Certified disrupter and marketing exec Bozoma Saint John threw out her 10-year plan a long time ago. So how does she keep us mesmerized by her badass business moves? By forcing us to rethink what a C-suite Black woman looks like.
When the opportunity came to present part of the keynote address at the 2016 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, I absolutely jumped at it. Not because I’m the first Black woman to do it, but because I knew that I could represent in a way that others couldn’t. I was gonna get on that stage and not wear jeans and a button-down shirt like other tech executives. I think people paid attention to me that day not just because of the way I delivered the information, but also because of how I looked.
The fact that I was wearing a body-hugging pink dress and pink Christian Louboutins and my hair in a curly Afro and a bold pink lip had people wondering, Who does she think she is? And I’m like, Yeah, I’m Boz. Ask about me. In that moment I felt powerful. I thought, If I can get on this stage and be fully myself, and I can snap my fingers and roll my neck or roll my eyes, that gives us all permission to do that in whatever space we’re in. If I can do it there, why can’t we do it in our offices, too?
Five years ago, when my husband, Peter, died from Burkitt lymphoma, there was a shift in my spirit and in my faith that accelerated me to what you see today. I started to live more urgently. I don’t think anyone can go through an experience like that and not realize that the saying “Life is short” is real.
I started working at Apple as a marketing executive the year after Peter’s death. I was really intent on exploring new ideas and taking bigger risks. A decade before that if somebody had said, “Hey, you should go do this job at Apple,” I would’ve said, “Wait, I need more experience.” That had totally gone out the window. I absolutely jumped right in.
Early in my career, I would look at who was successful and try to model myself after that person. Unfortunately, none of those people really looked like me. They rocked the pantsuit or skirt suit, usually gray or navy blue, with hair straight or tied back. No disrespect, but that wasn’t my style. I like sequins on Tuesdays! I like bold red lips and my hair naturally curly or in a weave down to my ankles. I like extravagance.
When I am dressed that way, my personality is really able to shine through. That’s why I think it’s a disservice when we talk about fashion or the way people look as superficial. It has much deeper implications, especially for Black women, because everything we’ve been told that we are is not good enough for the corporate space; that we have to be toned down. For me, trying to tone things down meant that I was also hiding everything I am, all that I bring.
People ask me if I have a plan. “What will you do next?” I honestly don’t have a five- or 10-year plan. The reason is actually simple: I want to remain open to the possibilities. When you have a plan, you’re busy sticking to it, and should something amazing come, you’re going to look at your plan and say, “Well, I have three more years to do this thing before I can go do something else.”
Why not keep ourselves open to the possibilities so if something comes along that is truly game-changing, we can see it? That’s exactly what happened to me. I was sitting very comfortably in my office at Apple. But when the opportunity came to be chief brand officer at Uber, I knew that could be game-changing also. And I didn’t hesitate to leave Uber and join the entertainment giant Endeavor nor to star in my own docuseries when those doors opened up. Each of the moves I’ve made has been possible because of my lack of a plan. I’m just following what feels natural.