70. Navigating Board Dynamics and Strategic Leadership with Karen Boykin-Towns

With an extensive background in policy, advocacy, and corporate governance, Karen shares insights from her roles at Pfizer, iFIT Health & Fitness, and the NAACP.   She recounts her journey to becoming a board member including her experiences during the IPO process at iFIT, and the challenges and triumphs of leading through turbulent times.

Additionally, Karen reflects on the significance of diversity in board composition and the enduring impact of Brown v. Board of Education on the 70th anniversary of the decision. 

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Big Ideas/Thoughts/Quotes

  1. First For-Profit Board Experience: iFIT Health & Fitness

Karen recounts her journey leading to joining the board of iFIT Health & Fitness, her first for profit board seat, emphasizing the importance of networking and building relationships. She shares how an unexpected opportunity arose from her connections with the Church of Latter-Day Saints and describes the rapid onboarding process and initial experiences as a new board member during a critical time for the company.

“You never know who’s watching, it came through a relationship.”

Challenges and Decisions During the IPO Process

Karen provides an inside look at the fast-paced environment leading up to iFIT’s planned IPO. She discusses the board’s decision-making process in response to adverse market conditions and the strategic adjustments that were necessary. The conversation highlights the importance of having a diverse and well-composed board to navigate events that are significant & challenging for a company.

“When you are preparing an S-1, you learn everything about a company very quickly.”

“The numbers weren’t where they were projected to be at that particular time, and I’m really proud of us because it could have been easy to just buckle down and go forward, but that was not the right thing for the company.”

Post-IPO Attempt and Company Turnaround

The discussion moves to the aftermath of the decision to not proceed with the IPO and the strategies employed to stabilize and grow iFIT Health & Fitness. 

“What I’m happy to say is that despite the overall industry being at a bit of a downturn, we have come through the worst of it, at least we hope we’ve navigated through the turmoil and are at a new era.”

  1. Work at Pfizer

Karen reflects on her 20-year career at Pfizer, where she transitioned from government work to corporate affairs. She discusses her role as Pfizer’s first Chief Diversity Officer and the development of a global diversity and inclusion strategy.

Leadership During COVID-19

Karen discusses the significant challenges and achievements of Pfizer during the COVID-19 pandemic under the leadership of Albert Bourla. Karen’s insights emphasize the critical role of strong leadership in navigating crises and driving impactful results.

“I believe to my core that no one else could have gotten that company to have that level of impact in such a short period of time [during the Covid outbreak] other than Albert Bourla and the team that he leads.”

“Leadership matters”

  1. Role with the NAACP

Karen is the Vice Chair of the NAACP’s National Board of Directors and provides an overview of her role discussing the organization’s mission, structure, and its ongoing important advocacy work. She also reflects on the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and its lasting impact on education equality. The conversation underscores the importance of historical context in shaping current and future initiatives for civil rights and social justice.

On recognizing the 70th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education in the Oval Office


“It is a moment I will never forget and it’s not just about being in the Oval Office with the President, but it was being there with these family members who had made so many sacrifices.” 

  1. Final Thoughts and Takeaways

The episode concludes with Karen’s reflections on the importance of leadership, diversity, and strategic decision-making in board roles. She shares personal insights from her career journey and offers advice for aspiring board members, emphasizing the value of passion and commitment to the mission of the organizations board members serve.



Joe: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to On Boards, a deep dive at what drives business success. I’m Joe Ayoub, but I’m here with my co-host Raza Shaikh. Twice a month On Boards is the place to learn about one of the most critically important aspects of any company or organization; its board of directors or advisors with a focus on the important issues that are facing boards, company leadership, and stakeholders.

Raza: Joe and I speak with a wide range of guests and talk about what makes a board successful or unsuccessful, what it means to be an effective board member, and how to make your board one of the most valuable assets of your organization.

Joe: Our guest today is Karen Boykin-Towns. Karen is a visionary driver of strategic results in the areas of policy, advocacy, communications, and change management. [00:01:00] She has brought her powerful skillset to Encore Strategies, a consultancy that focuses on integrating business and public affairs initiatives where she serves as CEO, as well as to the board of the NAACP in her role as vice chair of its national board of directors.

