Bozoma Saint John Bridges The Gap Between Culture and Commerce Pepsi. Apple. Uber. Endeavor. Just a handful of the companies branding guru Bozoma Saint John has already had her hands on. The daughter of a Ghanaian politician raised between the U.S. and Africa, Saint John embodies a worldliness, a confidence and a curiosity that has made her one of the most sought-after marketers working today. She joins Stretch & Bobbito for a lively discussion about her Ghanaian roots, the tough life lessons she learned from Spike Lee and her newest challenge: helping Papa John's Pizza re-brand after a CEO scandal.
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Bozoma Saint John Bridges The Gap Between Culture and Commerce

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Bozoma Saint John Bridges The Gap Between Culture and Commerce

Bozoma Saint John Bridges The Gap Between Culture and Commerce

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  • Transcript

ADRIAN BARTOS, HOST:

Hey, everybody. Just to let you know, this podcast may contain some adult or possibly offensive language.

ROBERT GARCIA, HOST:

No nudity, though.

BARTOS: (Laughter) Unless you're thinking about naked people.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

BOZOMA SAINT JOHN: I was like, Dad, I have a job with Spike Lee.

BARTOS: Yeah, what did he say?

SAINT JOHN: And he was like, (imitating Ghanaian accent) so you are not going to become a doctor, eh?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: I was like, no, no, no. This is Spike. (Imitating Ghanaian accent) Eh, is he going to put you in film to be doctor, eh?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: I was like, no.

BARTOS: One more, one more.

SAINT JOHN: He's like, right, right, right. (Imitating Ghanaian accent) You're getting no money from me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BROWN'S "CHASE")

BARTOS: Hey, yo, yo, yo, yo, yo, yozers (ph).

GARCIA: Stretch, you haven't, this season, quite given them the proper '90s yo, yo, yo signature.

BARTOS: I kind of feel like it's time to move on from that.

GARCIA: Really?

BARTOS: Yeah, yeah.

GARCIA: Ah, OK.

BARTOS: What's up, everybody? This is Stretch Armstrong.

GARCIA: And my name is Bobbito Garcia, aka Kool Bob Love. Together, we are the hosts of...

BARTOS: WHAT'S GOOD...

ADRIAN BARTOS AND ROBERT GARCIA: WITH STRETCH & BOBBITO.

GARCIA: Wow, that was perfect, Stretchy.

BARTOS: Harmonize.

GARCIA: Today, we have a phenomenal guest. I am blown away by her accomplishments already. Let me just run down a couple of them for you - top 40 executives under 40 by Billboard Magazine, most exciting personality in advertising by Adweek.

BARTOS: She is the former head of music and entertainment at PepsiCo. She was the marketing director for Apple Music, was the former chief brand officer at a little company known as Uber. And she is currently the chief marketing officer, CMO...

GARCIA: Yeah.

BARTOS: ...At Endeavor Entertainment.

GARCIA: Her responsibilities are great. And her name is Bozoma Saint John.

BARTOS: In addition to having just the boss ass resume of all time, she's also had a really fascinating life story. And she has occupied this space as an executive in a very unique and powerful way. And we're going to get into that with her.

GARCIA: I would say groundbreaking, really.

BARTOS: Pioneering?

GARCIA: Yeah.

BARTOS: Yeah.

GARCIA: I mean, she is carving her own path.

BARTOS: Breaking the mold.

GARCIA: Bozoma Saint John coming up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: You rolled up here dolo. I mean, outside of the film crew following you.

SAINT JOHN: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. I have a thousand people following me all the time. You know what I'm saying?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: I have an entourage. Don't get it confused. Makeup is downstairs. No, I'm kidding. I'm kidding.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

BARTOS: The voice you just heard is the voice of someone that we've been really looking forward to sitting with. It's...

GARCIA: Word.

BARTOS: It's the one and only Bozoma Saint John.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah.

BARTOS: Welcome to...

GARCIA: Pa-pow (ph).

BARTOS: ...WHAT'S GOOD WITH STRETCH & BOBBITO.

SAINT JOHN: Thank you.

GARCIA: Word up.

SAINT JOHN: Woohoo (ph). I'm so excited.

BARTOS: Yes. Yes. Well, looking at your Instagram feed...

