Table of Contents:
Live with urgency
BOZOMA SAINT JOHN: There’s not a lot of Black women who are in powerful positions in corporate America. I was just getting into my job at Netflix, and a friend said, “Your social handle, Badass Boz, that’s you having fun, but now you’re getting this enormous job, it’s on the public stage. You should probably create a separate handle that is just about your work and your professional thing.” And I remember sitting there thinking, maybe that’s a good idea.
Then I was like, no, it’s not. Because how do I divide myself? I think we just fool ourselves when we think that there’s this personal side of you and there’s a professional side of you. That doesn’t work.
I have really primarily worked for founders: Dr. Dre, Eddie Cue, Travis Kalanick at Uber, Ari Emanuel at Endeavor, for sure, Reed Hastings at Netflix, Spike Lee. Lots of founders.
Boz’s dynamic career has included leadership runs at Apple, Uber, PepsiCo, talent and media agency Endeavor, and even for iconic director Spike Lee.
I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response.
I wanted to talk to Boz because, at a moment when authenticity has come to define effective leadership, no one has more purposely put themselves out there than Boz.
Her book gives a bracing and personal account of the traumas in her life, including her husband’s terminal battle with cancer, and the things she lost and found along the way. It delves into tough assumptions about race, and the value of full honesty, with yourself and with others.
Boz advocates for a world where business leaders don’t hide their personal selves behind walls. And where vulnerability is embraced as an asset. A Black woman who created her own terms to thrive in the C-suite, Boz has key lessons to share about tapping into emotion, living more urgently, and listening to our inner voices.
SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian. I’m here with Bozoma Saint John, a distinguished business and marketing executive at Netflix and Uber and Apple, and a bunch of other places, and the author of the new book, The Urgent Life. Boz, thanks for joining us.
SAINT JOHN: Thank you very much for having me.
Bozoma Saint John on her new book, The Urgent Life
SAFIAN: So the name of this podcast is Rapid Response. It’s for business leaders and entrepreneurs. And the title of your book, The Urgent Life, seemed right on point, and I spent the day yesterday reading the book, and it’s very personal. I’m not sure if it made me happy or sad. It was engrossing and affecting and inspiring. Your story and your journey have so many parts and twists. What made you write this book at this time?
SAINT JOHN: We grew up in a time when you couldn’t really bring your personal stuff into work. Leave your problems at the door, come into the room, get your work done, then get out. More recently, there has been, I feel like, an opening for us to address more mental health, overall health challenges, issues, make room for it, allowing people to be whole people in the workspace. But there is still somewhat of a taboo that doesn’t really allow you to do it.
I think people would say that I bring my whole self. But do people actually know what I have been through, what it has taken for me to get to this place? And so I wrote it for all of us who manage a life that is not perfect, that has the losses and traumas and challenges, but we still show up, and we are maybe not what we used to be, but we’re whole anyway. So that’s why I wrote it.
SAFIAN: How much of it was therapeutic for yourself, as opposed to what you were hoping the outside impact of it was going to be? Like: “people read it, they don’t read it, I don’t care, I got something out of just going through the process.”
SAINT JOHN: I think when we talk about grief or loss, trauma, that kind of stuff, it feels so heavy. And parts of it certainly were, going through memories and trying to write down things that I had long tried to put under a rock, probably.
But what surprised me most was that there were a lot of memories that brought me so much joy. It’s reliving moments when it’s like, if you really try to write about it, you’re trying to recall the smell or the feeling, the way the air felt. Gosh, there was a lot of joy in there. So somewhat therapeutic in that I was able to get some really difficult things out, but at the same time, I relived moments that I really love.
SAFIAN: The book focuses around your husband Peter’s battle with cancer, and your relationship with him, before and during.
SAINT JOHN: The way I wrote the book started from an album that I have in my phone, a photo album, that I started pretty much right after we found out that his cancer was terminal. And people would say to me, “Just take it one day at a time.” And I hated that so much. I hated it because I was like, “my days suck.”
