Bozoma Saint John ’99 is a marketing executive with her own brand. In July, Saint John was profiled in the New York Times’ Style section, where her popular Instagram account, fashion prowess, and rapturously received presentation at Apple’s Worldwide Developers’ Conference (where she got a room full of mostly middle-aged white men to dance to “Rapper’s Delight”), were on full display.
However, the spotlight on Saint John might grow increasingly harsh in the coming months. The former head of Global Consumer Marketing at Apple was hired in June to be Uber’s first Chief Branding Officer. While it’s still the most valuable startup in the United States, Uber has been accused of just about every form of corporate malfeasance in the past few years, including allegations of sexual harassment in their corporate office, a Department of Justice investigation into potential foreign bribes, applying a software called Greyball to hide from law enforcement officials, stealing trade secrets, and exploiting their workers. Their former CEO and founder Travis Kalanick stepped down in June after investors demanded his resignation. All things considered, the company is clearly in need of an overhaul, and one of Uber’s first steps was hiring Saint John to mend their bruised reputation.
But is improving Uber’s brand the same as reforming the company’s illegal or immoral practices? Will Uber use Saint John’s own celebrity to obscure the challenges it faces? Can she actually change the way the company interacts with its employees and consumers?
The Argus sat down with Saint John to ask her about how her Wesleyan experience informs the person she is today, the personal connection she forges with the brands she markets, and her goals for Uber.
The Wesleyan Experience
The Argus: What was your most meaningful moment at Wesleyan and how did it shape you as a person?
Bozoma Saint John: I don’t know if there’s just one, to be honest with you. But first, having the freedom to write my own destiny. I came in as a pre-med major and then took an AFAM [African-American Studies] 101 class in my first semester of freshman year that changed my life.
If there’s anything I can point to, the one thing that changed the course of my life was that class, which opened my mind up to new possibilities and new ways of thinking. It allowed me to really consider that there were other options rather than the ones my parents had set out for me. It was taught by [Benjamine Waite Professor of the English Language] Ashraf Rushdy. I love that guy.
A: In what specific respects did you think you changed from your freshman to your senior year?
BSJ: My time [at Wesleyan] really just solidified what I could do on my own when I tried things I never could do before, outside of academic pursuits actually. So, for me, it meant really coming into my own from a social standpoint. In high school, I grew up in Colorado, and while I was pretty social [growing up], [being at Wesleyan] was the first time I could actually be in charge of things.
Whether it was my dance group, or throwing a lot of parties on campus, or joining the women’s collective–I also taught a course. There were a lot of things that were very entrepreneurial about my time at Wes that also gave me the confidence that I could do anything.
A: You mentioned that you were pre-med, and I know you were planning to attend medical school before you convinced your parents to let you take a year off after college to become a temp [Saint John started at the advertising agencies Arnold Worldwide and Spike Lee’s Spike DDB]. What did you learn about yourself when you decided to chart your own course, and how did you deal with the concept of doubt after making a very different life choice?
BSJ: I had my degree, and it felt like I would always have something that I could “fall back on,” that wonderful phrase our parents like to use. That year after college was really good for me as well, because I certainly had a lot of doubts, I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I needed a moment to really consider whether I wanted to spend the next twelve years focusing on becoming a doctor. Or, I wanted to find out if I could make a living off of what had already proven to be really successful ways of being at Wesleyan. So the concerts I threw, the fashion shows I was apart of, all those things added up to something very, very different than the world of medicine. And I wanted to see if I could do it in the real world.
A: You taught a class on Tupac Shakur when you were a student. How did that come about and what kind of preparation went into planning that class?
BSJ: The professor I went to first was Kirichi (sic), he taught American Studies. My request of him was that he would teach the class because I hadn’t thought that I could teach it. And he said his course load was too hectic, but that he would sponsor me if I wanted to teach it. And I would just need to get approval from the dean’s office, which I thought was an impossible task. But I put together the syllabus and the rationale for the class, and what the objectives were, and I went to the dean with the support of Kirichi and they approved it.
So then it becomes an elective, one that people could find out about in the regular course of signing up for classes, but we held it in the evening. It first started in my room, I think in LowRise. And then the class got bigger so we moved in the common area of HighRise, which is where I taught it for, gosh, two years. Four semesters in total.