Raza: Karen also serves on the board of iFIT Health & Fitness, a global fitness and connected content company. Previously, she worked at Pfizer, a Fortune 50 global biopharmaceutical company while also championing civil rights and social justice issues.

Joe: Welcome, Karen. It’s great to have you with us today on On Boards.

Karen: Thank you, Joe. Thank you, Raza. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Joe: Karen, we’ll talk a little bit about your background at Pfizer and some other things later, but first I want to ask you about your first for profit board experience because [00:02:00] in a very brief period of time, you experienced what many board members experience over years, if ever. So, first, let’s talk about joining the board because lots of folks who have not yet joined a board will ask, “Well, how do you do this? How do you get on a board that’s a good board and a good fit?” So, let’s talk about the process, how you heard about it and what you went through before you actually joined the board.

Karen: Well, it’s interesting because I hadn’t done a board readiness program at that point or anything, and my first opportunity came through a relationship that had been built with the Church of Latter Day Saints of all places. In my role with the NAACP, we have a partnership with them and over the time, I had gotten to know them. They had gotten to know me.

I never was expecting there to be a board seat that could come from it, but you [00:03:00] never know who’s watching, and Elder Stevenson one day gave me a call and I knew from his background that he was a founder of what was known as ICON Fitness. When he called me on a January, he asked me if I would be interested in learning more about the company he helped to found that he was on the board of called ICON Fitness.

Of course, I knew of NordicTrack, and I was an owner of NordicTrack and I was more than flattered, and he asked if I would be willing to talk to the CEO, and that’s how it happened, so you never know who’s watching, and it came through a relationship and I couldn’t believe that this is how I would get my first opportunity.

Joe: So, first, let me just set some context. This is January of 2021, correct?

Karen: Correct.

Joe: And you end up joining the board in about March of that [00:04:00] year? Is that right?

Karen: Yes. It was only a couple of weeks after I talked to Elder Stevenson that I had an opportunity to speak with Scott Watterson, founder, then chairman and CEO, and Scott Dahnke from L Catterton who had the interview with me to see if I would be a good fit, and we spoke for maybe 45 minutes to an hour and found that my skillset matched up to what some of their needs were, and I think they saw my enthusiasm for the brand and the mission of the company.

Joe: Why were you interested in the company? What was it about the brand or what they did that attracted you?

Karen: All of my life I have been into fitness. Like I said, I was the owner of a NordicTrack. I did not know that NordicTrack was part of ICON Fitness because you know the brand, not necessarily the company, and I believe that [00:05:00] fitness is something that we need to be more mindful of. We need to ensure there’s inclusivity. We need to really work to ensure that people are knowledgeable for their long-term well being and health, and so it was a great fit for me.

Joe: One thing I want to say is when people ask about how to get On Boards, one of the things that Raza and I talk about is serving on a for profit board or any board is a job, it’s an actual job, and so when you think about getting a job, or if you’re talking to your kids about getting a job, one of the things you always tell people is go to your network, like any other job.

The fact that you got it through other things you had done, the broad network you’ve created over years of all the activity you’ve had is not only not surprising, it’s exactly how these things happen, and I say that because while one of the things you talked about when we spoke a few [00:06:00] weeks ago was it’s great to be on recruiter databases, but it’s important that you’re out there networking and building relationships, and when the time comes to think about this as you would, if you were ready to go to a new job, how am I going to find what I want? Who are the people in my network that can help me? And let’s expand that network. Like I said, it goes back to a board as a job, so treat it like that in a lot of respects.

So, this wasn’t just any board that you joined. This was a board that was already gearing up for an IPO, so you knew that when you joined the board, correct?

Karen: Yes.

Joe: Talk a little bit about what happened when you landed. You’re now on the board sometime in the spring of 2021, and what was it like, what was the first board meeting like, what was the onboarding like? It must’ve been wild.

Karen: It was fast and furious. Yes, they were very clear in terms of what the plans were. It was [00:07:00] a very exciting time. It was drinking from a fire hose in the sense that I had to catch up quickly. Let me just say If I had it to do all over again, I would want it to happen the same way because when you are preparing as S1, there is where you learn everything about a company very quickly, and so we were in that process, and so I was learning, I was contributing as best I could, but really, understanding what we were trying to do and being up for it, and we had frequent board meetings, some that was scheduled others that you got notices that you needed to join in on.

