Bozoma At Goldman Sachs: ‘I’m Pissed Off But I’m Going To Rise Above It’

Written by Dana Sanchez

For anyone who has been in the audience when Bozoma Saint John is speaking, the second thing you notice after you get over how totally she dominates the stage is how energized she is. Not so much a hyper, over-the-top energy (although she can do that too) but the sense that she’s pissed off, and that’s part of what’s driving her.

It’s like she’s summoning deep wells of resources from her experience in the world, and she’s using her voice as a laser pointer to get the message to you.

Uber’s chief brand officer, Saint John has the difficult job of trying to get people to love a company that dominated headlines in 2017 for exemplifying some of the worst excesses in Silicon Valley culture.

To that end, Saint John is trying to reframe the stories people tell when they talk about Uber, and she’s doing it with her voice — a brand unto itself — pulling from her own history in popular culture.

In a recent Goldman Sachs video interview, Saint John talked about how pissed off she gets when people express shock about the level of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley and inequality in corporate America:

When I got the job and I started having conversations around sexual-harassment, I was really shocked at how shocked people were. I was like ‘I’m sorry, did you not know this was happening?’ Like is this a brand new conversation? Like really we didn’t know that? How is that possible? So I had to get over my attitude and use this as a moment to move forward. That was a conscious decision for me and that was tough because I was so upset, almost offended by it.

If you’re going to ask me how I feel about this moment then you haven’t been paying attention. Do you think I became a Black woman yesterday? In corporate America? Did that just happen? You don’t think I’ve been dealing with this for the entirety of my career? I’m pissed off but I’m going to rise above it.”

Here’s more from the Goldman Sachs video interview with Bozoma Saint John, interviewed by Kim Posnett, global head of internet investment banking at Goldman Sachs:

Goldman Sachs: What are you doing to improve the image of the Uber brand?

Bozoma Saint John: I come from a history of pop culture. I have worked most of my career in some form of entertainment, whether it’s music or entertainment or sports. It’s not possible to separate that from brands, especially not today. Not with social media. For me it’s very important to connect Uber to those pop culture spaces. it’s not just about the utility of getting to those spaces. You want to go to a concert. You want to go to your girlfriend’s house to have some wine. What is the conversation happening between those spaces?

(Saint John is an experienced driver or at least she said she thought so until she got in the driver seat of an Uber Pool).

Let me tell you something, when that little ding goes off that says you have a passenger who is waiting for you and they’re two minutes away and you’ve got to go find them — you’ve got to figure out who the hell they are, pick them up, and you don’t know what kind of energy they’re bringing into your space — and then drive them someplace following the navigation, and most of the time they know better how to get to the place you’re going then you do, and then having to ask them if they want something to drink, is the temperature OK? i]Is my hair in your way? I don’t know what I’m doing. I was so confused. The pressure was so in enormous. I was terrified. I drove for about three hours. I made some money. I wanted to understand what that was like. Unless you feel what it’s like — the real pressure — you won’t be able to solve for that problem. It was an adventure.

Bozoma Saint John, chief brand officer at Uber. Image: Goldman Sachs

Goldman Sachs: Tell us what brand value means today?

Bozoma Saint John: Brand value is — from a product standpoint — can you imagine your life without it? That is some real value — if you cannot imagine going back to the time before the other. Value is non-tangible. Do you trust it? Are you in love with it? Do you depend on it? Does it give you access into other things that you did not have if you did not have the product? It’s probably the latter that I’m trying to work on and shape because it’s really the intangibles that are going to make us the force that we desire.

Goldman Sachs: Travis (Uber founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick was fired by the Uber board) leaving was a big moment. Now there’s a much bigger conversation going on about corporate culture. What is it like for you to be a Black woman in corporate America given all these conversations on diversity, equality, sexual-harassment?

Bozoma Saint John: This is a turning point moment … If you’re going to ask me how I feel about this moment then you haven’t been paying attention. Do you think I became a Black woman yesterday? In corporate America? Did that just happen? You don’t think I’ve been dealing with this for the entirety of my career? I’m pissed off but I’m going to rise above it … I’m going to use this moment to push us forward, truly step on the gas. To me this very moment is that. Let’s just gather the forces. If we are excited about this, if there’s movement about this, I want everyone to step on the gas, and use this moment as a catalyst to make some significant change. It is about representation.

Goldman Sachs: You’re an important role model and you dare to be unapologetically different. You dare to be yourself. How should people in the audience think about that as they build their own careers?

Bozoma Saint John: It became apparent to me pretty early that the only way I could create a noise was to bring different opinions, thoughts, ideas to the rooms I was in. Trying to be what other people expected was not going to work for me. Maybe I’m not a great enough actress. I couldn’t bring all my ideas and authentic ways while trying to be somebody else. There was only one option: be myself. It was really terrifying. It still is, unfortunately, a surprise when you see somebody who’s a little bit different from the rest, but it’s really quite important. It’s also about being an ally if you see someone in the hallway who’s a little bit left of center.

Maybe you’re comfortable with what has been seen as stereotypically successful, but maybe someone else isn’t. If you’re a manager, (try) to encourage that difference. In my work I didn’t always get good reviews. My work was always reviewed well but I did not review well. It was like, ‘If you would just turn it down a little bit you might be more successful.’ I needed colleagues.

I’m really grateful to those people who, along the way, have been encouraging to me. There’s this guy at Pepsi — Zach Harris (senior director of marketing). We came into the company around the same time. He is very beloved, a golden child. He gets promotions. Zack is the guy. I was the opposite. Zack would constantly applaud my ideas in meetings. One time I showed up to a meeting with these leather pants that had spikes on the side. I was feeling it that day. (Zack was supportive.)

Goldman Sachs: You worked with Spike Lee, Tim Cook, Zach, and many others. Tell us the qualities of the most dynamic leaders you worked with?

Bozoma Saint John: Most of them have been very focused almost maniacally on people — the connections between people. Even Spike quite famously keeps a really tight circle around him and when he makes you the object, that’s it. You’re in for life. The most successful people I’ve met have been very deep in their relationships. When you’re talking to Ariana (Huffington) she makes you feel like you’re the only person that she ever talked to in her life. That’s a really important quality. It also creates that loyalty. Dara (Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s new CEO, was hired in August 2017 to replace Travis Kalanick) has that. He has that a ton.

Goldman Sachs: What are your hopes and dreams for 2018 for Uber, Silicon Valley and Bozoma.

Bozoma Saint John: I want people to wear the Uber sweatshirt. I want people to be proud to wear that brand of logo. For the Valley, I want more diversity. I want it not to be a surprise when you find interesting people in the Valley — that there just doesn’t have to be this one stereotype, that there are success stories that can be told. I want more of that.

For myself, I want world domination baby. I want to just continue to show up as myself, bigger and badder than ever. It’s also the responsibility of those who have “made it” to serve as a reminder that we are not done. There’s got to be more. There’s got to be accountability. I’m not it. I am not the end of the road. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. For those who have made it, it is the responsibility of those people to remind us that we are not done. The road is not anywhere near complete. We have to push forward and get more.