Bozoma Saint John — “Badass Boz” on social media — never considered herself a “tech person.” Growing up, she was a super-social kid obsessed with music. But at 40, she’s used that love of pop-culture to become one of Silicon Valley’s biggest power players, moving from a music career to being the head of global consumer marketing for iTunes and Apple Music, where she had her first viral moment leading the crowd of techies at the 2016 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in a chorus of “Rapper’s Delight.” Now she’s facing a tougher crowd. Saint John recently left Apple and started a new job as Chief Brand Officer at Uber — a contentious move during a time when Uber is coming under immense criticism as a brand. The widow and mom to an 8-year-old daughter shares how following her gut and never following the given advice has landed her at the most exciting part of her career.
My family moved a lot so I was always walking in as the new kid. I was born in Middletown, Connecticut, while my dad was getting his PhD in ethnomusicology and anthropology at Wesleyan University. Six months after I was born, we moved to Ghana. The first five years of my life were there. In 1982 when there was a coup d’état, my family left because the government was overthrown and my dad was involved in politics. We moved to Washington, D.C., and my dad joined us there a little bit later after he served some time in political detention. We lived in Orange County for a little bit, but my dad really wanted to return to the continent, so we moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where I was for three years, and then eventually moved back to Ghana, where I was for another three years. Then we moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, when I was 12, which is where I feel is home to me.
The only way I could connect with my classmates was to understand what was happening in pop culture at the time. I remember having to go to the fall dance in November and I’d only been in the country for a month. Since I was a black girl in Colorado Springs, people expected me to dance like a professional or something. I also didn’t understand the music of the time. We were listening to highlife in Ghana. I came to the U.S. and, like, Taylor Dayne, Michael Jackson, and Paula Abdul were it. So I would turn on my MTV and study the videos — it was real. I’d watch videos, and I’d listen to songs again and again until I knew the lyrics.
At the time, I was listening to early hip-hop, like Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and Public Enemy. My mom didn’t like that tape too much because it was like, fight the power. We’d already been in a political battle and so my mom was very sensitive about what revolution actually meant. It’s something very different to be in the ruling party and then be overthrown in a coup d’état, and then come to a country where people are oppressed and looking for revolution. To her, those were very serious messages. For me, I was just a kid trying to fit in.
As a first-generation American, my parents expected that I would go on to have pretty tactical higher-education-type jobs — doctor, lawyer, engineer. Those were the three options. My dad was not at all open to the idea that there would not be a higher education in my future. There was a desk in my room, there was a study time after I got home and enforced quiet time. If you finished your homework early, you picked up a book and you read it.
I went to Wesleyan as a pre-med major knowing full well that I would go to medical school. But my interests were more in the entertainment and social. I took an intro African-American studies class my first year of college. It was especially interesting because it was the time of Rodney King, the L.A. riots, and the O.J. Simpson trial. There was so much strife and civil unrest. Given the fact that I’d grown up in a house where politics and social disobedience and civil unrest and all of those things were constant conversation, I was very interested in what the riots in L.A. meant, and what it meant for African-Americans in the country to feel oppressed and take it out on society. This wasn’t the act of people who didn’t care about their neighborhood — it was an act of defiance.
It was in that class and at that time that I first thought of culture as an academic pursuit. I had a lot of interest in music, particularly Tupac Shakur. I knew there was a class at UC Berkeley being taught on his lyrics and I really desperately wanted a class that could talk about the cultural influence of his lyrics at Wesleyan. I asked a professor to teach the class, and he said he didn’t have time, but he would support me if I campaigned to teach it myself. So I did. I taught it for three semesters, with a waiting list.
Back in Colorado, my parents had no idea I was teaching this class or what I was doing on campus. All they cared was that I had As in my biology and organic chemistry classes. I was still pre-med and taking a full course load in the English and African-American studies departments. And my social outlet was throwing parties in the Malcolm X house basement on campus. I would charge for them and bring people in. I helped bring Jay-Z to Wesleyan in, I think, 1996. It wasn’t that well-attended but I was really excited. And now, of course, I can sit here and say, “I brought Jay-Z to the campus,” and that sounds really impressive.
