A little over a year before Bozoma Saint John became the first chief brand officer at Uber, the transportation company’s best hope to rehabilitate its tarnished image, she hailed a ride from the Four Seasons hotel in Austin, Tex., to a nearby business dinner. What pulled up was a wreck.
“Hey, nothing’s going to happen to me in this car, right?” Ms. Saint John said half-jokingly to the driver. “You can drive, right?”
She expected him to banter back. Instead, he told her that a group of taxi drivers at the airport had vandalized the vehicle and that he needed the money from this ride to fix it. He also mentioned that he had been saving to see Iggy Pop, his late brother’s favorite rocker, at the South by Southwest festival, which Ms. Saint John was attending as the head of global consumer marketing for iTunes and Apple Music.
She gasped. Her dinner was with Iggy Pop. Would the driver, perhaps, like to come along?
Cue the tears (and the five-star passenger rating).
“Everybody was like: ‘What’s happening? Is this your date? I don’t understand. Why is this guy here?’” Ms. Saint John said. “It was such a beautiful, human moment,” one that was chronicled on her Instagram account, @badassboz, where she has more than 40,000 followers.
“We’re all rushing in our lives, and I was so concerned with getting from here to there, and if not for the moment of humanity where we just started talking, that connection would not have happened,” she said. “What a miss that would have been. What a miss!”
This story was part of what convinced Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post and a high-profile member of Uber’s board, that Ms. Saint John was the right person to shepherd Uber out of its recent thicket of legal and ethical scandals.
She moved to New York, and through a temp agency got gigs as a catering server and a receptionist for an Upper East Side dog-washing salon. She also began going to nightclubs, where she made friends with influencers like Rene Mclean, who ran a D.J. boot camp. Her temp agency sent her to SpikeDDB, Spike Lee’s advertising firm. Mr. Lee had fired his assistant and wanted someone to answer phones while he looked for a new one.
“She walked in, she got the job,” he said. “It was evident that she was going to go places.”
Ms. Saint John went from making coffee runs to helping Mr. Lee brainstorm campaigns, like casting Beyoncé, who had just left Destiny’s Child, as Carmen in aPepsi commercial.
“That became the turning point where, O.K., 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,” she said. She also met her husband-to-be, an advertising executive, in the company cafeteria.
In 2013, she orchestrated the halftime show Pepsi sponsored at the Super Bowl featuring Beyoncé. Four months later, her husband’s illness was diagnosed. Their daughter had just turned 4.
“Towards the end of his life, as everything started to fail, he was very adamant that I not stop what I was doing,” Ms. Saint John said. “He was telling me to hold his hands because he couldn’t grasp anymore, saying, ‘Promise me, you’re going to keep going.’”
On the 13th anniversary of their first date, Ms. Saint John posted a status update on Facebook, saying in part, “we reflect over our years together as he has a chemo cocktail and I drink red wine in a paper cup.” Mr. Saint John died in December 2013. Ms. Saint John, true to her word, kept going. In February 2014, Jimmy Iovine, a founder of Interscope Records, found out she was in Los Angeles for a sister’s wedding and requested a meeting at his house in Malibu. He had just started Beats Music, a streaming service, with her teenage idol, Dr. Dre. Who was Mr. Iovine? How did streaming work? She wasn’t quite sure, but she drove to the beachside residence.
“We ended up talking for four hours,” Ms. Saint John said. “I was raw. I needed something to give me some hope for the future. I needed something that could help me see further. When he was talking about all this newfangled stuff, I said: ‘That sounds like the future! I’m going to the future!’”
Ms. Saint John quit Pepsi and moved to Los Angeles as the head of global marketing for Beats. Her role expanded when Apple acquired Beats for $3 billion in 2014, and she came up with popular ad campaigns for Apple Music, like a 2015 commercial in which Mary J. Blige, Kerry Washington and Taraji P. Henson bond over post-breakup songs in a light and palm-frond-filled mansion (“Siri, play ‘I Will Survive,’” Ms. Washington says). Last year, Ms. Saint John walked on stage at Apple’s developers’ conference — the first black woman to do so — blasting old-school rap and commanding the room of mostly white men to bounce to the beat.Wired wondered, “Who the hell is this badass woman, and how did Apple keep her secret for so long?”
After hearing Ms. Saint John’s story of her Austin ride, “I had a flash — ‘Wow, she’d be great at Uber,’” Ms. Huffington said. “I thought she would be a great person to tell these amazing stories of our drivers, to touch people’s hearts, to bring more humanity to the brand.”
In May, Ms. Saint John and Travis Kalanick, an Uber founder and then chief executive, spent eight hours at Ms. Huffington’s home in Los Angeles, discussing what she might do for the company, both grand and simple.
“I think I might need to wear a disguise, but I want to drive,” she said. “What happens when someone gets in the car and they’re upset? Is that a moment? Do you just stay quiet or do you talk?”
Mr. Kalanick would step down as chief executive a month later. The hunt is on for his successor. But whoever it is will have Ms. Saint John helping steer from the passenger seat, stilettos and speakers on.