The title of the album in my phone is: “One Day at a Motherfucking Time.” And I took a picture every day. And now that I look at it, some of them make me laugh, some of them make me feel the warm and fuzzies, some of them are very sad. There were some really beautiful things along the way. I remember the last time I made lasagna for him. He could barely eat it. But I also remember how much love I put in that lasagna.
There’s so much beauty sometimes in our trauma. And that’s actually a big discovery for me, even as I wrote this book. Terrible things happened, but there was beauty in it, in certain moments. And so why don’t we look for the beauty also?
Personal life vs professional life —should they be separate?
SAFIAN: So the full headline of the book is The Urgent Life: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival. It delves into your family, your loved ones, many painful moments, but it also touches on your life as a professional. And those two realms for you, and you refer to this a little bit, but personal and professional, are they separate? Are they the same? Have they become more the same?
SAINT JOHN: I think 20 years ago, we wanted them to be separate, but I don’t think that was ever a reality. When we think that there’s this personal side of you and there’s a professional side of you. I think I was just getting into my job at Netflix, and a friend thought they were giving some good advice and said, “Your social handle, Badass Boz, that’s you having fun, you as a normal person, but now you’re getting this enormous job, it’s on the public stage.” And I’m like, “girl, where have you been? I’ve been on the public stage,” but whatever. And she’s like, “You should probably create a separate handle that is just about your work and your professional thing.” And I remember sitting there thinking, maybe that’s a good idea.
Then I was like, “no, it’s not. And that’s crazy.” Because how do I divide myself? That doesn’t work. In today’s age, if you are in any kind of leadership position, your customers, your audience, those that you are trying to sell to, want to know who you are. Gone are the days of us being behind facades or behind a door in the corner office. People want to know your politics. They want to know your favorite food. They want to know if you swim in the morning. Folks want to know all this stuff.
And not because they’re necessarily just going to judge you. I think that’s also a fear, that you’re going to be judged and therefore canceled or not liked or whatnot. But that’s not really it. I think we’re in an age in which we need to better understand our leaders as humans, as people. Human beings prefer honesty. That’s what I’ve learned also as a marketer, and how I’ve also applied it to myself.
Just be honest about it. I respect that more. It is so important for us to be more transparent in our beliefs. So no, I don’t think that there’s room to be two people, one of which is professional and one of which is personal.
SAFIAN: You write in the book, “we spend so much time burying the truth in excuses and rationales, trying to skirt the uncomfortable.” You don’t mind the uncomfortable.
SAINT JOHN: Not at all. That’s an understatement. I revel in the uncomfortable.
What does an “urgent life” mean?
SAFIAN: You’ve moved jobs more often than a lot of people do. Some people do that because they’re restless for new experiences and they gravitate to the steeper curve of learning that you get in new challenges. And other people tend to dig in deeper. They believe that patience takes precedence over speed. Your definition of urgency, as a professional, it seems like it’s more of this restless side.
SAINT JOHN: It’s not restless or reckless urgency, to me. It’s more intentional, actually. Urgency just means that I don’t have patience for anything that’s going to waste my time. To me, the urgent life is that I am very focused on what it is that I need to get out of an experience. And sometimes that comes faster. And so then when I am done, I am done, and you move on. So you’re probably right that the learning curve for me is what is driving me, not necessarily restlessness.
SAFIAN: Your description, even as you describe it here, but in the book too, of the urgent life, there are parts of it that I found a little intimidating sometimes. This idea that you say, don’t waste time. It may seem abrupt, even hurtful. You’re almost unapologetic like that. It’s a little harsh not to sugarcoat, especially for someone who’s a marketer. You expect a little bit more soft and making it easy for me. But you feel like that’s a waste of time. Sometimes, you just gotta go to the end because you know you’re going to be there eventually anyway.
