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Bozoma Saint John Is A Badass Boss Every Woman Should Know

BOSS UP

It only took one conversation with Bozoma Saint John for me to add her to my list of inspiring boss women that are mentors in my head. She radiates wisdom, light, and positivity. Not to mention that she's absolutely hilarious. Within minutes of our call we're already talking about how we're going to find all of the unicorns in the world and form us a unicorn gang. Hashtag and all.

“Unicorns are mythical creatures who aren't like anything else, but the truth of the matter is, there are enough unicorns out there where we could form a gang and we can take over," she explains this with such assurance and enthusiasm I can't help but to get excited, too.

“Where is the unicorn gang at? Where are these people? They feel like they are alone and they feel like there's no one like them, but guess what, if we all come together, WATCH! There's no stopping us! Unicorn gang, let's go!"

See what I mean? Hilarious.

In case you were wondering, being a unicorn is somewhat of an honor, a blessing will you. It's the term that Bozoma used to describe herself as a child of Ghanian parents who, as a new transplant to Colorado Springs at the age of 14, was different than her peers in every way possible: too tall, too skinny, too black with the kinky hair to match. Too everything as she would say. Instead of being ashamed or trying to conform to the masses, she embraced her differences, proudly donning the braids that represented the beauty of her West African homeland throughout most of her adolescent years.

She may not have known it then, but at the time she was making a statement that would become the mantra she would continue to follow throughout her career: be bold and fearless, never compromise who you are just to please another.

“People are always going to tell you that you should be something else," she says. “If you ask somebody their opinion, they're going to give it to you, and it's not going to be what you have. So why not just celebrate what you have? If you're over here celebrating it, very seldom will people tell you that thing that you're celebrating is not great."

As the former Marketing Director for Apple Music (formerly Beats Music), a position that she held for three years after transitioning from her role as the head of the Music and Entertainment Marketing Group at Pepsi-Cola North America where she helped to secure multi-million dollar endorsement deals with the likes of Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, and Eminem. She was also behind getting Beyoncé to do the half-time performance at Super Bowl XLVII. If that doesn't impress you, maybe being named one of Billboard Magazine's Top Women in Music, Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People, or AdWeek's most exciting personalities in Advertising (which I'll attest to) will have you clamoring to be Boz's bestie.

On this particular Friday afternoon she's managed to slip our call in between meetings. Though she's certainly racked up an inspiring list of credentials, she admits that it wasn't always glitz and glamour for her career; there were many instances where she tried and failed. She specifically remembers a time when, shortly after giving birth to her daughter, she transitioned into the fashion industry—taking on an executive position at a fashion brand, which at the time she perceived to be a great idea given her admirable fashion sense with her own personal style. But she quickly learned that just because you have a love for something, doesn't mean you have to make it your career.

“That was a bad career decision. It was a very noble effort, but I didn't last. I wasn't used to the pace of fashion, I didn't know the business of fashion, and I thought I could just jump in there and do it and I failed miserably. I was out within a year."

But that didn't slow her down from taking risks, after all, without risk there's no reward. And Boz is too fearless not to take a leap of faith.

“If you're not failing, then you're not doing something right," she says. “Honestly! If you're failing a couple of times, you are not doing something right. You know, it's like, what is life but risk? The only way to make great things is to actually take risk. We should all feel more comfortable with failure."

Even taking the position at Apple Music was her stepping out of her comfort zone, but it's allowed her to integrate her love for storytelling and marry it with business—something that she set out to do even as an English major at Wesleyan University. Her parents wanted her to be a pre-med major, which Boz says is more acceptable in the West African culture of career options (other notable career paths include: engineer, doctor, lawyer, and a “businessman" Boz says), but she had a love for the written word, and was determined to make a business of it.

At Apple she was in charge of crafting authentic messages that were impacting the culture and society. If you've ever caught a Beats commercial, there's no denying that they tell a story so real that it will make you forget that they're even marketing a product. Oh, and the Apple Music commercial that aired during the Emmy's with Mary J. Blige, Kerry Washington, and Taraji P. Henson and directed by Ava Duvernay? Yeah, Boz helped bring that to life too.

It's important for her to not just tell stories, but to tell OUR stories. There's often this expectation for creators and curators in Hollywood to tell the stories that are often overlooked, but it extends beyond the big screens and trickles down to the advertising and marketing executives who are responsible for inspiring people to want more of these narratives. For Boz, being in a position where she can positively impact mainstream's perception of men and women of color is something that she doesn't take lightly.

“To me it's the most gratifying thing. I want to write the story of women of color and of millennials and unicorns. I want to write the unicorn stories. Hell yeah! So how do we do that if you're not in the seat of influence, if you're not in the business of influence how do you do that?"

Speaking of influence, I ask Boz whether she has a lot of women who positively influence her.

“Oh yeah, squad life! There's different squads, too. The other thing I have learned is not everyone solves every problem. You need different squads for different situations," she says as she proceeds to break down her squads for me.

There's the work squad who hold her down while she's ripping and running in and out of meetings and events across the country. The squad that she can run to when going through difficult challenges, and who can advise her whenever issues arise. The ones that she can kick back and pop bottles with when celebrating big career and personal achievements. Then there's her home girls whom she turns to when talking everything from guys to her hair falling out.

And, of course, there's her mom.

“Lord knows that woman has some wisdom. She tells me stuff and I'm like 'oh God, I would never,' and two days later I'm like, 'what did you say?'"

I'm debating what squad I can be in, and decide that I'm okay with being a part of the “invisible squad," silently rooting for her as she continues to make waves in an industry where Black women executives are the minority.

Boz is not only wonder woman in the workplace, but also at home as a single mother to her daughter. A couple of years ago she lost her husband of 10 years to cancer, three months before leaving her position at Pepsico and moving to Los Angeles to start her new position at Apple Music. She references this time in her life as one of the points of pressure that have allowed her to become a “rockstar," or diamond if you will. Although it was a devastating loss, Boz hasn't missed a beat, balancing her mommy role with her executive one, sometimes waking up early enough to treat her mini me to a special breakfast, but not chastising herself if she only has time to serve up a bowl of cereal on the way to school.

She also makes sure to take time and show appreciation for herself every day, whether it's a glass of wine or watching a show for an hour instead of answering e-mails. Or splurging on a tube of Flat Out Fabulous MAC lipstick or stylish threads for her many red carpet and event appearances.

Boz says that there's no such thing as balance, but she certainly has shown us that you can have it all—the career, the family, the time for self. As a self-described badass, she's certainly proven that she's worthy of the title.

Perhaps it's something that has taken a lot of trial and error to achieve, and if you ask her, she's still not mastered it yet. She's still taking risks, trying to figure out what works and doesn't work. She's still growing and pushing herself to go to that next level. Still evolving.

“You know it takes a great person to actually evolve. Of course you grow up and change directions, but you know, it's not that easy. You may start off one way and then say you know what, actually I'm going to change it. You know, that takes some big cojones."

That's real.

Watch Bozoma's amazing speech from last year's ADCOLOR Awards as she accepted the 'Rockstar' Award:

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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