SAINT JOHN: Oh, Lord - danger.

BARTOS: You see a woman who doesn't really look like the typical executive.

SAINT JOHN: Word up (laughter).

GARCIA: Deliberately.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: Yeah, so if you could just get into that a little bit, like...

SAINT JOHN: Yeah.

BARTOS: You're incredibly radiant. And you're impossible to miss. I mean, you're...

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: Really?

BARTOS: ...Stunning. You wear incredibly colorful clothes. You're very tall. You know, this isn't, like, the typical...

SAINT JOHN: (Laughter).

BARTOS: ...Executive.

SAINT JOHN: Really?

BARTOS: Right (laughter).

SAINT JOHN: Maybe it should be (laughter).

BARTOS: Well, can you talk about that? Yeah.

SAINT JOHN: Let's talk about that. Yeah.

GARCIA: You're making it.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah. Yeah. It should be. It should be. Well, I just feel, like, you know, when I was younger and starting out, I was looking, you know, to people who I thought were successful and then trying to mold myself after them. But they were a lot of like...

GARCIA: Like who?

SAINT JOHN: ...White men in gray suits, you know, because that's who the CEOs were and the CMOs. And they were all very buttoned up. And no one looked the way that I hoped to look like, you know, because my idols were fashionistas and musicians and Flo-Jo.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: You know what I mean? Like - yeah, Flo-Jo for real. I mean, it's like even, you know, the way I do my nails, the way I wear my hair very much patterned after her, you know?

GARCIA: Wait. Let me see your nails. Oh, pow.

SAINT JOHN: They're stilettos.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

BARTOS: Damn.

SAINT JOHN: These are also weapons. But yeah, I just didn't see anyone that looked the way I wanted to look. And I tried for a while to look like the people that I thought were successful and, therefore, what I needed to look like. And I was unsuccessful...

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: ...At that. You know, it was just really a disaster. I wasn't interesting. There was - you know, none of my personality came out because I'm so busy trying to be something else, you know? And I was really uncomfortable in it. So I spent all my energy trying not to be uncomfortable. What a waste of time.

BARTOS: Was there a day when you were like, you know what?

SAINT JOHN: Yo, this is...

BARTOS: You're looking at your closet, like...

SAINT JOHN: Yeah.

BARTOS: ...All these gray suits. And you're like, nah.

SAINT JOHN: Yo, true story, I woke up one day, no clean shirt, like zero. And for a second, I thought I could just spray some perfume on something - you know what I mean? - and make it work.

BARTOS: (Laughter).

GARCIA: What is that, Febreeze? (Laughter).

SAINT JOHN: Yeah, you know - well, ain't no Febreeze back then, OK? It hadn't been invented yet.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: That's called - they call it the French bath.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: You know, and I was like...

BARTOS: French shower, excuse me.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, just spritz a little bit.

BARTOS: Sorry French people.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: You know, spray a little something on there, get it clean. But also, you know, black girl makeup, so it wasn't happening. It just looked dirty. So what I had was, like, this flowery printed shirt that I actually really loved. And I thought, well, if I don't have the white shirt, I'm just going to go with the thing I really love because if I'm going to get, like, looked at funny, at least I'm going to be looked at funny and wearing something I really love. And so I wore that to the office. And...

GARCIA: Where was this at?

SAINT JOHN: At Pepsi.

GARCIA: Got you.

SAINT JOHN: And it, I mean - when I - I mean, listen; people were walking around with, like, you know, the khaki with the line down the front...

BARTOS: (Laughter).

SAINT JOHN: ...You know, pleat...

GARCIA: Yeah. Yeah, no doubt.

SAINT JOHN: ...Type situation...

GARCIA: Dockers.

SAINT JOHN: ...Blue button-down. Yeah. And so no one was walking around in a flowery shirt. And I walked in. I got a couple of weird looks, but I felt so great that day. You know, I just - and I literally could not go back. I just couldn't do it. And by the way, I just think it has also much more psychological impact. You know, that if you're bringing the fullness of who you are superficially, then hopefully, you're also doing that emotionally. And at a deeper level, you're also bringing the fullness of yourself. And you're not trying to pretend to be something else either. So maybe that also helps with our corporate environments and allows for more diversity, not just of race and gender but of ideas and experiences and all of that.

