Bozoma Saint John doesn’t waste time.
It’s clear by the way she concisely quips without sparing any gravitas when articulating a complicated thought. Or how she has charted a career path loaded with one accolade after another working for the biggest companies in the world (including Pepsico, Apple Music & iTunes, Uber, and most recently Netflix) all in under a decade.
Her career trajectory is akin to a corporate sharpshooter, or a marketing ‘hit-woman-for-hire’ as pundits have pointed out, where she comes in, sets her eyes on the target, gets the job done and swiftly moves on. For those looking from the sidelines, her strides look poetic. From orchestrating Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance for Pepsico to enlisting LeBron James and Kevin Durant to help Uber regain public trust, Badass Boz always executes the impossible with grace.
But what many of us don’t know is that the professional agility Saint John has become known for was largely catalyzed by personal tragedy.
In her new book The Urgent Life: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival, the marketing savant cracks herself wide open for readers, and shares some of the most pivotal moments of her life—namely the death by suicide of her college boyfriend Ben, and the passing of her beloved husband Peter to cancer.
The book is a departure from what would’ve been the obvious choice for her first memoir––the “how-to guide for being a badass in marketing”––as she describes during my call with her a few days after the book’s February 21 release, which quickly became an Amazon bestseller. But that’s not where she wanted to land, she explained to me. There was a bigger story to tell and she wanted to use the golden opportunity concisely, as she often does.
Against the backdrop of her beautiful, robustly colored home, Saint John lights my Zoom screen up with her signature smile. She patiently waits for me to get my gushing out the way, and then thoughtfully answers my first question.
“How did you know it was time to write this kind of book?” I ask.
After taking a beat, she says “Because people have been carrying their grief around with them for a long time and haven’t really known where to put it or how to move through it. I wanted to let them know that they’re not alone.”
In The Urgent Life, Saint John ushers readers into the origin stories of her big loves: her career, Ben, Peter, and her children (one of whom was miscarried).
“It just felt like the time to get a little bit deeper into what has happened, because I want people to understand first, that none of this came accidentally,” she said, gesturing around her. “This wasn’t a silver spoon type of situation, success and all.”
As a child she lived in Accra, Ghana, and Nairobi, Kenya, interspersed between stints in the U.S. At 12, her family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado which she described as a harsh change in environment, both in physical climate and culture. She faced discrimination early on as a Black girl in a mostly white, conservative community and learned early on that being nimble and bright was the best way to survive.
That early realization crystallized into fierce confidence which landed her at Spike DDB (Spike Lee’s advertising agency) in New York City as his assistant during a gap year in her early twenties, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“That was the first place that I saw you could do a lot of things at one time and still be locked in,” she said, explaining that the famed filmmaker was able to run an agency, shoot movies, and be a present family man all at once.
In her book, she said this was one of the beginning introductions she’d had to being radically intentional with time. But it wasn’t until a few years later that an unexpected health prognosis make her realize the true value of living urgently.
In May 2013, her husband Peter Saint John was told he had Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that took his life mere months after the diagnosis at the age of 44. Dazed with dizzying grief, Bozoma said she’d made a promise to honor him in the best way she knows how, by committing to living.
“All of my traumas have taught me to move at the exact moment my heart tells me to––I don’t waste my time. I just don’t. And I know that there’s so much fear that we have, especially as Black women, about doing things the right way so we can be accepted into these spaces. And we talk about it a lot that like, hey, look, ‘I’m unapologetic and I’m this and I’m that.’ We’re using all these trendy words, but at the same time, we’re also trying to assimilate into these spaces. The whole reason for me being the way that I am in work is because of this urgency. Because of urgency I learned in my personal life through the traumas and through the hurt.”
She continues: “There is no me as the C-suite executive four times over without having gone through my husband’s short life, you know what I’m saying? That doesn’t exist without the trauma. And that’s why I find it difficult to be celebrated without acknowledging that. To me, it’s like they’re not separate things, and I feel like that must be the case for a lot of people, and so why are we trying to hide that part? There’s beauty in the hard parts because it teaches you to run toward the good.”
Find out more information about Bozoma Saint John’s memoir here.