Bozoma Saint John on Leaving Apple for Uber & Being a Woman of Color in Corporate America

Bozoma Saint John
Courtesy of UBER

Bozoma Saint John

Following her rock-star appearance at the 2016 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple's global head of consumer marketing, Bozoma Saint John, immediately became one of the most vibrant faces of Apple Music and increased its presence, along with Beats, in pop culture.

Noteworthy accomplishments from the marketing exec -- whose 20 years of experience have included stints at PepsiCo and Spike Lee's SpikeDDB -- include working on the viral Taylor Swift and Drake workout spots as well as the Ava DuVernay-directed ad starring Mary J. Blige and actress Taraji P. Henson. The streaming service also bulked up its membership to 27 million paid subscribers since its June 2015 launch during her three-year tenure.

Now, the marketing queen is tackling a new journey as the chief brand officer for car transportation and food delivery mobile service Uber. On the day the San Francisco-based company announced her hiring (June 6), Saint John spoke with Billboard about her decision to leave Apple Music, the importance of diversity in the workplace, and how she plans to conquer her role at Uber.

What attracted you to this opportunity at Uber?

That's a heavy question to start. [Laughs] I'm just excited. I think Uber is in an exciting space right now in the world. The brand is one that certainly has a lot of potential, and for me, a marketer who enjoys pop culture and spaces that are really growing and exciting, I want to be a part of evaluating and changing and shaping a brand that is really important to pop culture. So here I am.

How did you feel about leaving Apple Music?

I love Apple Music. I helped build Apple Music. It will always be a very, very big part of my life and part of the journey. But it's time to do this.

What are some of the skills you learned at Apple Music that you plan to apply to your job at Uber?

That's a really good question. I feel that all of my experiences across my entire career, whether they were working with Spike [Lee], being on Madison Avenue, Pepsi, Apple, Beats, all of it is about pop culture and honing the skill and the craft that's connecting both messages together. So I plan to bring that fully to Uber, because obviously, heading up all the brand momentum and the storyline for Uber means that I have to find a way to connect all of the pieces of pop culture to this very important service. And so that's really what I'm going to be focusing on.

When you say pop culture, do you mean music as well?

Oh yeah, all of it -- music, movies, fashion, art.

You worked on many music projects while at Apple Music. What is the accomplishment you are most proud of?

I am really proud of the work that we all did together at Apple. Launching Apple Music and having it grow to the size that it is now is something I will always be proud of. That, in and of itself, is a monumental task. To me, those are accomplishments I carry with pride.

What would you consider to have been your biggest challenge in that role?

There's certainly lots of challenges. The business continues to constantly move and change. It's a very fluid type of conversation, always, with [launching] a service that you have to explain to people and bringing it to the forefront in a way that is easy and tangible. I don't think of anything really as a challenge. It's more of an opportunity to change the way that consumers interact with something. It's the same thing I want to do here [at Uber] too.

Uber has an alliance with Spotify that allows users to be backseat DJs. How do you plan to incorporate your musical connections at Uber?

We all know this: Music is such a fundamental part of life. I want to make sure that we're connecting all of those same emotional inputs that we have with music in this service. This might be funny, but I think Uber is magic; you look at the products, and it's literally magical. So for me at this point, it's about taking what is a service that people actually love to use and crafting the right brand story that connects that to what can be the future vision for what Uber is going to be.

When you did an interview with Billboard at last year's Women in Music event, you cited your daughter as an inspiration. Did she factor into your decision to leave Apple Music and join Uber?

Oh absolutely. And thank you for asking that. That's actually really important to me. I think more than anything, there's always a lot of talk about diversity and women and the role of women in corporate, and there are lots of stats and things rolling around. But to me, I come home and look at my daughter every day. She is the one that I answer to, and I want her to see me achieving in a way that inspires her as well. So it's not just for me that I do this; it's so I can be a beacon for her as she grows and develops and looks at the world. I want her to see that it's possible. Being a black woman in America and the world and in corporate situations is something to be celebrated. So all of those things are a factor when I think about what I do with my career and how I behave in the world.