A: You taught this on a repeat basis to different groups of students?
BSJ: Oh yeah, it was a recurring class, and it was great because it was another proven point that you can set your mind to something and get results. The class eventually got a waitlist and became too big for me to manage. If a student didn’t show up like two times in a row, they were dropped from the class, which became my rule (laughs).
The beautiful thing about the class was you didn’t actually need to be there from the beginning to contribute to the subject matter, which was Tupac lyrics as poetry. It was more theoretical in nature anyway, so you could really jump in and contribute.
Uber’s New Chief Branding Officer
A: How much of your job is trying to change the culture within Uber versus changing the perception that others have of Uber as a company? How do those two goals relate to each other?
BSJ: As to the first part, I have really esteemed colleagues whose job it is to do that who are in HR and other areas of leadership. My role there is primarily as an employee and a contributor to the community. So, my main function and objective is being a good corporate citizen, and behaving the way I want to be treated every day, and standing up for the things I want to change. For the perceptions outside of Uber, that is my job, to work on the brand and how it integrates into pop culture. And how to tell the stories of drivers and our riders in perhaps a way that hasn’t been told before. And things like product features and new developments and innovations are really exciting to me because we can create a great story so that people can understand what our product is at Uber and how it is effective in interacting with pop culture.
A: How do you think your previous experience at Apple will inform the work you do at Uber? Will this be a very different role for you?
BSJ: Not so much actually. I consider both Apple and Uber to be really innovative companies, and both really in the center of pop culture, and so for me, there are a lot of similarities. And again, it’s less about just the music industry and more about pop culture in general. Sports, fashion, film, art, and music, of course, but all of those things were a part of my job at Apple as well, and I’m using all of those things to get into the storytelling of Uber. We can bring pop culture into the app, whether it’s because you want to turn on your favorite music using the platform when you get in the car, or you’re using the service to get to a game or a show or anywhere. There’s a lot of ways we can connect more closely with what’s happening in culture every day.
A: Uber’s chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi is also new to the company. What have your conversations with him been like and do you think he shares a similar vision?
BSJ: Well this is like day three for him, so I want to give him a second to breathe, he needs to get his badge working, and all of that (laughs). I don’t want to pressure him yet, but he’s definitely as excited and passionate about Uber’s next step as I am. I’m really thrilled and obviously, he has such a tremendous track record, even just in the last twelve years at Expedia.
A: What’s the project you’ve worked on in the past few years that you’re most proud of or that says the most about your marketing style?
BSJ: Gosh, that’s hard, it’s like trying to pick your favorite child. Eventually, you insult someone. The one that has touched me the most was probably working with [Lady] Gaga at the end of last year. She was coming out of a really tough period in her music career and coming out with a big album that was really personal to her. She came to my office at Apple and played the music for me. And it’s no secret, we’ve both talked about it publicly, we both started crying, and it was really emotional. It was a moment for us both to connect on something much deeper than marketing charts and sales. It was about how music makes you feel and how to express that to people. And recently, I’ve been so excited and invigorated by this challenge at Uber. There are 16,000 people who work at the company, who are every day making strives towards the future. And I just want to help. And I think it’s a really amazing opportunity to recall this brand narrative and make sure our wider audience understands what we are doing it, and how we are doing it, and that there are really passionate and great people working on it.
A: In your New York Times interview, you said that when you were growing up, the brands that were most powerful were people like Madonna and Michael Jackson. What happens when you’re working with an artist, and you don’t share those kinds of personal moments like you did with Gaga or may not really have any kind of chemistry with them at all?
BSJ: That’s a really good question. As a marketer, the reason why you’re able to do this type of job is that you can find a great story in everything. There’s nothing that has no story or is boring. To me, that is always the challenge of being presented with an idea, or a concept, or music. Or in this case at Uber, like a new feature or a driver, there’s always something interesting to say. And being able to tease that out and tell the right story so that other people can see it, is the talent of marketers. That’s what I’m so excited about every day. Make people see the things they may have missed. So, for me, I’m really excited about that, and there are rarely times when you can’t find that in anything. That will be a big challenge for me. If on the first try I don’t see it, like the old adage says, you try and try again.
Aaron Stagoff-Belfort can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.