I still didn’t actually think that I was going to pursue anything cultural as a career. I was just doing it because I loved it. I fully intended to go to medical school. I took the MCAT, I applied to schools. I went all the way until my senior year of undergrad, when I was like, you know what? I actually don’t want to go to medical school.
The way that I rationalized it to myself, and to my parents, was to say I needed a year between graduating from college and going to med school to explore New York City. I didn’t want to go back to Colorado Springs. I only knew one person in New York. She agreed to let me sleep on her couch for three months while I looked for temp work.
I started getting really involved in the office because it was a small office at the time, SpikeDDB. I would call my parents and tell them about the people who would come into the office to meet with Spike. They were really impressed, and they liked that, but still, every once in a while, my dad would say, “So what are we thinking about med school, what’s happening?” Then finally, getting to the end of that year, I had to break it to them that I wasn’t going to go.
That call went terribly. It was difficult because my parents were concerned about my future and I wasn’t. I was concerned about my present. I’ve always been concerned with my present and not really the future. I don’t make five-year plans. I don’t make pro and con lists. I go with my gut.
I didn’t have a plan. I was out in the clubs all the time. I was in studios and modeling a little bit for friends who were artists and designers. I was just doing everything in culture I thought was interesting but I didn’t know it could lead to a career. I just knew I made friends easily, as evidenced by my childhood. I became that person in the office with Spike who was the social connector. Because I was young, I became the source, kind of the plug, which gave me confidence. I felt like I was really contributing to the business and what they were talking about. That’s been an ongoing thing. I’ve always been the plug, regardless of the job that I was in.
Eventually I needed something secure, I wasn’t going to medical school and I couldn’t sleep on my friend’s couch anymore. I needed real money. So I asked for a job with Spike. It was the scariest thing of my life. I didn’t eat breakfast that day because I knew my stomach couldn’t handle it. I practiced my speech a million times at home and on the train to work from Jersey City where I was living. I almost threw up when Spike walked into the room. I made a list of the reasons why I would be a good permanent addition to the team. I knew that I wanted to tell him how much I should be paid, which has served me well since, by the way. I always make the first offer. I know that’s counterintuitive, and that the advice is not to do that, but I do that because it worked well that time, and it’s worked well ever since. I got the job and I became the office coordinator.
Spike was pitching the Pepsi business. This was at the time Beyoncé was coming into her own after leaving Destiny’s Child. I’d watched MTV’s hip-hopera, Carmen, that Beyoncé starred in and I thought she was brilliant. Now, of course, we look back and we’re like, “Oh, Beyoncé, of course!” But she was taking a risk coming out of a very successful girl group, she wanted to act, she wanted to have a solo singing career. As we were talking through the ideas at the agency, my idea was to use Beyoncé as the star in the Pepsi commercial, because she can be Carmen. It’s current! It’s fabulous! That was one of the ideas that went forward to be presented and it won. That was the first time that I worked with Beyoncé.
I worked with Beyoncé five times on five different projects in 10 years with Pepsi. I feel this parallel to her because she was coming into her own and so was I. At each juncture, there was more and more and more confidence in both of us — stepping into your own as a woman, being able to express yourself fully realized with your power.
I still keep in touch with her, I think she’s magical! I also really respect her because she works really hard at her craft. I think sometimes people mistake success with luck and that’s not true. She’s worked really hard for the success that she has and so have I. I continue to work really hard for it. There are some ideas that I’m thinking about now that kept me up last night. There’s never a moment where I can just sit and hover. I’m as interested today in the things that are happening in pop culture as I was when I was 12, trying to fit in in Colorado Springs.
After a few years with Pepsi, I had my daughter and then went against my gut to take a marketing job with a fashion brand geared toward plus-size, African-American women called Ashley Stewart. I quit after a year. Then I came back to Pepsi [as head of music and entertainment marketing] for years, and toward the end of my career there, in 2013, my husband died. He was diagnosed with cancer and died within six months. I was 36 and my daughter was 4. It made life very mortal. I’d felt invincible until that moment. When you’re in the early blushes of your career, and you’re thinking about your life in long-term, you know you don’t consider some of these mortal things that could happen. Or at least I didn’t.
