The Rise of Boz Bozoma Saint John shares her climb from answering phones for Spike Lee to revolutionizing the Uber brand.
the rise of boz Pop-culture savvy, unparalleled drive and a sparkling personality put this fierce mom on a path like no other.
Only someone with serious confidence and smarts would step in to help improve a company during peak controversy. It’s why the move from Apple to Uber, amid sexual-harrassment and unequal-pay allegations at the ride-hailing giant, was exactly right for brilliant, brazen Bozoma Saint John. “I’ve always been a black woman in corporate America. I’ve faced my share of issues,” she says. “It’s important not just for the individual but also for the corporation to address any concerns. I want to lend my voice as part of the workforce.”
And what a voice it is, now that she’s honed it. She used to think she had to prove her intelligence. She even joined an ad agency with a pharmaceutical client, thinking people might take her more seriously if she ventured out of her pop-culture niche. These days, that job doesn’t make her impressive LinkedIn profile (p. 15).
After graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and then working in its admissions office, Boz (rhymes with “pose”) headed to New York City. A temp agency placed her as entertainment mogul Spike Lee’s assistant. Her can-do attitude caught her boss’s attention; her big ideas kept it. She went on to make many omniscient moves, like identifying Beyoncé as an icon before the rest of the world, putting her in commercials on behalf of Spike DDB and Pepsi. And she recognized that plus-size women of color wanted bolder clothing
options. Above all, she learned to harness pop culture’s power to propel brands forward.
What we can’t see from her LinkedIn profile, or her brightas-the-sun personality, is a chain of heartbreaks that could push even the most stoic professionals out of the workforce. Instead, those tragedies spurred her unique, country-crossing career.
Losing a Child
Boz met advertising executive Peter Saint John in the Spike DDB building cafe in 2000. By 2003, they were married. And by 2008, they were expecting their first child. “I was so excited, buying all the things, getting ready. People would say I had that glow.”
But Boz’s flushness was actually a symptom of severe preeclampsia, a life-threatening pregnancy condition. At seven months along, while working at Pepsi, she wasn’t feeling well. On-site nurses discovered that her blood pressure was dangerously high. Boz rushed to the hospital. There, she was forced to deliver her baby girl, whom the couple named Eve. Sadly, Eve didn’t survive.
“When you go through a traumatic loss, you might want to run from it. I focused,” Boz says. “I took some time to physically and emotionally recover. I got great doctors who understood my specific challenges.”
Boz and Peter stayed determined to become parents, and through a lot of counseling, were able to conceive again. That next pregnancy, though, was really difficult. Boz required daily injections and went on bedrest at five months.
At 30 weeks, around the same point she had delivered Eve, she gave birth to another girl, Lael. “It was harrowing but also the most comforting experience, thanks to my work community. They carried the work I couldn’t do and allowed me to take care of myself.” Lael pulled through.
Stylish Boz’s Pepsi colleagues would ask her: “Why are you selling soda? Why don’t you work in fashion?” So she applied her marketing experience to a leadership position in the clothing-design world. It turned out it wasn’t the right, well, fit.
When her daughter was just about a year old, Boz went back to Pepsi with a new concept: to start an in-house entertainment division to plan pop-culturedriven commercials and sponsor artists’ concerts. Boz was freelance at first because neither party was sure it’d be successful. Soon enough, it was full-time.
That career high coincided with devastating news: Husband Peter was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma and wasn’t responding to treatment. He passed away in December 2013.
Just two months later, music exec Jimmy Iovine, of streaming music company Beats, invited Boz to his home in Los Angeles. “I went straight from my sister’s bridal shower, in tulle and frills. I needed the future to pull me forward out of my grief.” The single mom relocated to join the Beats team. Apple acquired Beats soon after, giving Boz the spotlight she long deserved.
I want to be the change so my daughter can accomplish more because I existed.”