Chaka Burgess’ career as a lobbyist in Washington is guided by a simple maxim: “Be community focused and understand what you’re doing impacts, and has the potential to impact, many more people who come behind you.”
During an interview with Politic365, Burgess provided us with a little insight into the life and mind of the man who serves as the director of federal government affairs for Amgen, the world’s largest biotechnology company.
A member of an elite group of Beltway Insiders who happen to be black, Burgess takes seriously what he feels is an obligation to do good and do well in the communities he serves. “Part of what I enjoy is being able to put myself in places that other people can follow,” he says. And follow later generations certainly will, as Burgess is blazing a new trail for himself and has climbed the latter of success in uncharted territory.
While currently tasked with lobbying House Democrats and the Obama administration, Burgess also actively seeks to represent the interests of patient groups, doctors’ groups and patient care associations. He also heads Amgen’s health disparities program.
Prior to joining Amgen, Burgess worked with Eli Lilly doing similar work for the pharmaceutical company. He formerly worked at the National Medical Association managing their health policy and medical legislation division, and he oversaw several grant programs, which enabled him to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of health disparities and what is needed to overcome them.
“I always knew that I was interested in the kind of work that I do,” said Burgess. But growing up, Burgess like many would-be power players in the political realm, didn’t know that his current line of work even existed. “Had I known then, what I know now,” he said, “I would want to do something like what I do now.”
“It was a process. I didn’t stumble upon it exactly, but in the process of finding my way through my career, I discovered my niche,” he said. Burgess notes that there were not then, as there still are not today, many lobbyists of color upon whom he could model a successful career path. “It’s not something where you can mold a career after anybody, necessarily. You don’t have a lot of people you can emulate in order to find your way in this field,” he said.
Although Burgess did not have many role models, finding his niche came naturally. “I’ve found over the years that if you have a passion for politics, and for how politics influences business and how business influences politics, then it’s a good place to be,” he said.
That passion for politics and policy is what lead Burgess to pursue a career in an industry where not many people look like him. “You experience a lot of the challenges that you hear about people of color in corporate America experiencing every day,” said Burgess of lobbying. “But specific to this career path, there are a couple of issues, one is being able … to be taken seriously as a lobbyist first; as a lobbyist who happens to be black, rather than a black lobbyist, but on the same terms, and not shying away from your blackness.”
As Burgess aptly notes, in the government-relations industry, black faces are few and far between. Part of his driving force is not only to be a credible representative for the interests he’s trying to promote but also to build relationships in places his industry typically has not gone. “Part of the opportunities of being a black lobbyist is being able to speak with groups that were not spoken to or taken seriously in a real way,” he said.
Burgess considers fondly the impact he’s been able to have with the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus, making sure that those important groups have their issues heard and their concerns addressed.
Burgess’ drive is totally informed by his perspective of where he sits in the world, and it’s that perspective that has enabled him to be the successful person he is today: “Understand that you stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said, “and to whom much is given, much is expected.”