After multiple scandals, Uber’s chief branding officer tells Stylist, she’s transforming the tech giant on her terms…
In the nine years since its launch, Uber has become the new word for ‘taxi’. A convenience many of us use all of the time. But recently, the company’s reputation has soured with scandal, including tales of sexism, ageism, racism and bullying alongside fears for personal safety, prompting many of us to feel conflicted about getting in one on its cars.
It began in February 2017, when computer engineer Susan Fowler blogged about her experience of sexual harassment while working at the ride-sharing app, which prompted an investigation into Uber’s internal culture. News spread quickly; users started to leave the app and #deleteuber trended on Twitter. More than 20 employees and senior executives were fired. CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick resigned. The firm was criticised for paying drivers badly and keeping them on casual contracts with no sick pay or other benefits. Then there were reports of sex attacks by drivers. A group of female engineers filed a lawsuit over pay discrimination. With riders bolting and a culture worthy of its own #MeToo movement, a speedy rethink of its brand positioning was necessary. Enter Bozoma Saint John.
The former Apple executive joined the firm as chief branding officer in June last year, tasked with making people like Uber again. Quite the anomaly, she’s a 41-year-old African-American in a top role in Silicon Valley – the tech industry heartland where men still outnumber women four to one. Seven out of 10 American tech start-ups have no female directors. More than half have no women in executive positions at all. Saint John is the exception.
But she’s not too corporate. The single mother (she lost husband Peter to cancer in 2013) shares much of her life on Instagram (@badassboz) under a bio that reads, “There’s nothing more badass than being who you are… I am a force of nature in fierce stilettos”. She wants to humanise the Uber brand by telling the stories of the people that use it.
Her career began with a temp job in Spike Lee’s ad agency before executive roles at Pepsi, Beats Music, Apple Music and then, thanks to an introduction from Arianna Huffington, Uber. At Uber’s UK office, Stylist met her to discuss the embattled yet omnipresent company and how to be a ‘badass’ woman in business.
Uber has been hit by many scandals in the past year. How do you turn that around?
With many companies or brands, you can jo in with a five-year plan and predict what is going to happen. But Uber and other tech companies aren’t predictable because growth is so explosive. And, on top of that, you have some cultural issues that also pop up. So my job is no longer looking for click-throughs or brand campaigns. I have to react to things that are happening. I feel like the rest of the leadership team and many of the employees – hell, let’s just say all of the employees, as we don’t tolerate things any longer – are committed to ensuring that we have a healthy environment. I also think that when people feel great about their workspace and their brand, they are better at projecting that out into the world. For my job, I want to show the diversity and stories of the people and the products so that we have a more balanced way to look at the company.
The firm has faced a backlash from regulators, the threat of legislation overhaul and the loss of licenses in London and Brighton & Hove. What’s the latest?
I took an Uber today, so it’s still here. Our CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has been very vocal about making sure we are doing the right thing all the time. He wrote a public letter about six months ago, around the time he started, to reinforce our commitment to London and to make sure we are doing the right thing. So, to me, that’s the best that we can do. It’s transparency, making sure that we are committed, that we are serving the cities and communities we are operating in and being able to communicate that. Nothing happens in silos. I’ve got to make sure the story I’m telling is based on the facts that our policy-makers and regulators are creating and enforcing, and that those things are upheld by the new code of conduct that we are under.
Stylist readers are mostly women living or working in cities and they often depend on Uber. Some may have lost trust in the safety of the brand. How do you plan to encourage them back to the app?
Again, it’s about transparency. What are the things that are happening in the product to make it better? Innovation is really a cornerstone of the brand. That’s actually what I really love about Uber; it’s not a static product. It’s not like some beverage that sits there and you’re not going to change the formula for 30 years. There are constant improvements happening so that we can make it better, and so you feel more confident in this product versus something else.
As an African-American woman coming into a company fraught with sexual harassment claims and non-inclusive culture, were you tentative about what’s gone before and if that could or will change?
You know what is interesting to me is if you were to poll most black women about any environment that they are in, I doubt that you would get a lot who say they ever feel really comfortable. It’s just a matter of fact. We’ve got to change it everywhere. How can we, as a society, put pressure on all of these industries to be more inclusive?
The percentage of women in top positions is still very low in comparison with men. Can you see this changing?
Yes, I totally see it changing. I’m a natural optimist, so I see the opportunity in everything. I’m actually quite surprised when it doesn’t happen. I don’t face anything myself thinking, ‘Oh I’m not going to get it’ or ‘That’s not going to happen for me’. I really don’t, because I believe I have earned it and I deserve it.