But it was an exciting time, the company was preparing for this monumental thing. The company has been around for almost 50 years, and all of that hard work taking these global brands public, it was an amazing time.

Joe: How long had they been [00:08:00] discussing it before you joined the board, and when you joined, how many board members all together were there?

Karen: That’s a great question, and I think from the media before, there had been anticipation that the company would be going public, so I would assume before I joined there were conversations. Them reaching out to me was part of that strategy of moving forward, and at the time we had 11 members of the ICON Fitness board.

Joe: When they recruited you, you were obviously an independent member. Were there other independent members serving on the board when this process of going public was in full gear?

Karen: Yeah. The other members were independent, but I think there were two others that would join the board upon us going public. There were [00:09:00] two other people that were to join once we clear the process.

Joe: When you joined the board, not only were you one of the few independent members, but you were the only woman on the board at that time. Is that right?

Karen: That’s correct.

Joe: And part of this work they were doing was to put a board together to really look at their board composition so that when they formally went public, the board would reflect the type of board that they thought they probably wanted and needed for a public company.

Karen: Absolutely, and that is very important, and we see companies looking at the composition of their board of directors and making those adjustments that would help them to be better and more successful.

Joe: Right, and I’ll just interject here that Raza had a similar experience with a board I helped build where they [00:10:00] also took a look at their board and the composition before the IPO and brought in new board members because obviously taking a company public requires a whole different set of skills and experience, and really the emphasis on the diversity of perspective we all talk about as being important for boards is particularly important if you’re going public because now there are more risks, there are more people watching, and the more diverse the perspective is, the better the board is likely to be able to navigate those sometimes very challenging waters.

Karen: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Joe: Let’s talk about what it was like to be in that situation as a brand new board member.

Karen: It was exhilarating, for sure. Like I said, it was fast and furious, and learning very quickly about the company, but also imagine this, trying to learn your board members when you’re [00:11:00] doing everything virtual because we were in COVID, and so you’re working as a team. It’s a very intense time. You’re trying to get to know each other at the same time.

But I will fast forward to say that while we were doing all of this work, and everyone was working so diligently, it was less than a week before we were supposed to go public that we met to determine that due to adverse market conditions, the timing was no longer a good one, and you can imagine what that must have been like.

Joe: I actually can’t, but I bet it was something else. How long had you been on the board when that particular meeting occurred where you decided to pull the plug essentially?

Karen: Five months.

Joe: Wow. And during the five months, how many meetings do you think you had?

Karen: Oh, countless.

Joe: Did your compensation go up? No, I’m kidding.

Karen: [00:12:00] Oh, no, it didn’t.

Joe: And that’s a good point because when one joins a board and it’s in the middle of something so significant as an IPO, the understanding is all hands on deck. You got to do what you got to do. You got to be where you got to be, and it’s funny because people ask this question all the time, what happens if there are more meetings? The answer is, it’s like a job. Suddenly, you have a big project at work. Everyone comes in a little early. They stay late. They work weekends. You do what you have to do to get the job done. Is that a fair way to look at it, do you think?

Karen: Absolutely, and that’s why it’s really important for you to be on boards of companies that you are connected to, that you believe in the mission, where you like the people who you are working with, because it is a job and you spend maybe four meetings a year, but then there might be these committees and there’s other projects that come up or situations, so it is critically important because [00:13:00]anything can happen and you’re expected to dive in.

Joe: So, in this case, something did happen. Just talk about what were the market conditions that led the board to determine that you should not go forward with the IPO, and how soon before the IPO was scheduled did you make the decision?

Karen: Well, the valuation, the math wasn’t mapping. The numbers weren’t where they were projected to be at that particular time, and I’m really proud of us because it could have been easy to just sort of buckle down and go forward, but that was not the right thing for the company and to have all of this attention to this process but then to determine that it’s not the right one, like I said I’m really proud of that, and so it was a few days

before we were supposed to go forward when we pulled the [00:14:00] plug.

Joe: When you came to the decision, was there consensus among the board and management about the decision?

