The enormous crystal chandelier that hangs in the foyer of Bozoma Saint John’s Los Angeles home gives a dramatic first impression, but it’s no less dramatic than the homeowner herself. Almost six feet tall in bare feet and wearing her signature bright prints with matching fuchsia lip gloss, Saint John (Boz to her friends) is every bit as striking giving a tour of her new home as she was onstage being honored as Executive of the Year at Billboard’s 2016 Women in Music awards last winter.
When asked about the hot pink curtains in her master bedroom, Saint John, 40, a woman whose résumé name-checks her tenure at some of the world’s biggest brands, explains her reasoning. “I’ve worked hard for my life,” she says. “No one gave me anything. This house is a reflection of that. It belongs to me and to [my daughter] Lael, so I can make it as feminine and bold as I am. Because I can!”
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.
Read her complete interview on Glamour.