Reflections on an interview with Uber’s Chief Brand Officer Bozoma “Boz” Saint John

on February 7, 2018
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Last Thursday I had the great opportunity to attend an event titled “Driving Change” at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View where Verge Editor Lauren Goode masterfully moderated over an hour long conversation with Uber’s Chief Brand Officer Bozoma Saint John.

Like many, I had been blown away at Apple’s Developer Conference in 2016 when this force of nature that is Bozoma Saint John walked onto the stage and was able to instantly captivate the attention of a room full of geeks and press. Self-proclaimed “badass Boz” became the face of Apple Music and to some extent helped Apple shake off that “all white male” image.

When Saint John took her role at Uber as Chief Brand Officer, I wished her well given the mess Uber was in and how much work it would require turning the brand around. It is not often that in tech you see a Black leader and even less so a Black Woman as a leader, and Saint John, while she has her work cut out for her, has the opportunity to be the mastermind of such a big brand turn-around.

When my husband flagged this event to me, I put it on the calendar straight away. As a tech analyst, I was eager to understand more about the Uber culture, her role and how she planned to make a difference. I also happen to have a biracial daughter. So as a mom, I look for opportunities for her to see and meet smart, driven, successful women and women of color in particular. This event was a great double whammy!

Needless to say, I  got what I was hoping for and then some!

Saint John made several interesting points on marketing and branding one of which was about measuring success. When she was asked how she will measure success, she said she would use all the available data such as net promoter scores and brand affinity. However, she believes more in softer measures like “being proud of walking to the store wearing an Uber t-shirt.”  While this might seem like a warm and fuzzy kind of answer, I think it is precisely the kind of measure Uber needs.

While I was interested in what Saint John had to say about marketing and branding, I was particularly looking forward to listening to her views on diversity in tech. Here are some of my takeaways.

On Diversity…

There were so many good points made in the conversation. As I was listening to what was being discussed, I kept on thinking about the fact that the room I was in was the most diverse audience I had been in since I moved to Silicon Valley six years ago. Undoubtedly the most diverse audience I have seen at any event that was directly or indirectly related to tech. My daughter had never seen so many black women in one room, and it was empowering for her. Their participation in the room and on Twitter told me that aside from marketing and tech, they were there for leadership and inspiration. This speaks of the need for diversity leaders we can identify in. Diversity leaders who can show us that there is room at the table for people like us. Of course, this does not stop with gender and race. Representation is crucial.

When it comes to tech companies, Saint John said it is shameful how few black employees there are. Changing this issue, she argued, is not the sole job of a diversity officer, more often than not a person of color. The responsibility of driving diversity rests with the CEO and the whole management of a company. As I was listening, I could not help but think she was referring to Apple, which might be unfair on my part. Tim Cook has been a very vocal advocate for diversity, but while the numbers within the company have been growing, they have been doing so at a very slow pace. Yet, Apple is ahead of many other tech companies which is what is most discouraging. Hiring practices must change to see a significant impact. If you are trying to diversify your work force and your talent pull remains Silicon Valley, things will not change. Tech must broaden its reach when it comes to talent pull and must support schools and organizations across the US to work with kids from minority groups, so they have a chance to get into tech, grow their talent and get ready for the job market. Such work must be done with a sense of urgency and higher goals should be set for what is considered success. One percentage point increase in lower paying jobs is not what companies should be aiming to achieve over a year.

Another fascinating point Saint John made was about the great responsibility minority leaders have on their shoulders. They get judged for who they represent: women, Black, gay, Muslim…But this is not how any white person is judged. I am sure that for any minority person reading this article I am stating the obvious but this might be news to others. I am fortunate, I only have gender to contend with but I often think how something I do or say would reflect on other women. But the reality is that I am me and, for good or bad, there is nobody else like me so why should I feel responsible or made to feel accountable for a whole group of people?

On Being Yourself…

“If you say something, own it! Don’t add LOL at the end of your strong statement to soften the message” said Saint John to a member of the audience who signed her question “impatient black woman LOL”.

I know I do that all the time, especially with male colleagues, clients, and peers, the verbal equivalent of “just kidding” that I add at the end of a criticism, or an opinion just so that I do not come across as threatening. I think many women do this, independent of the color of their skin and we really should stop worrying and starting owning what we say.

Maybe the best message that could have been given to my daughter and any young person who looks or feels different from the status quo was that it is ok to be different. Not only it is ok to be different, but if you are in an environment that does not allow you to be yourself, you should not be there. You also should not fit a stereotype that others have created for you so they feel safe.

I was not sure how much of what was said on stage sunk in with my daughter. Meeting Lauren and Boz at the end of the night was for sure the highlight of her evening. On the way home, though, as I asked her what she learned and she said: “I learned that is ok to be me and that I am not everybody else that looks like me I am just me.” I smiled and kept on driving, pride oozing from every pore.