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Bozoma Saint John has a résumé any executive would envy, having led marketing or branding at Pepsi-Cola, Apple Music, Uber and Endeavor before joining Netflix as CMO in June. In other words, it’s a track record that one would think industry insiders would seek to tout as an exemplar of their system working, exceptional merit attracting the top brands.
But instead, in December, Ad Age called Saint John “the CMO most likely to jump jobs in 2021,” casting her career in a cynical light. Readers were swift to call out the publication’s characterization as an incident of bias, singling out and critiquing a rare Black female C-suite exec’s moves with no context or exploration of the myriad ways in which race and gender impact the workplace experience. (Ad Age apologized and revised its story.)
Saint John spoke with THR about the conflicting emotions around professional acclaim, the personal toll of tokenism and the recent epiphany that has renewed her hope for a more equitable future.
There is at once validation and real anger in finally being celebrated in your career. Validation in being like, “See, I told you I was dope. Look at all the things I did.”
But that moment is preceded by years of trying to express my ideas without being looked at as odd, trying to shape-shift and code-switch and find the ways to make others feel comfortable with ideas that were simply reflecting my own experience.
So finally getting to that moment of recognition feels like reaching nirvana, but people only acknowledge the fact that you arrived. No one acknowledges what it took to get there. And that is where the anger shows up. And then, guess what? Can’t even express that, because then you’ll be the angry Black woman.
The other piece of it is that when we win, it’s a win for the culture, which of course is heroic and noble, but sometimes don’t you just want the crowd to cheer for you? Sometimes don’t you just want them to say your name? We’re not afforded that. We are uniquely asked to be magnanimous in our win.
On the flip side, the fear of failure is much more heightened. If you fail, it’s everybody’s failure. The pressure that comes with that can be crushing. You have to be perfect. If you lose this job, then perhaps the next person won’t get the shot to do it. Nobody ever said, “Because that white man failed, all white men are failures.” But a Black woman fails, it’s like, “Maybe she couldn’t do the job because she was one of those other people. Maybe the environment is just too tough.”
The idea of tokenism is super personal to me. We’re talking about real human beings who work hard and love the work we do. We’re not here to be a stat or anybody’s pet project. When we say, “My blood, sweat and tears got me here,” that’s not some pithy statement we’re making about how hard we work. When we talk about tokenism, believe me — it’s not as if we don’t think it ourselves. You get put in the role, and you know everybody else is thinking it, and you’re thinking it a little bit too. So guess what happens: You have to outperform.
That’s where the sweat comes from. And you will bleed for the job and bleed for the industry. You’ll go above and beyond to prove the fact that you’re not there just because you’re a Black woman.
I wasn’t put in this role because I’m a Black woman. I was put in this role because I’m dope at what I do. And the fact that I’m a Black woman is just the extra sauce. You’re lucky that I’m a Black woman, that I have the perspective I have, that I have the nuance of experience, that I can look at things from an angle that’s different from the way everybody else in the room is looking at it.
Maybe in the next 10 years, things will look different. I look back to whom I admired coming up. Jerri DeVard was a badass before we started calling ourselves that. I met her in the early 2000s when I was 23 or 24 and she was the head of marketing for Verizon. She was the one Black woman marketer you could point to who was fierce, fashion-forward, smart, had the big job. Maybe even she thought that there would be more at this point in time.
Now I’m sitting where she sat. There’s probably somebody in their early 20s looking at me. And my hope is that she doesn’t get to this point and also look around and say, “Gosh, I hope that when the next one comes, she can see more people around her.”
I don’t think it’s a surprise that Ad Age was not the first time somebody has called into question my accomplishments or tried to twist them into something negative. Reaching the mountaintop just means you’re susceptible to the high winds. They’re fierce, they’re strong and they’re much colder. But it’s not often that I feel the support of the multitudes, where it doesn’t feel so lonely. So I shed tears when I saw people coming to my defense. I may look unshakable, but the idea that I’m immune is like the idea of the magical Negro. The truth of the matter is that the tears still come, I still bleed and I’m still sweating my ass off. I am not superhuman. I just happen to be super good at what I do.
I was looking for shelter, and surprisingly, it came from people who were at the base of the mountain. They said, “We can’t have you fall, nope! Because that’ll mean none of us can stay up there.” That is actually the beauty of the community. They saw themselves in what happened. I’m re-energized by the fact that this is actually not the lonely journey after all.
If we can be so bold as to say there’s a solution, it’s in recognizing that you’re not by yourself. It was very much an awakening for me, knowing that even though perhaps I don’t see a lot of people exactly like me on those mountaintops, there’s a cavalry on its way. It’s just a matter of time, and all I have to do is dig in my heels and continue to stay right there. It’s such a beautiful and comforting thought.
This story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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