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UBER Boz: Dreams of roaming the Earth took root in Colorado Springs

September 3, 2017 Updated: September 3, 2017 at 8:06 am
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Uber's new chief brand officer, Bozoma St. John, grew up in Colorado Springs. Photo courtesy MAD Works Photography.

Bozoma Saint John, the woman entrusted with healing Uber's bruised $68 billion brand, knows how to work a circumspect crowd.

As head of music and entertainment marketing at PepsiCo, Saint John was pivotal in landing Beyoncé for the 2013 Super Bowl halftime show. During her more recent turn at Apple Music, she managed to coax an audience of rhythm-challenged tech nerds at the 2016 Worldwide Developer's Conference into singing along to The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight."

"It was a hilarious wink to the lack of diversity in the room, and Saint John pulled it off without offense," wrote a clearly agog Davey Alba, in Wired magazine. "And everyone in that darkened auditorium and beyond wondered: Who the hell is this ... woman?"

Who "Boz" Saint John is today, at 40 - high-powered corporate image guru, outspoken Agent of Change with a CV like a neutron star - has a lot to do with who she was and how she learned to navigate life in the early 1990s, growing up the oldest daughter of what was then the only Ghanaian immigrant family in Colorado Springs.

Uber's new chief brand officer, Bozoma St. John, grew up in Colorado Springs. Photo courtesy MAD Works Photography. 

It remains to be seen precisely how Uber's first chief brand officer will handle the global makeover after a series of recent scandals, including allegations of bias and sexual harassment, and the forced departure of CEO Travis Kalanick in June.

But, one thing's for certain: Saint John's years in the Springs helped form the template, and the perspective, she'll use to do it.

"My experience in honing in my pop culture savvy as a kid in CS (Colorado Springs) has shaped my life. Not only am I a die-hard Broncos fan because of the John Elway era, but I also learned to listen and connect the dots of the interests of others, to figure out how to craft those experiences into something that I could contribute to," Saint John said, in an emailed response to questions from The Gazette.

"That skill has helped me immensely throughout my career, and I'm absolutely going to utilize those same pop-culture savvy skills in the storytelling I craft at Uber now."

Family flees Ghana

Bozoma Afiba Arthur was born in Middletown, Conn., where her Fulbright-scholar father was pursuing degrees in ethnomusicology and anthropology at Wesleyan University. After he graduated, the family returned to Ghana, where "Boz" lived until she was 5, when a coup d'état forced her father, a member of the Parliament of Ghana, to seek political asylum in the U.S.

After several international moves, in 1989, the Rev. Dr. Appianda Arthur, his wife, Aba, daughter Bozoma and her three younger sisters settled in northeastern Colorado Springs. Bozoma was 12, an age when standing out from the crowd - looking and sounding different, with a hard-to-pronounce name - was something she hadn't yet learned to embrace.

"The community was very welcoming but not diverse enough to really appreciate our differences," Saint John said. "I didn't mind the questions about where we came from or how things were there because I was very proud of my heritage and the many places we'd lived."

The city, however, proved to be the perfect identity training ground, a place where Saint John discovered the people skills and passions that later would define her, both personally and professionally.

Bozoma Saint John (nee Arthur), in a photo from the 1994 Liberty High School yearbook. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District Special Collections. 

As a pre-teen, Bozoma already was almost 6 feet tall. Blending in was never an option.

"I was this height, and about 70 pounds less. I was like a tumbleweed," she joked, during a talk at Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference in Laguna Nigel, Calif. last year. "I couldn't be blonde. I couldn't be white. I just couldn't be anything else, and it meant that I had to become all of everything I have. At 13, I learned . what it meant to walk into a room and not care when everybody else turned around and looked at you."

Though, at the time, she told her parents that moving to Colorado was "the worst thing" they could have done to her, it forced her to discover who she was at a pivotal age.

"I don't know any 12-year-old that wants to move away from the comforts of their school/community/friends voluntarily; so yes, I was very unhappy when we first moved to the Springs," Saint John told The Gazette. "But now looking back, I wouldn't trade it for the world . literally. I loved my school, my friends and experiences in the Springs."

Her quest to connect with her teenaged peers here inspired a practical, and ultimately insatiable, appetite for TV, movies and - especially - music.

"I loved listening to Magic FM . and I dedicated more than a few songs to friends and crushes," Saint John said.

On occasion, her cultural reach exceeded what was readily available, at that time, in the Springs. The mall record store didn't stock Dr. Dre's debut studio album, "Chronic," so Saint John had to request a cassette copy be ordered, "especially for me" - a memory she got to share with the hip-hop icon when their paths later crossed.

