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Bozoma Saint John Talks About Her New Role at Uber: ‘I Consider Myself a Change Agent’

Minutes before Bozoma Saint John’s departure from Apple Music for Uber was officially announced on Tuesday, she got on the phone with Variety to discuss her new role with the company as its Chief Brand Officer.

While the role is technically similar to her previous posts at Apple and Pepsi, where she rose to become one of the most-recognized branding executives in the music space, Uber’s description of it — she will be “charged with helping build a deeper, more meaningful connection between Uber and its customers”  — seems to lay out a much larger purview, especially given the recent accusations of sexual harassment against women inside the company. A rep for Uber confirmed to Variety Tuesday that it has investigated 215 claims of discrimination, sexual harassment, unprofessional behavior, bullying, harassment, retaliation and physical security; that 20 employees recently were fired for one of those categories; and that the company is “taking significant action to beef up our HR processes.”

Long a prominent figure in the music industry — she was head of the Music and Entertainment Marketing at Pepsi before joining Beats by Dre in 2014, which was purchased by Apple shortly after she arrived — Saint John stepped onto the global stage a year ago at the Apple Worldwide Developers’ Conference, where she grooved to Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” while demonstrating Apple Music’s new user interface. She also stepped in front of the camera in a commercial for Apple Music featuring James Corden and Apple executives Eddy Cue and Jimmy Iovine, which premiered on the 2016 Emmy Awards. While at Apple, Saint John worked on such campaigns as the ad for Taylor Swift’s workout wipeout and another starring Mary J. Blige, Kerry Washington and Taraji P. Henson. At Pepsi, led teams that created partnerships with film studios for product placement, record labels for commercial deals, and the sports industry with the NFL for the Super Bowl Halftime Show (featuring Beyonce in 2013, Bruno Mars in 2014, and Katy Perry in 2015). Prior to Pepsi, Saint John served as Vice President of Marketing for Ashley Stewart (a women’s fashion brand) and managed accounts at advertising agencies Arnold Worldwide and Spike Lee’s SpikeDDB.

“Boz has a long track record of successfully creating emotional connections between people and the products they love,” said Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. “Her creativity and deep understanding of consumers will allow us to build the same love and appreciation for Uber’s brand as we’ve built for Uber’s service.”

Why is Uber a good fit for you at this point in your life?
I am passionate and I love excitement and building things, and personally I think Uber is one of the most exciting companies in the world right now because of its extreme growth and what has happened in such a short amount of time.

I don’t think it will be a surprise to anybody that I consider myself a change agent. I love new challenges and the fact that I have the opportunity to create and craft and execute a brand vision — that’s incredible. There aren’t many chances to do that, so to me this is irresistible — it’s really a great opportunity to join a team that is looking for help in changing and building a brand.

You were building such a profile at Apple Music, why was it a good time to leave?
I really did enjoy my time at Apple — it’s a great company and I really loved building Apple Music. For me it’s not really about why I’m leaving but where I’m going: I truly believe that Uber is such a great opportunity. I feel really proud of the work I did at Apple Music and I don’t take anything away from it that’s negative at all. I really enjoyed it there and I want to do great work for Uber, too.

Will you miss working in music?
I don’t think I’m leaving working in music, quite frankly! [Laughing] I feel like this is another pop-culture moment and maybe that’s part of the vision too. For me, pop culture is very fluid: it’s music, it’s movies, it’s books, it’s art, it’s tech, it’s so many things — and as marketing and brand advocates we should be able to to take products and services and match them to what’s happening in pop culture. To think that those things are separated is actually not very wise, I think. So to me the vision of what I will do at Uber is to connect those things together: pop culture and this very magical tech service. So I’m not leaving music — music is coming with me.

How might that work at Uber?
Well, I think the details of that are going to form — I have to have a chance to actually get in [laughs] and get a plan together! I don’t have tactical plans yet but the vision is very clear. I feel very much, from my gut, that Uber is a story that needs to be told from a human perspective and that’s also something that I bring: the first time I called [an Uber] and had it show up and take me someplace, that changed everything. But now it’s time to tell the human story: this needs to be a people-first type of perspective, and I want to tell those stories that I know are going to be interesting to all consumers — tell the rider story, the driver story, how can I better craft what is happening from a storyline standpoint to make sure that comes to the forefront of what is already an incredible service.

One thing that’s striking about your hiring is that it’s coming at a time when the company has been hit with sexual-harassment accusations. Do you see part of your role as turning around that perception?
Well, I have very esteemed colleagues in place who manage the internal culture. But you’re right, I feel that, especially as a woman of color, that being in an environment, I also feel responsible for it. So at the same time that I’m working on the external brand perception of Uber and crafting the story of Uber, I plan to be a very involved participant in the internal culture — very much the same way I was at Apple, I’ve always been part of the internal groups and advocacies for women and people of color at every company I’ve been at. This is not new to me — I plan to continue being an advocate for women and people of color everywhere.

Your public persona very much projects strength — hiring you is an interesting signal for the company to send at this point in time.
Yeah, I do think that’s true — I’m not going to deny that coming to Uber is a statement. I have the full commitment of the leadership team to do my job and do it well regardless and outside of being a woman and a person of color. The first and foremost thing is for me to do a good job as an executive, and I plan to do that. The benefit of being a woman and a person of color just adds to it.

Do you plan to bring in musicians or actors to be spokespeople or otherwise associated with Uber?
I do see a role for all types of pop culture. I want Uber to be a very big part of the pop-culture conversation, so we will be utilizing all of those resources and pop-culture advocates to help tell the message.

Will you be appearing in any ads for the company yourself, maybe another one with James Corden?
[Laughing] You know that question ain’t right! [Jokingly] I’ll probably do some selfie videos from the back of an Uber. Come with me — we’ll do it together!

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