Does the presence of minority women at a company weigh into your decision about working there?

I wouldn't say it helps weigh in on the decision, but I do think it's important. I think diversity and having women and people of color in key positions is really important. Obviously, I've been a black woman my whole life. I don't have have any other experience. [Laughs] I think I can contribute in major ways. To have the opportunity to do that is really important and I think more should be given those roles and opportunities.

What kind of narrative do you hope to build around Uber?

Well, we're gonna get started on that. Quite frankly, we haven't yet begun the work of getting the strategy together. But in the meantime, I can say that my track record has always been the human story and putting people first. I always think that's the best way to go, so when I look at the story of Uber and what has been told already, I feel like the best place to start is with people. Drivers are very important, riders are obviously very important, [so it's about finding] what the connections are between those two and how we can present it to the world in a way that will connect all of those things together in a very human way.

Was there a particular Uber campaign that really resonated with you?

I wouldn't say a particular campaign, but I know what the potential is. I think my own personal experiences with Uber are something that I feel like we could tell; sometimes, it's like focus group of one. You get your own experience and go from there. Actually, a little over a year ago I was at SXSW and there was an Uber driver that I actually shared an amazing moment with. There was this guy who was ready to see Iggy Pop, and he was telling me about how excited he was and really needed to save his money to go see him. Incidentally, I was on my way to a meeting with Iggy Pop; I told him that and, of course, he jumped up and was excited -- we literally had to pull the car over. I said, "Well, you wanna be my date? You want to come with me?" Literally, he parked the car and we went in together. It was great.

So to me, it's almost full-circle. I'm sitting here a little over a year later and talking about how to bring those stories to life -- that's part of what I want to do, which is that the stories and the daily connections and the journey are really important. And I want to be able to communicate that.

What are you going to miss about the music world?

Honestly, I don't think I am missing anything. I don't plan on leaving anything behind. I haven't actually thought of it that way. I'm bringing it all with me. It's a lot to unpack, but believe me, I'll be doing all of that.

During the past few months, Uber has dealt with backlash that's sparked a campaign against them. What steps do you plan to take to turn the company's image around?

Well, again, I do feel like the company has been so focused on growth -- it's grown so dramatically over the last few years. The leadership team and the business has been focused on growing it. The fact that this is the first time for an appointment such as [my role] is really important and it's telling of the future of where Uber wants to go. So I plan to help craft that vision in where and how and how much of the story that will be told.

From a marketing standpoint, is there something you're excited about doing that you haven't done in your previous roles?

See, that's the challenge. I wake up and think about that every day -- that's what really ticks for me, keeps me going. What can I do today that either hasn't been done before, or [how can I] take an old thing and evolve it into something else? It's part of what makes me a change agent -- that I'm never satisfied with the status quo. I want to change things constantly, so I'm excited to get my hands into it, roll up my sleeves.

What do you hope to bring to the table at Uber?

I don't know -- I think that's the beauty of it, right? It feels like the Wild Wild West. We're pioneers, and I am ready. I've got the tools. I'm ready to go and set out on this and see what is to come. That's the excitement of getting into this space, which is that I really don't know what exactly we're going to be trying to overcome. I'm certainly very versed in the path, what the challenges are, so I'm going in with eyes wide open. But I'm also giving myself the permission to be nimble and quick and change things as quickly as we need to.

And by the way, I have the full commitment and confidence of the leadership team that I'm going to be able to do that -- and that's also part of the reason why I am excited. It's like, listen, we're going to need to do things. It's going to be fast. It's going to be hot. I bring as much passion and excitement to this job as I have to every other job I've had, so I'm gonna need the trust and faith to move what I need to move -- and that's what I plan to do.