There’s a fearlessness that came with that experience. I thought, The handcuffs are off, I have to go for it. Don’t think about it, don’t make the pro-con list, don’t agonize over it for six months, because my husband was diagnosed and died within six months. There is no time. It inspired me to get moving. Quite literally across the country to Los Angeles, and to a job with Beats Music that, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure I was ready for.
I went to Beats in April of 2014, and by June, Beats was acquired by Apple. Starting Aug. 1, 2014, I was an employee of Apple. And two years later, I was giving my presentation on Apple Music at WWDC 2016, which is the one people were so surprised by. I don’t think I’ve ever said this but I was really shocked by the celebration of my presentation at WWDC 2016, if I’m being totally honest. I just felt like I’m moving through this world as me, so why would what you saw on stage be a surprise to you? You could get that on a regular Tuesday in my office. That’s not something to be celebrated.
I think they were surprised to see the full me. I’ve said this a lot — you should bring your whole self to work. I had my curly afro on full display. Big. I was wearing a pink dress that was tight-fitting, so you could see my womanly curves. I spoke in a way that I speak to my girlfriend on the phone. But those are things that come naturally to me. To bring that fullness to the WWDC stage was surprising to me that people were surprised I would do that.
I do think it’s very difficult, especially for women, to break out of these expectations that are set for us. There’s this expectation that you can’t cry at work but why the hell not? I will cry in an office. That’s OK. My emotions sometimes overwhelm me and they need to come out of my eyes. Or if I get angry at something or I get frustrated by something, my voice will rise. And it’ll probably hit a pitch that’ll hurt your ears and that’s OK. I don’t have to be monotone and match a lower baritone in order to be effective. I feel things passionately and deeply. It makes my work better.
I was once told, by someone who probably thought they were giving me good advice, that I shouldn’t wear red lipstick or red nail polish to the office. Those are too bold of colors, I’ll send the wrong message. And now I get designs on my nails, and I wear green eye shadow because I like it, and I bring even the fullness of my Ghanian heritage to the office because that’s important. Representation matters and my global experience matters. When I’m wearing my African print skirt, I don’t see that as not corporate wear. I’m fully here and 100 percent of everything that I am. And that’s a positive thing.
Less than a year after the WWDC presentation, and after three years at Apple, I came to Uber [as Chief Brand Officer this June]. I feel like I’ve been slowly been making the transition to something like this for a while but I probably started thinking seriously about it once I started reading about some of the challenges that were happening with the brand. [Editor’s note: Immediately before Saint John started at Uber, the brand faced criticism for ignoring a taxi strike during President Donald Trump’s travel ban, alleged sexual harassment and misconduct at corporate headquarters, a viral video of then-CEO Travis Kalanick fighting with an Uber driver, and Kalanick’s resignation.] Being a student of pop culture and a branding, and marketing nerd, I started thinking about what I would do to help change the story.
I haven’t gotten any professional criticism for taking this job. I think most people think it’s a great product so people understand why I would come to Uber. The questions are a matter of if I can do it. It’s really exciting, though, because the potential is so big. I know the pieces are there and they’re good, they’re solid. So how do you put that together in a new way? Perhaps it was put together in a different way, and now I can take that apart and put it together differently, and get a different outcome.
It ties back to the moment I had when my husband died, which is that I want the future. I am obsessed with it. My 8-year-old daughter is the future. There’s very little that she doesn’t interact with in tech, and so she understands Uber, she can pick up my phone and get an Uber — though she’s not getting in one without me just yet, but she can do it. So she doesn’t know anything about any other stories that are being told. She doesn’t know any of that — all she knows is the product. And she loves it. So when I approached her about taking this job with Uber, she was like, “That is so cool.” That is all I needed. Forget anything else. She thinks the product is cool, I think the product is cool. Done.
The key of it all, for life in general, is that you can’t depend on other people’s opinions of you or your work to validate what you do. That’s a straight shot to nightmare. I just follow my gut. My gut told me that this job was for me. Other people’s opinions don’t matter, I’m going to do the good work. You shouldn’t try to explain your rationale for doing something to someone else because you’ll probably talk yourself out of it. Go with the feeling, go with the emotion, go with the passion. Everything else will follow.