SAINT JOHN: Yes, yes, yes. It’s time for us to be more direct. I don’t want to sugarcoat things, because again, it comes back to my thought that in this day and age, we want honesty more than anything. We want the truth. Sometimes you need to be pushed. Sometimes somebody needs to shake you and say, “What are you doing? It is your time right now. Do not waste it. Get that thing before it passes you by.” Versus being like, “It’s okay. You’ll get to it in a year or so.” What? Why?
And so my point is that, what are we waiting for? What is this magical time that is not promised to you, by the way? So why are you waiting for this magical moment to descend upon you before you act? So yes, I’m unapologetic about that.
SAFIAN: When I look at your career, you’ve had these roles where for many people they would be like, “this is the seat. I want this.” Like you’re there, you’re in the executive suite at Netflix, as you mentioned, you’re breaking down barriers by just your presence in being there, something that’s needed, and then you just decide and say, “I’m gone. I’m out.” Do you just wake up one morning and say, “I’m out”? Or…
SAINT JOHN: To me I just feel like this is the way to live. This is the way to do it. I think part of the idea of urgency to me is listening to my intuition and my gut, and therefore I’m able to make decisions much faster. I don’t mull because I don’t ask other people for their opinions. It’s not like I call my group of mentors and say, “Do you think I should take this job or not? Do you think I should leave or not?” No, I don’t do that. I usually ask, “So I’m leaving. How do you think I should position this?” That’s the way I ask for advice.
We just lie to ourselves when we go to ask somebody their opinion, knowing what in the hell it is that you want. And so there’s no need to mull. If you can train your inner voice to speak very loudly to you, instead of constantly pushing it to the side and telling it it’s a liar, I believe you actually will walk into your destiny much faster, and much clearer, and much happier.
Breaking out of the corporate mold
SAFIAN: You don’t fit into the standard role of a guest on this show. You’re not a CEO, you’re not a founder, but you have rarely fit into anyone else’s mold. And you lean into that. Do you feel like sometimes you have to bend yourself to get along? Or have you just given that up?
SAINT JOHN: No, I gave that up a long time ago. Long time ago. I find it to be the blessing of being a Black woman in these spaces. There’s not a lot of Black women who are in powerful positions in corporate America. So everyone will tell you that that’s an impossible task you’re going after. You’re trying to get to that C-suite. Do you know what the numbers look like?
The statistics are so overwhelmingly against my favor, that if I paid attention to them, I would never try to achieve. I just had to create my own type of space. Because I will never, ever look like a white man. It will never happen. And so I don’t bend to try and fit that mold, because it was never made for me. So that’s why I feel like, wow, this actually gives me so much freedom. And it feels like a gift.
And that’s why I look around at other people, including white men, by the way, and I’m just like, gosh, I wish everybody would just break out of this mold, because none of y’all really fit in it. You’re just pretending because somebody told us that that’s what we’re supposed to do. But perhaps if we all stopped doing that, we all stopped pretending like everything was perfect, if we all stopped pretending like we didn’t have problems at home, if we all stopped pretending like life didn’t scare the shit out of us, then maybe we would actually have a better, more empathetic society, and we would actually make strides in the ways that we often talk about in these boardrooms when we’re talking about how to make our employees or our coworkers feel more at home, or how do we get more diversity into these rooms? That’s because all of us are pretending as if what exists is the right thing. It’s not. So we should stop pretending that, and everybody breaks out the shell.
SAFIAN: Your book talks about the challenges facing Blackness in America, and the challenges of trying to have Blackness and whiteness live together, love together, work together. But as you’re describing the way business is trying to address that, it sounds like you feel like, even the things that have happened in the last couple of years since George Floyd, when businesses are making all these proclamations, that even that’s kind of broken. It’s just not addressing it on the right plane.