Saint John learned to drive on I-25 ("  . harrowing, but I'm a badass driver because of it"); worked "so many jobs over the years," including stints at Denny's on North Academy and Contempo Casuals in the Chapel Hills Mall, and enjoyed her free time dirt-biking, camping and "causing controlled mayhem" with friends in Black Forest.

At Liberty High School, where Saint John's memberships included DECA, Human Relations Club and the cheerleading squad, her hometown roots ran deep. Her vision for the future, however, was a thing untethered.

The inspirational phrase appearing under her senior yearbook portrait? A line from the theme song to the TV sitcom, "The Jeffersons:"

"Movin' on up . to the East Side."

Saint John was on track to get a piece of the pie, and then some.

A job with Spike Lee

After graduating from Liberty in 1995, Saint John moved to Connecticut to pursue degrees in African American studies and English at her father's alma mater. From there, she headed to New York, where, according to a July 22 New York Times profile, her gig with a temp agency put her in destiny's crosshairs.

Filmmaker Spike Lee had fired his assistant and needed someone to help out until a permanent hire could be made.

"She walked in, she got the job," Lee told The New York Times. "It was evident that she was going to go places."

Saint John quickly progressed from answering phones and getting coffee to a creative role with the agency.

"That became the turning point where, OK, I can actually use my knowledge of pop culture, running around these streets with my friends, knowing the inside track on things, to help inform business decisions," Saint John told the Times.

By the time she was in her mid-30s, Saint John was inking megadeals and treading the red carpet as a top marketing exec at Pepsi; at home, she was raising a 4-year-old daughter with her husband, Peter Saint John, whom she'd met while working at Lee's agency.

In 2013, though, the family received devastating news when Peter was diagnosed with a fast-growing form of cancer known as Burkitt's lymphoma.

Peter died that year, but his words of wisdom would help propel Saint John through her grief and into the most powerful corporate position she'd held to date, as head of marketing for Beats Music, shortly before it was acquired by Apple.

"He told me to keep huslin,' keep going . to do what sometimes is impossible to do," Saint John said, on CBS "This Morning." That means "finding the way out of no way. Finding the answer when it doesn't look like there is an answer."

The answer for Uber - how to repair the ride-hailing giant's culture within and public sentiments without - won't be a simple one.

Saint John intends to "keep huslin' " till she finds it. She knows that the perfect outcome isn't always the one you see coming.

"When I was a senior in high school, I thought that by 40 I would be a doctor, married with a few kids living in a suburb on the East Coast. I never imagined this for myself," Saint John told The Gazette. "My journey has been so much more complicated . but I'm so glad it has been."

Bozoma (Arthur) Saint John graduated from Liberty High School in 1995. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District Special Collections.  

The Gazette: The inspirational phrase appearing under your senior yearbook photo is from the theme to The Jeffersons: "Movin' on up, to the east side," and in your July interview with CBS This morning, you said your current life anthem is "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." Is there another "theme song" on your horizon?

Saint John: Ha! I can't believe you looked that up! I didn't know then that music/pop culture would be so critical to my career. I chose the Jeffersons' theme song because I was moving to CT for college; but there have been various theme songs along the way. 'Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes' (by Paul Simon) is a consistent one. For the past couple of years I've identified with Andra Day's 'Rise Up.' It's a powerful song about resiliency.

The Gazette: How long did you live in the Springs, and do you still have friends or family members here?

Saint John: I was in the Springs until I graduated from HS, and came back during my college years for holidays/summers, so I'd say that I was an active part of the CS community for 10 years. I have 3 younger sisters who went to CU Boulder, and another who went to Boulder for Law School (she went to Wesleyan for undergrad with me). I have a lot of friends from high school living in the Springs, like one of my best friends, Danielle Thurman - and my family too - my Aunt Georgina Ansah lives in Briargate, so does my Aunt Myma Bowman Amoah, and my Aunt Alex Mobley lives on the South end of town.

The Gazette: Would you ever consider moving back?

Saint John: I love visiting the Springs, but at this point in my life, I'm enjoying roaming the earth. However, Colorado Springs will always be home to me.

The Gazette: What's your favorite movie?

Saint John: My favorite movie is "The Color Purple."

The Gazette: Anything else to add?

Saint John: When I first arrived in the Springs, I was in 7th grade and my teacher at Holmes Junior High School, Ms. Roberts (who taught choir) captured my love of music. I have never forgotten her, and she even attended my wedding. Also, incidentally, one of the first people I met when I started my job at Apple in Cupertino was Denise Young-Smith, also from Colorado Springs whose father was Mayor Leon Young. Small world!

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