Karen: Absolutely.

Joe: So, before we go on into post-IPO, let’s talk a little about what happened with the board. So, my understanding is that essentially they dissolved the board and then reconstituted it. Talk about that process because that’s very interesting.

Karen: Yeah. So, what I would say is that after we decided not to move forward, our board was intact. We were still a group, and this is all public information. There were two layoffs that happened within a span of a few months, and then we got an influx of cash about $335 million of investment for L Catterton who was part of the board and that investment really helped to shore some of our financial [00:15:00] footing because we were having some challenges with that.

Joe: How big was the newly reconstituted board after they finished?

Karen: There’s eight of us.

Joe: How many of those folks had been on the pre-IPO board?

Karen: I would say three, which includes our founder who’s the chair of our board now.

Joe: And he had been the CEO, moved over to be chair and you brought in an outside CEO

Karen: Scott Watterson, who built this amazing global company, was the co-founder, chairman and CEO. After our not to move forward with the IPO and the funding that came for from L Catterton after 40-plus years with the company, he decided to become chairman of the board and allow for there to be new management, which I understand was part of the plan that was going to happen, regardless.[00:16:00]

Joe: And was the new CEO from outside the organization?

Karen: Initially, we had two insiders from the company that became co-CEOs, and they ran the company for a bit, and then our new CEO, Kevin Duffy, who is this next era of leadership that we have, he did come from outside the company.

Joe: Fantastic.

Karen: And outside the industry.

Joe: Wow, Interesting.

Raza: Karen, the journey continues, as we mentioned in the intro that this went through in a compressed timeframe to a lot of things, maybe talk a little bit about the post-IPO attempt and the challenges that the company faced off to that.

Karen: Wow. Another sort of whirlwind in the sense that people had expectations in terms of colleagues, employees. They [00:17:00] had expectations in terms of what was going to happen, and so when we were looking at having to do layoffs because there were some liquidity issues, there was also the need to retain top talent, those who thought that they were going to be in a different future with iFIT. So, working to support the colleagues of the company, we had to be more focused, and so there was a need to look at the assets and determine if they were core, with real estate, determining if all of that was still needed.

So, a lot of critical decisions that were needed to ensure the company could continue to move forward, and tough decisions, but at the same time, there wasn’t division of the board. There was an understanding of wanting to make sure it could continue [00:18:00] to go forward and what we needed to do, we needed to do.

Raza: From there on, looks like it has been a turnaround effort. How is that working? Looks like in the bigger picture of the fitness industry, post-COVID era, companies have been coming back up

Karen: Yeah. We’re not dissimilar to a lot of companies, whether they be in fitness or otherwise, that had to readjust. I think a lot of people thought that this was going to continue, and so there was a lot of demand and hard to keep up with supply and we, along with others, found ourselves with more equipment in the system than when things opened up. People’s habits changed. They started going back out to gyms. They identified other [00:19:00] exercises they wanted to do and things of that nature, and so it’s been an adjustment, but with our new CEO and the team that he has brought on, we were very clear in our strategy. We had to stabilize the company. The company needed to perform and then to grow.

I remember there being board meetings where we would have these ideas, and it’s just, no, growth is not where we are right now. We are still under stabilizing the company, and so the excess inventory, finding ways to get rid of that and bring cash in selling at a discount. Not so much the treadmills and ellipticals, but we had dumbbells and things of those natures that needed to move out of the system. Making decisions, like I said, on real estate, and the number of SKUs in the system, looking at those and being critical.

[00:20:00] What I’m happy to say is that despite the overall industry being at a bit of a downturn, we have come through the worst of It, at least we hope we’ve navigated through the turmoil and at a new era. Really proud that in December of last year, we launched our first campaign on intellectual fitness and incredible machines, and it talks about the new era of iFit and connected fitness, and how we’re going to be using AI with our AI coach, which is now in beta, and I am one of the lucky ones that gets to use it, and so every day I have my AI coach that is talking to me about what we’re doing today or in the rest of the week and encouraging, and so personalized fitness is the way of how people want [00:21:00]to engage and to keep them coming back and staying on track.

Joe: How do you like your coach?

