands of a Wall Street career were straining his family life. Never knowing when each workday would end, Mr. Bolden felt he was neglecting his duties as a father to his two boys. Despite increasing success, he chose to move to a corporate position at Johnson & Johnson in 1975. "I still had a gratifying practice of law, but I was able to manage my time a little better and do the things for my children that I had always wanted to do," Mr. Bolden says.
In the law department at J&J, "I did some of everything," Mr. Bolden recalls. "I think I was the last of the generalists as far as lawyers are concerned." He bought and sold companies, worked in international law with the company's overseas operations, handled real estate transactions, did all of the legal work for the building of J&J's corporate headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, and took care of legal issues associated with human relations matters, including pensions and benefits.
In 1984, Mr. Bolden was appointed corporate secretary, and then promoted to vice president, working in both business and law. In 2000, he was asked to form an office of diversity, which led to his final position as J&J's vice president of diversity worldwide.
Thinking back over his three decades there, Mr. Bolden says, "The Johnson & Johnson I went into in 1975 was different from the Johnson & Johnson that I left in 2006, but it kept getting better and better. At Johnson & Johnson, they live by a credo of putting the customers first and the business afterwards"—a credo in which all employees were trained. "Being an attorney there was a pleasure," he recalls, "because whenever we were close to the line when I would have to make a judgment as attorney as to whether we could do something or not, if I said that this runs afoul of the credo, then everyone would back away. Nobody, in all of Johnson & Johnson, wanted to do anything that would tarnish the wonderful credo the company enjoyed."
This ethical stance has also helped Johnson & Johnson to avoid corporate conflicts of recent years, such as those at Enron and BP. "I think that sometimes leaders don't pay close enough attention to what's going on. They put their subordinates under a lot of pressure to deliver the bottom line without looking at how they're achieving those results. When that happens, people run into problems. Most companies try to do the right thing, and it's the pressures of delivering profits to shareholders and so forth that, in some cases, get people into trouble." Often, he says, when new corporate governance standards were issued, J&J turned out to be ahead of the curve. "First was the constitution, second were the state bars in which we operated, and then was the credo," he explains. "We tried to make sure that all our actions would stand the test of somebody looking at them and saying 'yes, you did the right thing.' …We already had policies in place to make sure that our transactions would pass muster if anybody had taken a look at them. That was one of the things I was proud of when I was with Johnson & Johnson—that we'd always operated in that fashion."
Mr. Bolden currently serves on the State of New Jersey's Banking Advisory Committee and the Board of Trustees of Union County College. He is also a former chair of the University of Vermont Board of Trustees. "I think that my experience in corporate America has helped me make some nice contributions to the discussions that occurred in these forums," says Mr. Bolden. "Every little bit of experience you encounter in your journey helps you in whatever role you play." And for him, he says, "Leadership is the role I've been designated to play."