It’s early evening at a five-star hotel in Accra in Ghana, where a group of delegates from the European Union and Ghanaian government are meeting to discuss bilateral trade agreements. In the elegant lobby, an attendant mans the helpdesk, trying to resolve the queries of agitated guests who seem unimpressed with the long queues.
At one end of the room, a group of camera-toting journalists saunter aimlessly waiting for an opportunity to snap Ghana’s economic power brokers as they arrive.
Shortly after 7.30PM, the vice president of Ghana strolls in with his security detail and in one stroke, the lobby is bustling, flashes pop like corn and requests for sound bites are hurled in the air.
As the frenzy reaches a feverish pitch, we leave the commotion and make our way past an impressive art piece of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, part of the collection of over 1,500 pieces of art in the hotel. Our destination is the fifth floor where we meet Bozoma Saint John, Silicon Valley darling and Uber’s Chief Brand Officer since last year.
Hired to turn Uber back into a brand people love, Saint John has a daunting task ahead. The company has been hit with a number of scandals and allegations which led to the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick last year, and the #deleteuber campaign.
In South Africa, Uber drivers have had several clashes with taxi drivers prompting the company to hire private security forces to protect them.
On meeting her, thoughts of Saint John’s herculean task are replaced with impressions of her imposing yet warm personality. Towering at five foot eleven, even without her pink stilettoes, which she teams with a silver jumpsuit, braids and earrings made of Ghanaian Adinkra symbols, her presence is hard to ignore in any room, which can surely be an advantage in the male-dominated corporate space.
“So a good friend of mine called me to come to the Consumer Electronics Summit in Vegas saying they were having a cool kids’ dinner and he needed me to be there. So I stroll into the dinner and Arianna Huffington is sitting there. She looked at me and she said you are the most interesting person in the room right now, what is your name? She told the CEO of JP Morgan Chase who sat next to me to get up and she sat down and said tell me everything about yourself and that is how our friendship started,” says Saint John.
That conversation with Huffington (a founder of The Huffington Post) led to an introduction to Kalanick in Huffington’s home in Los Angeles.
“At the time Uber was going through a lot of challenges and she was on the board and she asked me what would I do. I told her about my experiences taking Ubers and she said you should meet Travis Kalanick. She invited us to her house and what was supposed to be a meet and greet turned out to be a whole day of conversation and brain-storming ideas.”
And the rest is history. Saint John’s list of qualifications, which includes the former head of Music and Entertainment Marketing at PepsiCo and head of marketing for Apple Music, made her the woman for the job. She is one of the few black women to land a senior position at a billion-dollar company. For Saint John, that comes with both positives and negatives.
“If you want to shine like a diamond, you have to be willing to get cut and there has been lots of cuts along the way, in small ways and in big ways. The small ways are about the micro aggression, the comments people make about you and the doubts about your talent; the assertion that your greatness is by accident. It takes a toll on you and your spirit and your self-confidence.
“So having to constantly remind yourself that I am actually talented at this and I do this better than anyone else. In the beginning, people will often remark like, ‘you celebrate yourself so much on Instagram’, but I’m like who else is going to do it? Then all of a sudden, other people start joining the bandwagon and praising the work I do and I’m like ‘I told you I was great’,” says Saint John.
The big cuts along the way have been the most life-changing for Saint John; like losing her husband to cancer in December 2013, four days before his 44th birthday.
“I had never considered that we could die early. It was only six months between his diagnosis and his death so it was not enough time to prepare. Our daughter was only four years old. After his death it really shook me. I was afraid because I did not know if there was ever going to be a recovery in my confidence. Not confidence in work because I knew I could do the job but confidence in life.”
But she turned what was her worst day into her best asset and developed a new philosophy in life.
“It absolutely lit a fire in me to say that, we don’t know how much time we have and I am going to be great today. I am not waiting for 10 years or 15 years to be great; I am going to be great right now. All the dreams have to happen today, not tomorrow!”
It is that philosophy that Saint John brings to her daunting role at Uber while challenging the world via her Instagram page to #watchmework.
“Uber is facing several challenges but I think the addition of Bozoma who happens to be black, a woman and an immigrant is a very strategic move by the brand to help fight some of the negative publicity the company faced last year and that worked. Obviously it helps that Bozoma is an accomplished marketing professional who has a solid track record with some of the world’s prestigious brands,” says John Tawiah, an economist in Ghana.
For Saint John, this is more than a job. It’s about sending a very clear message to three distinct audiences.
“The first is my daughter who I really want to embody for her, what a role model can be. I hope she is going to see the things that I do and that become The Normal for her and she will do better than I have. The second audience is African women and black women. That we can show up as ourselves and still succeed. We don’t need to be like anybody else and I can show up in cornrows, weaves and still be able to let my work speak for itself.
“We talk about cultural appropriation all the time so I find it important to send that message. We need to see each other and know it is ok. The third audience is to show the world that there is an inner intelligence beneath this exterior that we have and you are in charge of your own success.”
Saint John is no stranger to hard work and breaking boundaries. Her innovative ideas at PepsiCo led to the company’s foray into the music festivals and big deals with powerhouse celebrities like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. In spite of the media buzz and speculation about Uber’s future, the lady who calls herself “superexecumummy” is ready to roll up her sleeves and show the world just how great she is, today.