Karen: No, it’s funny. I do have a personal coach, but my AI coach, I think he knows me because the days that I don’t do what we said we were going to do that day, still there is a supportive nature to it and reminding me what my goals are, so instead of like beating me up, really sort of reminding me and encouraging me that it’s okay for today, we’re back at it tomorrow.

Joe: Yeah. Let’s see how long that goes.

Raza: That’s a good way of now talking about the brands and positioning that iFit has, and as I understand, the company is becoming a software company, a SaaS company, so talk a little bit about the various brands that come under iFit and the connected products that are coming up.

Karen: Certainly. [00:22:00] So, iFit is a integrated health and fitness platform, and what is great about It is you can use it in connection with iFIT products such as NordicTrack or ProForm, or you can use it in your everyday life. So, you can take it to the gym. Freemotion is our commercial product. So, if your gym does not have Freemotion, you can have the iFIT platform that really helps you to get through what your workout is for that particular day.

So, yes, we are integrated. There’s a subscription base, which is another thing, where, unless you have an annual membership, you’re paying monthly for the service, and so our library has 17, 000 pieces of content that that isn’t just in a studio, which [00:23:00] we have those, but where they are destination, so you can climb Mount Kilimanjaro from your iFIT platform. The other day. I did a walk in Nashville. I haven’t been in Nashville for several years in the development. It’s crazy, so I thought how cool might it be just to have a walking tour on my elliptical, and so these experiences are a way to keep you engaged while you are also achieving your personal health goals.

Raza: Karen, I want to go back to that critical decision for not going with iPO, how did the team manage not impacting the brand out of that decision?

Karen: That’s a great question. I would say that we would have probably damaged the brand if we would have moved forward, and so the management of it was having all the facts to help make the right decision and [00:24:00] certainly having strong, good communications that were used in announcing the decision that we are strong, and frankly, which carried the day. We said it was adverse market conditions, and if you paid attention to the market, you could tell that the market was not doing well, and so that allowed us to move forward. Then quite frankly, keeping the company running during this time was critical to also ensure that there was no disruption of any type to allow us to continue to move forward.

Joe: Yeah, that must have been challenging. I can’t imagine that, but it clearly sounds like you made the right call, and that you handled it extremely well, so congratulations on that. Let’s talk briefly about your work at Pfizer. You’ve only been on this board for a few years. You were at [00:25:00] Pfizer for over 20 years. Talk a little bit about your background and particularly the work you did with the chairman and the CEO.

Karen: Well, I joined Pfizer after leaving government, and my time there was mostly within corporate affairs where I worked in policy, government relations, communications, and the like. Pfizer is a huge company with a lot of opportunities, and so in 2008, our then CEO asked me if I would consider taking on a developmental assignment and being our company’s first chief diversity officer. I had been with the company nine years at that point, and the company was really struggling to have an integrated global strategy despite the investments of millions and millions of dollars and a lot of time and effort by our [00:26:00] executives, as well as our colleagues, and it would be an opportunity to do something different stretch to grow.

As I like to say, if I didn’t grow myself up in the process, be able to go back into corporate affairs and continue to do work globally. And that’s what I did, 22 months was the assignment, and we were able to have a global integrated D&I strategy where our focus was to use diversity and inclusion as a competitive advantage for our global company, and I’m really proud of the work and the work that the company continues to do to this day.

Joe: I want to just say congratulations to Pfizer for doing that in 2008 before George Floyd when everyone jumped on that bandwagon. By the way, jump on any time, nothing wrong with jumping on late, but congratulations to a mammoth company that decided making it a part of its [00:27:00] global strategy was important that far back and to you for getting through it because it could not have been easy.

Karen: It’s funny because I talk about this a lot publicly. I told our CEO at the time, all I know about diversity is being black and being a woman, but I was a quick study. I was someone that the company turned to on many occasions to help turn things around and I quickly learned that it was about not looking at diversity and inclusion as a standalone, but really looking to incorporate it into the systems within HR and within our business, and it was a great learning opportunity, but I was very clear that I was doing it for the company that I had invested so much time into, but not something that I would want to do anywhere else.