SAINT JOHN: Because a lot of it was performative. I was never more popular than I was right after George Floyd died. I promise you. It was like I was getting calls from everywhere, everybody. Lots of CEOs by the way, lots of founders, people calling and saying, “What do you think I should do? How do I make a better impression? How can I be more open? How can I position my business so that people know that I care?” And often these were private conversations, so I could say exactly what the hell was on my mind, which was just like, “Do you care? Do you actually care? Or do you just care about what’s happening with your business? Because we should just be honest about that, and then that way we can get to the right solution.”
So instead of looking outside and saying, “How do I create a better environment for everyone?” What’s happening inside of your company? And until you fix that, please don’t look outside. Fix your own home first.
Home being home home, where you are with your family or with yourself, and home being the place where we work, we’ve got to figure out how to solve the challenges that we have there first. And in so doing, like I was saying, if we all do our part, then yes, the world becomes a better place.
SAFIAN: Before the break we heard former Apple-Uber-Netflix executive Bozoma Saint John describe living what her new book calls The Urgent Life.
Plus: What prompted her to leave her perch at Netflix, and what she expects to happen next.
What founders have in common
One of the things that I notice as a reporter, as a journalist, when I go into different organizations, is that the cultures are all different. Like every family is different, every business is different. And you have worked inside a bunch of iconic different places, from working with Spike Lee to being at PepsiCo, the range. Are there any overarching, lessons or impressions, insights from being in these different families at different times, that are useful for you when you think about the change you want to make in the future or the way each of those families operate?
SAINT JOHN: I have really primarily worked for founders, even at Apple, yes, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre were the reasons I got to Apple, but at some point it was Eddie Cue who I was really working for. And of course, he was almost at the very beginning with Steve Jobs, and of course created iTunes. So by the time I got there at Apple Music, you could call him a founder. And of course Travis Kalanick at Uber, even Ari Emanuel at Endeavor, for sure Reed Hastings at Netflix, Spike Lee. Lots of founders. And if we’re looking at a patriarchal family, then as the “father figure” in that family, they set the tone for how that culture or that family behaves.
SAFIAN: Certainly growth requires a certain introspection.
SAINT JOHN: Yes, yes. But also fearlessness and some vulnerability. I can think of times being in a big staff meeting with Ari, and maybe this is not even a secret, I don’t know if people already know this, but he cries often. Sometimes he cries out of frustration; he cries out of pride. I think that’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful thing. Even though his reputation is as a really tough guy in Hollywood. Or being in staff retreats with Reed and going around the circle and everybody talking about the thing that made them happy that day. I don’t know. These sound so silly, but my point is that I think it really does require a lot of bravery to be that vulnerable, and I wish more of us had it.
SAFIAN: So thinking about your book, I was trying to think of how I would describe it. It’s a biography, it’s a love story, it’s a tragedy. Is there a way that you describe the book?
SAINT JOHN: I think it’s hopeful, because I have been through a lot, as you’ve said already, but I feel very much like the human form of the Japanese art kintsugi, the art form of putting broken pottery pieces back together using a precious metal like gold or silver because it’s never quite the same, but it’s still beautiful. So I would describe my book as hopeful, that terrible things can happen to you, and you will not look the same, you will not be the same, but perhaps you are even more beautiful.
SAFIAN: You taught a class at Harvard called The Anatomy of a Badass. You have an online workshop, the Badass Workshop. You could have written that book: The Anatomy of a Badass.
SAINT JOHN: Everybody wanted me to write that book.
SAFIAN: So why not? Will you at some point?
SAINT JOHN: I don’t know. Maybe I will. I don’t know. I already told you, Bob, I’m going with my gut. I’m going with my instinct. Whatever my instinct says, that’s what I do.
SAFIAN: That just didn’t feel as impactful, as satisfying as…
SAINT JOHN: No. I think this is badass. It’s like first you have to reconcile what has happened to you. And if you can face that and stand on it and still smile and still walk forward, not hide in a cave… you’re a badass, and you should feel that way, walk around the world that way. And that’s just the way I feel.