The recent release of the UK’s gender pay-gap report has thrust the conversation regarding women’s position in the workplace further into the spotlight. Have you ever had to wrangle for your position?
Yes. Especially in terms of pay; I learned my lesson and always come with my number first. It means that I’m prepared and understand what the market demands and what people in a similar position are making. I’m not waiting for someone to tell me some low ball number. I’m going to tell you what that number is. And if you choose to low-ball me then I know there’s not a place for me. I think it’s important for us to take the power back in that way. I can’t tell you how many times it has worked for me. And by the way, it works when you go in with it printed out. It’s like, “So here’s the information about what someone in this industry at this level makes, with the benefits.” [laughs] It’s very difficult for anyone to then disagree, because you have the proof.
Do you think people have that power in all levels of the workplace?
Yes. It’s practice like anything else, and you get better at it as you go along.
You’ve been out driving an Uber to better understand the perspective of drivers and passengers. Where does this more human approach to business come from?
It’s tragic but that’s an interesting perspective. You know what? It’s just because I love people, meeting new people and watching strangers. You know how fascinating they are? My ear-hustle is strong, too. I love finding connections. I think part of what makes me successful is that that is literally what I’m doing all day. I’m making the connections between people and ideas. I drove an Uber Pool in San Francisco. It was really scary as there is a lot of pressure to do it right. When you are in a situation where you are servicing other people and you have to pay attention to all the different touch points, it’s overwhelming. You have to watch the road, the navigation, are they too hot, too cold, do you like the music, do you want me to talk or leave you alone? All the things that go through your mind when you’re driving.
You’ve had a fascinating career trajectory. On the surface it seems like it all happened fairly organically for you. Do you ever suffer from the classic imposter syndrome?
Honestly? No. I feel like I have always just followed my passion and what I want to do. There hasn’t been a moment where I have written out a plan and said I’m going to do this thing in a year, and then the year comes and I’m like, “Oh God, I gotta go do that.” There hasn’t been a moment where I don’t feel that I can do it. I work harder to make sure that I don’t fail. One of my favourite people is P Diddy as he says he outworks everyone. I feel the same. People tend to believe you if you’re confident.
You share a lot on Instagram, and have even been accused of oversharing. Is it important to you to be accessible?
Yes, I have, which is ridiculous. It’s my Instagram. It’s important to me to remain human. Yes, I go on vacation and wear bikinis. Or I’m in meetings and meet interesting people. Or I go out and dance my ass off. I feel it’s important for people to know who leaders are. This is a time when transparency is important, and we are not just concerned with a façade of a company name but who is in the board making decisions. Who are those people? What are their beliefs? The things that make us more human. And maybe, if I’m more relatable, the audience I’m trying to talk to will understand the decisions I make. And that’s really important to me.
You often speak about trusting your gut. What happens when you don’t?
The times I’ve not trusted my gut have been disastrous. You get that sometimes when you talk yourself out of things or talk yourself into something terrible. There was a time when I was just coming out of Spike Lee’s ad agency and I had the opportunity to go to one that did similar things along the music, film and sports capacity. But I felt that I needed to prove I’m also smart, and it was not good enough to just be doing the things that came naturally to me. So I chose an agency that was pharmaceutical, thinking it would prove to other people that I was really smart. I was out of that job in three months. It was miserable. Looking back, I can’t say I wish that I’d gone to this other place as who knows where I would have ended up – however, I should not have talked myself into that job.
When you first arrived in New York, you networked by going to clubs and immersing yourself in things you loved. What are your networking tips?
I would start with the places you are most comfortable, because then you don’t feel like a fish out of water. It’s awkward enough to get into conversations with people you don’t know. If you add to that a layer of places you don’t feel comfortable, it’s a disaster. Secondly, I don’t spread myself too thin. Depth is important. I aim to walk away with [contact details for] one or two people I don’t know and get to know them better. Third is consistency. You’ve got to be consistent and make sure it’s a two-way relationship. And, by the way, the exchange doesn’t have to be even. Just make sure you give something, too.
And finally, what is your Uber rating?
Oh, it’s top-secret [laughs]. I’m a loud and proud five-star driver! I love keeping it fun in the car, with good conversation and music. Clearly, riders who have been in the car with me agree! My rider rating is a 4.7, which I’m told is decent. But I know I can also do better, so I’m trying to avoid things like making my driver wait when they pick me up.
Images: Unsplash / Rex Features / Getty