The widespread use of alkyl boronic acids and esters is frequently hampered by the challenges associated with their preparation. We describe a simple and practical method to rapidly access densely functionalized alkyl boronate esters from abundant carboxylic substituents. This broad-scope nickel-catalyzed reaction uses the same activating principle as amide bond formation to replace a carboxylic acid moiety with a boronate ester. Application to peptides allowed expedient preparations of α-amino boronic acids, often with high stereoselectivity, thereby facilitating synthesis of the alkyl boronic acid drugs Velcade and Ninlaro as well as a boronic acid version of the iconic antibiotic vancomycin. The reaction also enabled the discovery and extensive biological characterization of potent human neutrophil elastase inhibitors, which offer reversible covalent binding properties.