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Uber’s New Chief Brand Officer: “We Need More People Who Are Nothing Like Us”

Bozoma Saint John opens up about what it’s really like for women of color in tech.

Uber’s New Chief Brand Officer: “We Need More People Who Are Nothing Like Us”
These days, there aren’t many tech companies that appear to be equitable places for women and minorities, but Uber’s reputation has been particularly tarnished. After allegations of rampant sexual harassment sent the company into a downward spiral, several members of its executive board left. In June, Bozoma Saint John left Apple Music to join Uber as its chief brand officer amid the talk of how the company will turn itself around.
At a company-wide event to raise awareness for Black Women’s Equal Pay Day on July 31, Bozoma joined Meena Harris, founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, to talk about pay equity, women of color in leadership, and Uber’s path forward.

Meena Harris: If you’re a woman of color, it takes a lot longer to achieve pay equity: This year black women essentially worked for free until July 31 to earn the same that a white man made in 2016. For Latinas, equal pay doesn’t happen until November 2, so they must work almost an entire extra year. For women of color the pay gap is more like a canyon, and during a lifetime it’s nearly impossible to catch up.

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Uber just released its first employee-compensation and pay-gap analysis, which is really important. Can you talk a little about that?

Boz Saint John: I’m excited about what is happening from my counterparts in HR. They’re working hard to make sure that the Equal Pay initiative is thoroughly looked at and is delved into, and that we are doing the best that we can do to ensure that there is equality for people of color and women.

MH: When you were at Apple, the Internet lost its mind seeing you, the first black woman on stage at the Worldwide Developers Conference. How did that feel? Did you beforehand realize how significant it was, or was it only after the fact that you thought, “Oh, that was a big deal?”

BSJ: I didn’t think about it that way beforehand. You go about doing what you normally do every day and then someone, somewhere, either for good or bad, says “Oh, look at that person.” I do feel like there was a moment when I looked at that and said, “Why is it there so much attention on this?” Because, honestly, you could come to my office on a regular Monday morning, and you’ll get the same show. You want me to take you through the UI? Sure, no problem.

Of course, being a woman, and being a black woman at that, wearing a pink dress and my hair in my afro, all those things made it a spectacle. To me, it was both a good thing and a bad thing because I felt like wow, there’s attention for just being, which is great because I do want to shine that light, even if I’m the one in the center.

It can also be bad, because then there’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of that one to represent all sorts of people. It’s like the great Spike Lee says, black people are not one monolithic group. I can’t be the representation for everyone, there’s real danger in making it seem like maybe there’s just one. I cannot be the only.

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MH: Being the “first” and the “only” can be isolating, and it can also come with a lot of responsibility. How have you navigated that as you’ve taken on increasingly challenging positions, especially in the tech sector? Where do you find your strength and support?

credit: Sarah Deragon

BSJ: I think it just starts with having a strong community. You may feel like you’re the only, but again, you’re not the only in the whole wide world. Leaning on the community to help embolden and support is important.

I think in terms of what’s happening with diversity and inclusion in Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of finger pointing going on. But I view it through the immigration story, which is that if I’m here, and you can see me, if I’m visible, then perhaps it will encourage somebody else to come along too.

We’ve got to encourage others to join, so that there isn’t just one, because we also know that the more there are, the better the environment is, the better the community is, the better the ideas are, the better the total experience is, because then you have diversity of thought.

MH: You’ve talked about how just simply being matters; for others to be able to see that there is opportunity.

BSJ: Yes, representation matters. And, again, it’s about the diversity of representation. That’s why I also say, bring your whole self to work, because each of us has such an incredible story. If we bring that to the work we do, it will make the work that much better, because it will add a layer of complexity to it. Even when we’re working in tech, what we want is human connection.

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If we’re not able to talk about ourselves in a way that is a call to action, or that attracts other people to us, then we’re not going to get the kind of diversity that we need to do our jobs well.

MH: I’m inspired by how you got started in your career. You’re where you are because someone decided to give you a shot even though you didn’t necessarily have the expertise. I understand you didn’t have formal training in marketing, and in fact were supposed to go to med school, and then you landed a job as Spike Lee’s assistant. How does that early experience influence you now, and what advice would you give to people with non-traditional talent in asserting and adding their value?

BSJ: I was fresh out of college. I was living in New York eating ramen. I was in the streets. I was in the club. I was hanging out with musicians. I was hanging out with artists. I was tapped into youth culture. (Spike Lee) would come to the office, having his big important conversations, but would always ask me when he wanted to know if a certain thing was cool, or who the hottest artist was, or any question about culture.  That (was) the value that I was adding.

You may not have the full answer, and you may not know more than your boss, or whomever else, but you know something that other people don’t know–so use that.

MH:  There’s such pressure in almost any workplace, particularly for a new employee, to just try to fit in. You’ve been outspoken about being your authentic self, and that you’re just going to bring your whole self to work, and trust that it works out.

Have you ever found that confidently trying to bring your entire self to the job, particularly in environments that might not be diverse, have been difficult? How do you think about that in hiring and building a team?

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Credit: Sarah Deragon

BSJ: I feel like it’s been a challenge for me when I haven’t brought my whole self, because then I don’t know how to move. I feel like I’m pretending, and it’s so much harder to pretend to be something else than to be yourself. The energy that you put into trying to fit in takes away from the energy of contributing.

That’s what I realized very early on because, yeah, of course there were moments in my career that I felt that I would perhaps climb faster, or be accepted better, if I behaved like other people.

Let me tell you something. I don’t know how to behave.

MH: That apparently has helped you!

BSJ: I just want to underline the point that it just makes everything better for us to be ourselves. I do take that into management. If we had uniform teams of people who are all thinking the same way, and behaving the same way, and laughing at the same jokes, and having the same experiences, it would be boring.

My hope for all of us, myself included, is when you’re managing people, that you’re encouraging diversity of thought, of idea, of person, of experience, of culture, of all those things.

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We need more people who are nothing like us. If you can encourage that, and hire like that, then we’ll be in a much better place.

MH: You’ve taken on this job at a challenging time, but it’s also a moment for change, to turn the corner. Obviously, some of that shift will be cultural and about individual inclusion, as well as company-wide policy, but as chief brand officer, how do you see your role in helping to move the company forward?

BSJ: I could insert a lot of words into “brand.” I also see myself as Chief Cheerleader. Cheerleading is important in this very time because we need to be able to communicate to the external world that we’re excited to be here. We’re passionate about the work that we do. We know it’s good work. It will change the world. It has already changed the world. There’s so much more to do, and we’re excited to do it. If I can help convey any of that passion, then that’s what I want to do today.

The next step is telling the right stories that give us the complexity of the whole. I feel emotional when I talk about it, because it truly feels like such a critical time to be able to get the opportunity to show the world that there are 15,000 people who are actively working to change the way that we work and live in the world. I feel quite honored to have the opportunity to cheerlead on our behalf, and to do that well.

Meena Harris is an entrepreneur and the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign. She started her career in tech right out of college, when she worked at Facebook. Most recently she managed policy at Slack, and before that, she practiced law at Covington & Burling, where she advised major tech companies in the areas of data privacy and cybersecurity.

About the author

Kathleen Davis is a Senior Editor at FastCompany.com, managing the leadership and work-life section. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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