Bozoma Saint John on her plans after leaving Netflix
SAFIAN: One of the questions in the press kit for your book asked about your next plans, your next moves, and your answer is basically, I don’t know. You say that’s between me and God. You left Netflix last year, and generally, at least from a distance, it looks like you’ve generally moved from one place to another for something. Are you comfortable not having a plan?
SAINT JOHN: I left for myself. And my plan was to work on my book and to work on my creative experiences as an author. And so I found it really interesting that everybody was like, “Can’t wait to see what you do next.” And I’m like, you know what I’m doing next. I don’t know why that’s not impressive. Hello? Do you know how hard it is to write a book? And it’s very difficult to be this open and talk about all of these things that have happened in my life. So I am very proud of this next move, and I made it for me.
SAFIAN: And you’re not thinking or worrying too much about, now the book’s out, what next?
SAINT JOHN: I can’t say that. Bob, come on. We’re telling the truth, right?
SAFIAN: Yes, we’re trying.
SAINT JOHN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, for sure. In fact, I think it was last week when I woke up, and I was like, oh shit, the book’s about to be out. What the hell am I going to do after that? But I know it probably sounds really frou-frou, but I’m just waiting on my calling, waiting to see what is going to come to me. And that has actually been a very comforting way to live my life. I haven’t been the one who’s been out, been like, I’m going to go get that thing.
My point is that I live in a place of satisfaction, always. And when something else comes and I’m like, that could be really interesting, then I go do that thing. And so I’m not living a life that feels unfulfilled or feels like I need to stuff it with things.
SAFIAN: Because a lot of business people, entrepreneurs, founders, they define themselves by their business title, role. And when things shift, there’s a challenge because it’s like, how am I relevant now? I’ve lost that relevance. But in your urgent life, that’s not something you need to be urgent about, that you’re not necessarily rushing to fill… How am I relevant next?
SAINT JOHN: I won’t pretend as if I didn’t have fear when I left Netflix, and people said, “What are you doing now?” And I’m like, gosh, there’s no title, there’s no company. I don’t know how to… After my life has been defined for the last 20 plus years of saying, “I’m this person at this company,” and then I didn’t have anything to say. And so I quickly began saying, “I’m taking some time for myself.” And I was like, that’s not really true. I’m not really taking time for myself. I’m working on something. I might as well say that.
And the idea that our value is tied to our identity or that title is a very real thing. The fear of being left out… I won’t pretend as if I wasn’t. I was like, oh shoot, do all the invitations stop because I’m no longer the Chief Marketing Officer at Netflix? Who are my real friends, actually? And then didn’t get invited, and I was like, oh shit. I guess I’m not relevant in that space any more. But the interesting thing for me anyway, and the learning, has been understanding how fluid I can be in many different spaces, and maybe it’s just about finding where I fit in now. And I realize that that can be very scary when your worth is tied to that identity. But perhaps we will all be more satisfied with ourselves if we actually understood what our identity is without the titles.
SAFIAN: And you do learn who your friends and allies really are.
SAINT JOHN: Quickly, Bob. Quickly, quickly you understand.
SAFIAN: Yes, yes! When you can’t do something for people any more, some people just go away, but other folks don’t.
SAINT JOHN: There was an article that was written, I think it was the beginning of last year about how many industries I’d been in and how many companies. And as I looked at it, I was like, oh God. Wow. Yeah. I’ve been around; I’ve been in a lot of spaces.
But that also gives me a lot of confidence. So I’m like, I can be in a lot of places. I can maneuver. It certainly makes me feel very powerful. So even without the title, even without the job, even without the friends who will call you and invite you to the Oscar party. And I’ll be just fine.
SAFIAN: This has been great. I’m very glad that this podcast has provided an opportunity for me to reconnect with you, and thank you for taking your time and for keeping your patience with me.
SAINT JOHN: Thank you so much, sir.