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Professor Badass? Bozoma Saint John to lead a Harvard B-School workshop on authenticity

The Netflix CMO, who has become a notable personal brand in business after stints at Pepsi, Apple, Uber, and Endeavor, will share the secrets of her success.

Professor Badass? Bozoma Saint John to lead a Harvard B-School workshop on authenticity
[Photo: Maya A. Darasaw/Wikipedia]
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In addition to courses in finance, strategy, and marketing, Harvard Business School’s future captains of industry will have the chance to get introspective and “live every day with the urgency of now” in a workshop led by Netflix Chief Marketing Officer Bozoma Saint John and professors Frances Frei and Francesca Gino.

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The session, titled “Anatomy of a Badass”—a nod to Saint John’s nickname; her Instagram handle is @badassboz—is not part of HBS’s required curriculum. It is one of several short intensive programs (or SIPs) Harvard offers its MBA candidates between academic terms to expose students to career options or topics outside their area of study.

“Anatomy of a Badass” and other SIPs will be offered virtually January 11 to 15.

“A lot of the message of this course is, how do we learn about embracing who we are and [to] do so with vulnerability and authenticity,” says Gino, a professor in the negotiations, organizations, and markets unit at the business school. Adds Frei, a professor of technology and operations management: “Our students, in particular, can be perfectionists. All three of us would say perfectionism actually gets in the way of authenticity, because you only give people a narrow version, and maybe not even an authentic version, of yourself.”

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The instructors for Harvard Business School’s “Anatomy of a Badass” virtual workshop, clockwise from top: Bozoma Saint John, Francesca Gino, and Frances Frei

The workshop is not the first time Saint John, Frei, and Gino have teamed up. Frei and Saint John worked together briefly at Uber: Frei served as senior vice president of leadership and strategy for less than a year, and Saint John was chief brand officer for a little more than a year. Both women were hired in 2017 to help repair the reputation and morale at the ride-hailing company after a blog post by former engineer Susan Fowler detailed sexist and unprofessional behavior there. “We were peas in a pod,” Frei says.

Frei and Saint John did a few successful fireside chats at Harvard—before and after they left Uber. In the summer of 2019, when Frei and Gino started building their lesson plans for a fall elective course called “Leading Difference,” highlighting the need for increased empathy in discussions about workforce difference, they agreed that they should conclude with a class called “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” with Saint John as a remote guest speaker.

“The response to the last class with Boz was electric,” Frei says. She and Gino went on to produce a multimedia case study on Saint John.

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Harvard Business School’s SIPs will be 100% virtual due to the pandemic, and Frei, Gino, and Saint John sensed an opportunity to team up on the workshop, with California-based Saint John participating via teleconference. “It’s been like a beautiful little dance for the three of us,” Saint John says.

Saint John notes that her goal is to help impart some of her hard-earned lessons to a new generation of business leaders: “If I had a chance to have someone tell me what I ended up learning through hard knocks, I would have really appreciated it.” Saint John’s career has spanned roles at Spike DDB, Pepsi, Beats, and Apple. She left Uber in 2018 to become CMO of talent agency Endeavor, and became CMO of Netflix in June 2020.

Saint John has developed a reputation for being a marketer who trusts her gut, and thanks to her appearances at high-profile events like the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference and a cameo in an Apple TV advertisement with James Corden, she’s become a bona fide boldface name in the business world.

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But Frei says “Anatomy of a Badass” is not a trendy “celebrity studies” course (see Washington University’s “Politics of Kanye West” or the University of Copenhagen’s “Beyoncé, Gender and Race”). Nor, she says, is Saint John’s participation a gimmick to boost interest. “Francesca has never done anything gimmicky in her life,” Frei says. “And neither has Frances,” adds Gino.

Harvard’s SIPs usually accommodate 50 or 60 participants; some 300 students have expressed interest in joining “Anatomy of a Badass,” and the professors hope to increase capacity.

As for Saint John, she seems to relish the idea of shaking up the world of academia. “Professor Badass!” she exclaims. “I always envisioned professors wearing, like, a monocle and elbow patches and maybe a little hat. I don’t think the image of professors is sequins and stilettos, so we might have to change that up.”