Uber’s new chief brand officer is probably the most visible woman in Silicon Valley right now, and she gets asked a lot about her personal style.
Bozoma Saint John is credited with maintaining a strong personal brand beyond her work identity. That personal brand — her clothes and shoes play no small part in it — is something that the public can’t seem to get enough of.
Clothes and shoes were among the first things Saint John talked about this month at the Black Enterprise TechConneXt Summit 2017 in San Francisco. Moguldom was there:
“I learned early on that it didn’t matter if I tried to look the part, I still wouldn’t be given the opportunity,” Saint John said. “Well then I was like f*** that, why am I even trying? So then I thought, I might as well do what makes me feel good. Once I started dressing my part, I felt more powerful and comfortable. The ideas, thoughts, opinions I had flowed more freely.”
Saint John left a high-profile job as an Apple executive to go and work for Uber, one of the world’s most recognizable — and troubled — tech brands.
Uber has been under fire for toxic company culture and management practices, including building a workplace hostile to women. Saint John’s appointment as chief brand officer is expected to inject some diversity in Uber’s leadership.
Saint John’s commanding stage presence and charismatic personality make her a good pick for the company. Uber faces a slew of challenges including sexual harassment allegations.
With a strong following on Instagram and Twitter, Saint John may be Uber’s clever way of saying: “All eyes on me. I am the new Uber.”
Saint John talks about being part of a movement and moment — one where “diversity needs to be elevated because people are being taken to task over it.”
She says she is going to be part of that conversation. “You better believe I’m not going to shrink from that. I’m going to use that opportunity. I’m gonna deliver.”
As for the clothes? Saint John dresses to make herself feel good, she told the audience at the TechConneXt Summit:
“There’s enough that I face every day that does not feel good,” she said. “So I get up in the morning and go, “What’s going to make me feel happiest today? Today it was these beautiful red stilettos. Know what I’m saying? (audience applause). I’m having a meeting with our CEO later today about the future of what we’re going to be branding and I need to feel fabulous. I put these bad boys on.”
Here’s more from Saint John’s Tech ConneXt interview with moderator Everette Taylor, CEO of PopSocial:
Do you feel pressure as the most visible woman in Silicon Valley right now?
Bozoma Saint John: It’s not just about being the most visible in Silicon Valley but being the most visible in a boardroom, or being the most visible in a meeting. You have responsibility voicing for an entire group of people and the opinion, or idea or comment then reflects on a larger group than just you. My only objective in being this visible is I want to continue to prove the point that we can actually do this. That it’s OK to look this way and still get the job done.
I’ve never seen anyone like you in the Uber offices. How does it feel?
Bozoma Saint John: My expectation was very different from the reality. I (started in June at Uber). There was a big cloud around the company. My expectation was gloom and doom. What I found was that people were really receptive. It might have been the first time in my career where I walked in the door and I was celebrated. For the first time in my entire career, people were like, ‘Yes, thank you so much for coming.’
Do you feel people finally felt they would have a voice?
Bozoma Saint John: Yes and I think it was a collective of the employee population — not just people of color — who felt that me coming in with the voice that I have, that I would be able to tell the stories differently, which is what I’ve been seeing from the beginning. Over the course of my career, I have tried very hard to make sure that our stories are being told. This is the time to tell those niche stories. Now we’re in a particular moment where diversity needs to be elevated because people are being taken to task over it. You better believe I’m not going to shrink from that. I’m going to use that opportunity. I’m gonna deliver.
When you go into Beats, it’s like wow, there’s black people here. It shocks you. You were at Beats early in your career. How do you see yourself making Uber a diverse and inclusive place?
Bozoma Saint John: We can talk all day about what diversity means in the room, in the decision-making seats and all those things, but obviously it shows up in the business. What Beats proved is that you could use culture, and still sell a really successful product. (Beats) became a poster child for a long time for how you can use culture to sell anything. Earlier this year it was identified that hip hop was the most sellable genre of music. We know that. It has been that way. Even as I was making the transition to Uber that was one of the first questions I was asked: You built a career in entertainment, in music, in film. Why are you leaving that? And I was like, ‘What do you mean? I’m not leaving that. You think when I walk in the door, the culture just leaves itself outside? That’s not what happens. I plan to bring that firmly into this room, and into all the stories we’ll be telling. The culture’s coming with. It’s a bonus to this package.”
Before you came in, Uber got a lot of negative publicity. A lot of people were turned off. For a while, I said ‘Forget Uber.’ A lot of people have a love and passion for Uber. And then y’all dropped the Uber ride pass in L.A. — $6.99 to ride anywhere. Why should we, especially as black people, give Uber a chance?
Bozoma Saint John: I was at Apple, fairly successful, great prospects if I stayed. If Uber’s going to be in the spotlight and stand for things that are wrong — whether it’s Silicon Valley or corporate culture altogether, sexual harassment, any of those issues — then I want to be part of the fix. I want to turn Uber around. I don’t know that there’s any utopia for us. If this company Uber that has been vilified can turn it around, then so can anyplace else. There’s no excuse. That’s why I’m here and I hope that with the efforts I’m putting forth and that the rest of the executive team is putting forth that we’ll win people back. (And then) no one else will have the excuse to behave badly. (applause) Plus you know I gotta win. The black girl gotta win.
Early in your career, you worked with Spike Lee. What is your favorite Spike Lee movie?
Bozoma Saint John: He’s gonna kill me. “She’s Gotta Have It.”
You obviously have amazing style. Where do you derive your fashion inspiration or fashion expression?
Bozoma Saint John: I dress to make myself feel good. There’s enough that I face every day that does not feel good. So I get up in the morning and go “What’s going to make me feel happiest today? Today it was these beautiful red stilettos. Know what I’m saying? (applause) I’m having a meeting with our CEO later today about the future of what we’re going to be branding and I need to feel fabulous. I put these bad boys on.
Saturday night, you hop into Uber. The Uber driver passes you the aux cord. What do you play?
Bozoma Saint John: I’m gonna listen to some Tupac. Get some variety.
You’ve overcome so much diversity from being a widow, single mother, being an African American woman — how do you deal with diversity? What words of wisdom do you have for people who are going through struggles with mental health?
Bozoma Saint John: 2013 was one of the hardest years of my life. I experienced such high highs. In January I worked with Beyonce on the Superbowl halftime show and that was such a win for us. A black woman hadn’t been on that stage since Janet and we worked very hard with the NFL to get her on that stage and then she just slayed it. I felt invincible. You could tell me nothing. And then in May, my husband was diagnosed with (cancer) and 6 months later he was dead. The bottom fell out. Mortality was not in my plan. It felt really impossible. My daughter was 4. It was probably one of the greatest lessons. It strengthened my faith. I know that there is nothing I can’t recover from. it also taught me humility and it taught me the biggest lesson — that I can’t do this by myself. I need help. Especially with black women, we take on so much and we do it quietly — well, some women are not so quiet about it. But what I do differently is ask for help. By the way, do you want to babysit? It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help.
Question from the audience: A lot of us in the room have experience trying to show our true selves in the workplace and been told “you’re too aggressive, you need to smile more, calm yourself down.” As someone who is very unapologetically themselves, have you always been that way?
Bozoma Saint John: I have never received a good (workplace) review. The reviews are always about how loud I am. It’s always been about something else, not about the work: “You’ll advance faster if you just…” And then I left. My mother says every pot has its lid, and sometimes the pot you’re in is not your pot. If I hear that kind of feedback again and again and again and again while I’m delivering on the goals and objectives that have been previously set and we’re not talking about the work, then I must go.