Kaye Foster, Business Consultant, Senior Advisor and Executive Coach
One night in New York City, Kaye Foster found herself cleaning the bathroom of the family she worked for as a nanny and housekeeper. She used her salary from this job to pay for night school.
Kaye Foster is now a Senior Advisor and Executive Coach at Boston Consulting Group, a member of the Board of Trustees of Stanford Health Care, and a member of the Board of Directors of Valley Care, Agios Pharmaceuticals, and Grail, a biotechnology company focused on the early detection of cancer. She is the former Chief HR Officer for Johnson & Johnson and Onyx Pharmaceuticals, and a former Senior Director of Human Resources at Pfizer.
Kaye is also extremely focused on philanthropy. She is a Trustee of the Board of Spelman College in Atlanta and Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Glide Foundation, a San Francisco-based center for social justice whose mission is to combat poverty, homelessness, and systemic social and racial injustices. Kaye leads the Glide Foundation the same way she chooses to live her life, with a “deep belief in the core dignity and humanity of all people.”
Kaye defines her life’s purpose as “giving voice to the voiceless.” She does not view this mission as an act of charity, but rather as an investment in a shared societal future. This determination to live a life of purposeful engagement in service to others has served as her North Star throughout her entire career.
Life is a journey, Kaye says, and while the tough moments are part of this path, they do not have to determine the final outcome. Kaye embraces her journey, and the challenges that have shaped her, determined to never lose sight of her goals even when they seemed distant and unattainable.
Kaye has discovered the power that comes with taking agency over how one defines “I’’ and having an indomitable will. Now it is her mission to inspire that mentality in others, and to encourage a sense of possibility and potential that is unlimited.
Reflecting on her early years, Kaye considers her mother the first philanthropist she ever knew. She was raised surrounded by her mother’s spirit of generosity, and that example of selflessness and dedication had a profound impact in shaping the person Kaye is today. Although Kaye’s uncles went to college, the family did not have sufficient financial resources for Kaye’s mother to go as well. She would later insist that Kaye and her children pursue higher education.
Kaye’s mother also taught her the power of intrinsic motivation. It comes when someone shows interest in another’s success and hard work, just as her mother did in the pursuit of neighborhood schooling. This motivation has been present throughout Kaye’s career, and it took her all the way to the C-Suite of Johnson & Johnson.
Kaye’s American dream soon confronted an immigrant’s harsh reality. She realized that she would have to essentially start over in order to achieve her dreams. Despite the challenges and hardship of those early years in the United States, Kaye never lost her determination to live a life of impact and in service to others. She worked tirelessly to afford her schooling.
Kaye attended Baruch College, which offered a night school program that allowed her to work and still complete her degree in four years. Kaye felt intensely connected to the Baruch community, in particular the large number of immigrant students. She studied organizational behavior and human capital, but knew she wanted more exposure to finance and business.
To pursue her MBA, she chose Columbia University. She wanted a strong analytical framework to understand business processes. This could undergird many careers, including leading an HR department.
Despite Kaye’s excitement, on her very first day of classes, she came upon an obstacle which profoundly affected her for years afterwards. Watch her recount the story in her own words in the video below.
Fortunately for Kaye, Columbia had a small community of Black students whose mentorship program matched second year students with first year students. Kaye’s mentor was instrumental in guiding her. To this day Kaye remains close to this community of Columbia alumni, and deeply connected to them through their shared experiences, common goals, and support of each other.
Following her tenure as a Senior Director of Human Resources at Pfizer, Kaye moved to Johson & Johnson. Kaye’s advancement at J&J was meteoric; after initially joining as the head of HR for North America Consumer, she was promoted within six months to head of Global Consumer HR.
She had fully made the transition from cleaning bathrooms as a nanny to the Johnson and Johnson tower in New Brunswick, the location of her new office.
Following her time at Johnson & Johnson, Kaye took a leap of faith and joined Onyx, a startup made to bring new therapies to market and accelerate their path to meaningfully impact patient outcomes. She was inspired to join CEO Dr. Tony Coles because she believed in the company as a powerful force for change. The company’s goal of driving transformative change spoke to Kaye’s own guiding values of service.
Kaye navigates a fast-paced professional environment where she must make a conscious effort to choose where to focus her time. She lives by the saying,
If she has a gut feeling that something is not right, she feels that the universe is leading her in a different direction. She believes that when we articulate our intentions, we will be tested by the universe to understand whether we are truly serious in our intent. Kaye also believes in the power of peers, a lesson taught to her by her mother.
Kaye feels we must be willing to learn from our perceived failures, and what we might at first consider failures can be reconsidered instead as unexpected outcomes. If we learn, we grow. Every outcome has value, and it is up to us to understand that and be open-minded to those lessons.
Part of this learning process is committing oneself to being a continuous learner and serving as a mentor to others. She fundamentally distills her role down to “encouraging courage” and speaking openly about perceived risks and deep-seated doubts. In Kaye’s opinion, there is power and value in giving language to doubt.
Kaye’s path was illuminated by her mother’s early lessons of compassion and caring, by her encouragement of education as a key to greater opportunity and options than her childhood provided. Kaye’s commitment to community is a powerful tribute to her communities’ commitment to her – her mother and small village in Barbados, her Columbia classmates, and her professional colleagues.
While Kaye is an extraordinary woman and professional, ultimately this is her message to others: the ability to rise beyond our beginnings and challenges lies in a shared commitment to each other and to our communities; in that mutuality of giving and receiving, we are never alone. We are stronger together, and we will travel farthest together.
The case method is a form of active learning. You, the reader, see the world from the perspective of the protagonist. This is a basis for discussion with your fellow learners.
Olivia Hallisey (Undergraduate in Management Science and Engineering) and Justin Willow (Teaching and Learning Hub) prepared this case as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation, under the supervision of Hayagreeva Rao, Atholl McBean Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources, Graduate School of Business.
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