Meet the CMO who made her mark at Apple, Uber and Netflix

In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about the people they turn to for advice and how those people have shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. Previous episodes of the series are here.

In the summer of 2020, Bozoma Saint John landed a dream job as Marketing Director of Netflix Inc.

The streaming giant spends more than $2 billion a year on marketing. Entertainment “is my sweet spot,” she says.

The company, based in Los Gatos, Calif., is the 10th largest employer and sixth largest industry during Ms. Saint John’s long career. Prejudices often led to previous job changes, she says.

“I hit a wall or a ceiling, and I couldn’t break through,” she continues. “As a black woman, I had to work a lot harder to be successful.”

The self-proclaimed “badass” is now Netflix’s top black executive.

Supportive mentors reinforced Ms. Saint John’s strong determination to move on. “My personal board members played the role of helping me trust my instincts,” she says.

Organic Bits

  • Age: 44
  • Education: BA in English and African American Studies from Wesleyan University
  • Family: Daughter Lael, 12 years old
  • Secret skill: Expert seamstress who made everything from skirts to curtains
  • Management Mantra: Bring your whole being to work, even if it’s sequins or burlap
  • Fun fact: Contrary to popular belief, I’m not big on everything. My favorite ice cream is pure vanilla
  • Height in heels: Four inch stilettos are my favorite…which makes me 6’3″
  • Superpower you wish you had: Teleportation

The 44-year-old executive, often nicknamed “Boz,” was born months before her father completed his doctorate in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. His parents, then Ghanaian citizens, returned to Ghana during his childhood. .

Ms. Saint John moved to six different communities before she was 13 years old. As a high school student in Colorado Springs, Colorado, she interned with an obstetrician and considered becoming a doctor.

She also loved pop culture, but thought her hobby was “not something to be taken seriously”. Ms Saint John reconsidered her medical career goal after being inspired by an African-American studies class during her freshman year at Wesleyan.

Armed with a degree in English and African-American studies, the 1999 graduate was hired as an administrative assistant at Spike DDB, a New York advertising agency run by director Spike Lee. She was surprised when he accepted her recommendation that rising pop star Beyoncé Knowles should appear in an ad for PepsiCo. Inc.

“If he had chosen someone else, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now,” she observes. Ms. Saint John realized that her ideas could count and that “the pecking order doesn’t matter”. She eventually became a senior account manager at the agency.

In 2005, she joined a Pepsi unit as an assistant brand manager in multicultural marketing. While she was a marketing manager there years later, she helped organize Beyoncé’s 2013 Super Bowl halftime appearance and an elaborate Pepsi introductory commercial.

Ms Saint John attracted even more attention once she became Apple Inc.

Head of Global Consumer Marketing for Apple Music and iTunes.

She took an unusual approach when describing Apple’s revamped music streaming service at its 2016 developer conference. “It was really scary,” she recalls. “My style was so different.”

Ms Saint John urged the predominantly white male audience to sing along to ‘Rapper’s Delight’ as she rocked out to the hip-hop hit. “Some of you don’t rap to the beat,” she chided the men in the audience.

His next stint – as chief brand officer for Uber Technologies Inc.

– didn’t last long. Hired in June 2017, Ms Saint John stepped down after a year.

She and Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi disagreed on whether improving customer service should be the ride-sharing giant’s top priority, she said. “We just didn’t line up.” A spokesperson for Uber declined to comment on his brief tenure.

She then held the top marketing position at Endeavor Group Holdings Inc.,

an entertainment company known for representing the greatest talents in Hollywood.

Afterwards, “joining Netflix was my biggest marketing challenge,” says Ms. Saint John, who reports to co-CEO Ted Sarandos. “I market so many completely different titles and individual messages.”

To complicate matters further, the Netflix newcomer underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis in her first week. She returned to work from her bed a few days later.

His most valued advisers are:

Brett O’Brien

General Manager of Gatorade at PepsiCo Inc.

The Pepsi executive recruited Ms. Saint John because he had been one of his Spike DDB clients. He first supervised her at the large food and beverage manufacturer.

She doubted, however, that she would succeed. Unlike many Pepsi peers, the rookie assistant brand manager didn’t have an MBA.

Mr. O’Brien reassured her: “My background didn’t matter. I could do anything,” continues Ms. Saint John. His confidence in his abilities inspired at least one of his other moves in the industry.

He says he also urged his protege to “keep doing you.” A larger-than-life person, “Boz lets his passion shine through,” says O’Brien. She didn’t “need to tone down that passion to fit perceived corporate standards”.

Arianna Huffington

Founder and CEO of Thrive Global

The leaders met in 2016 at a consumer electronics show. Ms Huffington, a member of Uber’s board of directors, eventually proposed that Ms Saint John consider leaving Apple for Uber.

“She needed to be somewhere that would let her full personality shine through,” says Ms Huffington. And “Uber needed its special freebies.”

The entrepreneur connected Ms Saint John with then Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and backed her candidacy. He interviewed her at Mrs. Huffington’s home in Los Angeles.

Mr Kalanick quit shortly after Ms Saint John joined, following months of scandal and setbacks at Uber.

Luvvie Ajayi Jones

Author, speaker and CEO of Awe Luv Media

Ms Saint John asked to be introduced to Ms Jones in 2014 because she was impressed by his pop culture commentary on her blog. The couple have since become fast friends.

“Luvvie always encouraged me to keep causing trouble,” says Saint John. His attorney proved particularly helpful when the executive left Uber in despondency.

“Am I just looking for trouble everywhere I go?” Ms. Saint John remembers wondering. “I don’t always want to be the one disrupting just because I walk through the door. It’s exhausting,” she continues. “Sometimes I just want to fit in.”

Ms Saint John should continue to create the best problems and transformative change because she ‘can’t fit in, even if she tries’. Ms. Jones argues. “She’s a tall, dark-skinned black woman who often lives in rooms that weren’t created for someone like her.”

The author’s latest book, “Professional Troublemaker”, explores how to address and normalize fear. She thinks her best advice to Ms Saint John was that she should quell her fears and accept the repeated requests for a TED talk. We grow up challenging ourselves to do things we’re afraid of, Ms Jones told her.

Ms. Saint John finally delivered her TED talk in August 2021. The focus of her talk was to use her intuition in everyday life.

Priyanka Chopra Jonas

Actor, producer and author

The couple met about a decade ago when the popular Indian actor appeared on ‘X Factor’, a Pepsi-sponsored TV talent show.

In 2018, Ms. Saint John attended Ms. Chopra’s wedding in India, where she married musician Nick Jonas. Today, the widowed Netflix executive is still struggling to follow through on her friend’s suggestion to open her heart and find love again.

Ms Saint John’s husband, Peter Saint John, died in 2013. Their daughter Lael was four years old at the time.

“I know how to get what I want out of my career. I don’t know how to do that in love,” Ms. Saint John admits. “It’s very painful and scary.”

Write to Joann S. Lublin at [email protected]

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