Joe: Finally there, you did work for the person who is the chair and CEO [00:28:00] during COVID, which I don’t think it takes a big leap to understand that had it been one of the most amazing, difficult, challenging, significant times in the life of that company as well as many others.

Karen: I retired from Pfizer in 2019, but I had the pleasure of being the corporate affairs lead to Albert Bourla when he was the global president for our then $34 billion innovative medicines business, and I got to know him very well, and he is a remarkable leader, and he is the type of leader that pushes you to know that you can do more than what you think you’re capable of, and so when the pandemic hit, he was and is the chairman and CEO, and I was not surprised at all at how the company moved forward because I know him as a leader, [00:29:00] and I believe to my core that no one else could have gotten that company to be able to have that level of impact in such a short period of time other than Albert Bourla and the team that he leads.

Joe: So, my comment to that is leadership matters.

Karen: Leadership matters for sure.

Joe: Last and definitely not least, some people might think we buried the lead here, but we wanted to talk about your role with the NAACP last to make sure we could focus on it. You are currently the vice chair. How big an organization is it, just so people know. How big is the board? And then i’ll ask you a few more questions about what is on your agenda right now.

Karen: So, yes, I’m vice chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors. We are 115-year-old civil rights organization. We have 2,200 units, branches, [00:30:00] chapters, within 47 states. We have a national staff of about 120 colleagues. Our budget is about $49 million and we are on the front lines of advocating for the advancement of colored people and colored people come in all colors.

Joe: Mm. Great way to say that. How big is your board?

Karen: Our board is 64 members, and we have a 17-member executive committee that meets monthly and does really the day-to-day, so to speak, of the organization.

Joe: We had an exchange earlier in which you reminded me that last week was the 70th anniversary of one of the most important decisions ever made by the United States Supreme Court, Brown v Board of Education, in May of 1954. You’re in the White House for this. In [00:31:00] fact, you’re in the Oval Office for this, so talk about the visit to the Oval Office, but also about that decision and how it continues to impact the work that you do and that a lot of people are doing around equality.

Karen: Yes. So, Friday, May 17th was the 70th anniversary of Brown v The Board of Education, and we had heard that the President wanted to also highlight this, and so we had been working for almost a year on a big celebration. We had a whole program at the Smithsonian, did a program with the Legal Defense Fund. It was very special where we were able to bring together the descendants of the litigants of Brown to the White House to meet with the President, and all I can say is, it is a moment I will never forget and [00:32:00] it’s not just about being in the Oval Office with the President, but it was being there with these family members who had made so many sacrifices.

I think that when a lot of people think about Brown, they think about it being for little black kids to be seated next to white kids, but it’s much bigger than that. It was about the facilities and kids having access to an education that was one that was not segregated, where they had new facilities and new books and those sorts of things.

What we know to be true is that in many instances, even though segregation is no longer legal in many of our school systems, there is a lot of places where students are not in a [00:33:00] school system that is being properly funded, and so I would just say there’s a lot of work still to be done around education and in this space, but that groundbreaking decision is one that we have to continue to keep front and center as we look to have education policy that ensures that all our children are educated and provided opportunity to succeed and to thrive.

I would also just note that we also had members of the Little Rock Nine also part of this past weekend and to hear their stories of trying to get an education and all that they went through, some of which we saw in pictures and read in books, but to hear from their mouths what they went through in the building, in the classrooms, I mean, it was truly riveting.

Joe: Well, we’re often reminded how important it is to understand history. And it is [00:34:00] kind of amazing to me that separate but equal was the law of the land until 1954. That’s not that long ago. Karen, it’s been amazing speaking with you today. Thanks so much for joining us on On Boards.

Karen: The pleasure has been mine. Thank you so very much for this opportunity and wishing you all the best.

Joe: Thanks so much. And thank you all for listening to On Boards with our guest, Karen Boykin-Towns.

Raza: Please visit our website at OnBoardsPodcast.com. That’s OnBoardsPodcast.com. We’d love to hear your comments, suggestions, and feedback. And if you’re not already a subscriber, please be sure to subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and remember to leave us a five-star review.

Joe: Please stay safe and take care of yourselves, your families and your communities as best you can. We hope you’ll [00:35:00] tune in for the next episode of On Boards. Thanks