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 installments from the series are here.
In summer 2020,
Bozoma Saint John
landed a dream job as chief marketing officer of
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 employer and sixth industry during Ms. Saint John’s long career. Bias often prompted prior job changes, she says.
“I hit a wall or a ceiling, and I couldn’t break through,’’ she continues. “As a Black woman, I have had to work much harder to succeed.’’
The self-proclaimed “badass” is now Netflix’s most senior Black executive.
Supportive mentors solidified Ms. Saint John’s strong determination to move up by moving on. “My personal board members have played the role of helping me to trust my instincts,’’ she says.
- Age: 44
- Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and African-American Studies from Wesleyan University
- Family: Daughter Lael, age 12
- Secret talent: Expert seamstress who has made everything from skirts to curtains
- Management mantra: Bring your whole self to work, even if it’s in glitter or burlap
- Fun fact: Contrary to popular belief, I’m not all frills on everything. My favorite ice cream is straight vanilla
- Height in heels: Four-inch stilettos are my go-to…which makes me 6’3”
- Superpower you wish you had: Teleportation
The 44-year-old executive, who often goes by her nickname “Boz,” was born months before her father finished his doctorate in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Her parents, then Ghanaian citizens, returned to Ghana during her infancy.
Ms. Saint John moved to six different locales before she turned 13. As a high-school student in Colorado Springs, Colo., she interned with an obstetrician and considered becoming a doctor.
She also loved pop culture, but figured her hobby was “not something to be serious about.” Ms. Saint John reconsidered her medical-career goal after being inspired by an African-American studies class during her freshman year at Wesleyan.
Equipped with a degree in English and African-American studies, the 1999 graduate got hired as an administrative assistant at Spike DDB, a New York ad agency headed by film director Spike Lee. She was surprised when he accepted her recommendation that rising pop star Beyoncé Knowles should appear in a commercial for
“If he had picked someone else, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now,” she observes. Ms. Saint John realized her ideas could count, and “the pecking order doesn’t matter.” She eventually advanced to senior account executive at the agency.
In 2005, she joined a Pepsi unit as assistant brand manager in multicultural marketing. While a marketing executive there years later, she helped organize Beyoncé’s 2013 Super Bowl half-time appearance and an elaborate introductory Pepsi commercial.
Ms. Saint John attracted even greater attention once she became
head of global consumer marketing for Apple Music and iTunes.
She took an unusual approach in describing Apple’s redesigned streaming music service during its 2016 developers’ conference. “It was really scary,’’ she recalls. “My style was so different.”
Ms. Saint John urged the predominantly white male audience to sing “Rapper’s Delight” as she swayed to the hip-hop hit. “Some of you guys are not rapping to the beat,” she chided men in the audience.
Her next stint—as chief brand officer for
Uber Technologies Inc.
—didn’t last long. Hired in June 2017, Ms. Saint John quit after a year.
She and Uber Chief Executive
disagreed over whether improved customer service should be the ride-hailing giant’s highest priority, she says. “We just didn’t align.’’ An Uber spokesman declined to comment about her brief tenure.
She next held the top marketing spot at
Endeavor Group Holdings Inc.,
an entertainment company known for representing Hollywood’s biggest talents.
Subsequently “joining Netflix was my biggest marketing challenge ever,’’ says Ms. Saint John, who reports to co-CEO
“I am marketing to so many completely different individual titles and messages.”
Further complicating matters, the Netflix newcomer underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis during her first week. She resumed work from her bed days later.
Her most valued advisers include:
General manager of Gatorade at PepsiCo Inc.
The Pepsi executive recruited Ms. Saint John because he had been one of her Spike DDB clients. He initially supervised her at the big food-and-beverage maker.
She doubted that she would succeed, however. Unlike many Pepsi peers, the novice assistant brand manager lacked an M.B.A. degree.
Mr. O’Brien reassured her that “my background didn’t matter. I could do anything,’’ Ms. Saint John continues. His confidence in her abilities inspired at least one of her further industry switches.
He says he also urged his protégée to “keep doing you.” A larger-than-life individual, “Boz lets her passion shine through,’’ Mr. O’Brien points out. She didn’t “need to dampen that passion to fit any perceived corporate norms.”
Founder and CEO of Thrive Global
The executives met in 2016 at a consumer-electronics trade show. Ms. Huffington, an Uber board member, eventually proposed that Ms. Saint John consider leaving Apple for Uber.
“She needed to be somewhere that would let her full personality shine,’’ Ms. Huffington says. And “Uber needed her special gifts.”
The entrepreneur connected Ms. Saint John with then-Uber CEO
and supported her candidacy. He interviewed her at Ms. Huffington’s Los Angeles home.
Mr. Kalanick resigned shortly after Ms. Saint John arrived, following months of scandal and setbacks at Uber.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones
Author, speaker and CEO of Awe Luv Media
Ms. Saint John sought an introduction to Mrs. Jones in 2014 because she was impressed by her commentary about pop culture on her blog. The pair have been fast friends ever since.
“Luvvie has always encouraged me to continue making trouble,’’ Ms. Saint John says. Her counsel proved especially useful when the executive left Uber feeling discouraged.
“Am I just looking for trouble everywhere I go?” Ms. Saint John remembers asking herself. “I don’t always want to be the one who disrupts simply because I walk in the door. It’s exhausting,” she goes on. “Sometimes, I just want to simply fit in.”
Ms. Saint John should keep making the best trouble and transformative change because she “cannot fit in, even if she tries.’’ Mrs. Jones contends. “She is a tall, dark-skinned, Black woman who often exists in rooms that were not created for someone like her.”
The author’s latest book, “Professional Troublemaker,’’ explores how to tackle and normalize fear. She believes her best advice to Ms. Saint John was that she should quash fears and accept repeated requests for a TED Talk. We grow by challenging ourselves to do stuff we’re afraid of, Mrs. Jones told her.
Ms. Saint John finally delivered her TED Talk in August 2021. The focus of her talk was on using her intuition every day.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Actor, producer and author
The pair became acquainted about a decade ago when the popular Indian actor appeared on “X Factor,” a televised talent show that Pepsi sponsored.
In 2018, Ms. Saint John attended Ms. Chopra’s wedding in India, where she married musician Nick Jonas. Today, the widowed Netflix executive still struggles to pursue her friend’s suggestion that she open her heart and find love again.
Ms. Saint John’s husband, Peter Saint John, died in 2013. Their daughter Lael was then four.
“I do 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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