Saint John’s new role as chief brand officer for Uber makes her a unicorn in Silicon Valley: She’s one of the very few black female C-suite executives in tech. But to earn her place in the pantheon, Saint John has overcome challenges that would have stymied most mortals.
When Saint John was five years old, a coup d’etat forced her family to flee their native Ghana and seek political asylum in the States. They ultimately settled in Colorado Springs, and Saint John developed an encyclopedic knowledge of all things pop culture to make friends. Landing a job with Spike Lee’s advertising agency after graduating from Wesleyan University (where, as an undergrad, she taught a course on Tupac Shakur), she went on to develop a relationship with Beyoncé that eventually resulted in Saint John initiating a complex $50 million deal for Pepsi to sponsor the singer’s 2013 tour and the 2013 Super Bowl halftime show.
But Saint John’s professional triumph was accompanied by personal tragedy; her husband died of cancer that same year. Needing a change, she jumped to headphone company Beats. Shortly thereafter, Apple acquired Beats, and Saint John became the head of global consumer marketing for Apple Music and iTunes. Now she’s on to beleaguered super-brand Uber.
I caught up with her, one week into the job, at Uber’s Santa Monica office to talk about her inspirations and outlook for the future.
GLAMOUR: Your larger-than-life persona projects authenticity and confidence. Most people try to blend into their environment. Were you always this comfortable in your own skin?
Bozoma Saint John: When we moved to Colorado, there was nothing I could do about the color of my skin, my hair, or my height. Embracing [my differences] was important to my mother. We spoke our native tongue and ate native foods. It didn’t matter if on Friday nights I had my 15-year-old friends over for a slumber party, she was not serving pizza: “You’re gonna eat pepper soup and like it!” Those were good lessons about accepting your full self, being able to be comfortable. And being the authentic me always got me attention. Sometimes too much attention makes you a target, but you take the hits and push forward.
GLAMOUR: How do you make tough career decisions and know when to make a move?
BSJ: I’ve never taken the easy route. I don’t even know what that is! You have to think about what you’re trying to achieve and then make the move. I always [make decisions] from my gut and follow the path that’s right for me. I’m following the path that was destined for me.
GLAMOUR: After you accepted the Uber position, attorney Eric Holder released a scathing report on the company’s leadership and culture, a board member resigned for making sexist remarks about women to Arianna Huffington, and CEO Travis Kalanick resigned. Did you have any regrets about taking the job after you heard the news?
BSJ: I did my research to understand the brand potential and what I was going in to. All the things [I discovered] were OK for me, and I knew I could make a difference. There’s no more exciting moment for me as a brand strategist than a turnaround.
GLAMOUR: As Chief Brand Officer, you will have to change the internal culture and shift the perception of Uber in the marketplace. Where do you even start when faced with a challenge this huge?
BSJ: As the chief brand officer, my primary responsibility is to create and navigate the brand of Uber, externally. So it’s really about assessing what the brand is today and then figuring out a way to connect what is emotional and human about the brand—the drivers and riders and the cities that we’re in—to our customer. So [I’m] coming at it from both ends, from both a human standpoint to connect those emotions to the end user, as well as being an example myself for company culture. The way I behave, the way I interact, the way I live in my life is going to be as important as what I do in my daily work. I’m part of the community and the culture. So I’m going to be a part of what is going to be the future of what the company looks like.
GLAMOUR: Did you speak with women at Uber about what needs to change?
BSJ: I talked to a lot of people. I want to impact the environment for the women working here and for myself. We want to make sure women feel empowered, safe, and excited about their work. And being a change agent means being fearless. Uber will never be the same after I leave.
GLAMOUR: How have you dealt with sexual harassment issues in your own career?
BSJ: There have been times when I felt someone was unclear about the intention of a dinner or a drink. We often find ourselves talking business in social situations with a male colleague and [that person] wants to take it someplace else. We all know networking will help us move ahead. But being firm and clear about the “no” and my intention has helped me.
GLAMOUR: As a black woman, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced? Have you been mistaken for the help, like Mellody Hobson [the African American president of Ariel Investments, who said she was presumed to be a kitchen worker at a business lunch]?
BSJ: I thought all black girls had that, no? It happens in the airport constantly. Every time I board [business class], it’s like, “Oh, are you sitting in the right seat?” I make sure to keep my boarding pass out just in case somebody has a question.
GLAMOUR: Speaking of challenges, how did your husband Peter’s death impact your mind-set and career choices?
BSJ: We were married for 10 years. When he became ill, I was just hitting my stride. We’d just finished Beyoncé’s Super Bowl in New Orleans, which was a career highlight for me at that time. Then I came home and six months later Peter was dead. My whole life crumbled; our daughter was four at the time. My career and our lives had been built on a vision of what we wanted for the future and that did not include sickness and death, even though those things were in the vows. Who looks at the future that way? You’re planning for all the great things. At the end, [Peter] made me promise I wouldn’t stop hustling. It was a beautiful gift because it gave me permission to keep going. You’ve got to make the big bets and live every single moment of it. Who cares if it scares you? What is life except risk? Because we don’t know if tomorrow is promised.
GLAMOUR: What does being a C-suite executive mean for you as a single mother? What do you hope your daughter learns by watching you.
BSJ: As a mom, I want to be an example to her that you can do anything you want to do. All of the numbers and stats would tell you that [my career] is not possible, right? But it is possible. Of course it’s possible. You can be smart enough, you can be savvy enough, you can be quick enough. For me, this is a really triumphant moment. I think this is a moment that I hope she points to later in her life and says, “Well, my mom did that.”
GLAMOUR: You’re an advocate for women. How important is your circle of friends?
BSJ: I love that meme: Behind every successful woman, there’s a group text hyping her up. Well, my group text is full of badass broads cheering me along!
GLAMOUR: Do you have a philosophy that you apply to your personal life and your career? What are your career commandments?
BSJ: The major one is: Bring your whole self to work. I think it’s really important even now as I sit in this seat because bringing your whole self is a very human thing. This is not the resume, this is the stuff that makes you, you. It’s what makes your story interesting and unique. Bringing your whole self to work is the mantra for me as I sit in my office and do the work, and it’s also the mantra as I look out at the community that I’m trying to brand for Uber. It’s about the riders and the drivers and the cities and making them human.
GLAMOUR: And what advice do you have for a woman struggling to find her voice?
BSJ: Be your whole self. If there’s an opportunity to share an idea or, hell, even to dress up for the office, be your whole self. That’s the example I’m living for my daughter and other women. Being everything I am—that’s magical, and I want everyone to see it.
Speed Round! Interview Tricks From Badass Boz
Prep for the interview. “Do the research. Keep the answers short. Keep the answers honest—we can always follow up. Know the business cold.”
Psych yourself up. “Play music. Listen to a little Beyoncé. She’s gonna tell you girls rule the world, so go ahead and run it.”
Know your worth. “Give the [salary] number first and make it high as hell. You know what the range is. How can they lowball you after they know what your number is?”
Cultivate allies in the company. “Make friends. Go out with people. Talk to them about work stuff but also nonwork stuff.”
Credit: Amy DuBois Barnett/ GLAMOUR