BARTOS: Has your presence at these companies engendered that kind of freedom? I mean...

SAINT JOHN: I hope so.

BARTOS: Do you see that in the office?

SAINT JOHN: I hope so, yeah. I mean, I constantly get that from young women, especially, you know? Actually the other day, this young man at Endeavor, a Nigerian young man - he's an assistant. He's on an assistant desk. And I saw him in the elevator. And he pointed to his ear and he had, like, this little earring in. And he was just like, I wore this because of you.

GARCIA: I...

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: And I was like, what? Like, really? Like, I just love that so much, you know? I was like, that's what I want on my resume - not the companies. I want the resume that says, like, I made a difference because I was there.

GARCIA: What's your early entrepreneurial endeavors preteen?

SAINT JOHN: Wow, preteen. You know, so I grew up in a house - very strict African parents, you know, from Ghana. They did not understand the concept of chores for money, you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: They didn't get that.

BARTOS: Or allowance.

SAINT JOHN: No, no, no. There was no such thing, you know what I mean? It was like, you are lucky to be alive.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: You are lucky to live here. You will do your part, you know what I mean?

(CLAPPING)

SAINT JOHN: And my mom was also very stereotypically, you know, a Ghanaian mother, who was raising four daughters, who believed that they should cook and clean to the best of their ability, you know? But my first, like, paying job, I was actually an AT&T operator in Colorado Springs, Colo. It was my first real job, and most of it was from the U.S. to Mexico - were the calls that I was getting. And so I would literally push the buttons to connect those calls. And sometimes, I'd have to sit on the call and wait to make sure that they reached the person they were getting, you know, because sometimes, those calls wouldn't go through properly. And then, you know, you don't want somebody to lose their money.

GARCIA: Yeah.

SAINT JOHN: So I would sit and wait to make sure they got the right person.

BARTOS: So you mentioned Colorado Springs.

SAINT JOHN: Yes.

BARTOS: What was junior high like for you?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: It was really strange, you know, because before that, I'd lived mostly in Africa and pretty internationally, you know, with, like, kids who were coming from a lot of different places. I think that's the misconception, you know, about Africa is that somehow, like, you know, people who are there have never seen anything before. You know, they've never seen a white person before in their lives. You know, like it was some sort of strange being. But no, it's very international.

And so I was really shocked when I got to Colorado Springs and found out other people didn't have passports, you know, or that had not traveled outside of Colorado. So that was really shocking to me that people didn't have a concept of anything outside of Colorado Springs and also really believed the things they saw on TV about Africa because it was just such a different experience that I had, you know? So the questions I would get about, you know, like, when did you learn how to speak English? And I was like, in my house, we speak four languages, like, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: Or it was like, you know, oh, when was the first time you had clothes? And I was like, shut up, you know? Like, it was just so shocking to me. But part of it was also the need to fit in, and so trying to find the points of connection - which, by the way, I feel like has really helped me throughout my life, that it doesn't really matter if somebody doesn't hold the same belief systems as you or doesn't come from the same place that you do. There is going to be some connection. You just have to find it.

BARTOS: What were those connections that you found initially?

SAINT JOHN: Oh, my gosh. So many different things. I didn't know what football was, right, when I came. Like football, to me, was soccer, obviously. And I didn't know that I would fall in love with John Elway, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: But I really did.

GARCIA: The great - what is it? - Denver Broncos quarterback.

SAINT JOHN: Yes, yes, the Broncos. Like, I love football now. Like, the Broncos are my team. There were certain artists that I was unfamiliar with. Obviously, in Ghana, you know, Michael Jackson and everybody else was hot. But like, you know, Taylor Dayne was somebody that I was like, whoa, where did this person come from, you know what I mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL IT TO MY HEART")

TAYLOR DAYNE: (Singing) I feel the night explode when we're together.

SAINT JOHN: It was all of, you know, those types of things - dance moves, and music and what was happening on MTV and the Denver Broncos and, you know, country music, which I also found I actually liked, too, you know? Garth Brooks, what up? You know? It's like...

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: Bob?

GARCIA: No comment.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: I saw Spike Lee's new film, "BlacKkKlansman," and it was shot, and it takes place...

SAINT JOHN: Yes, in Colorado Springs.

GARCIA: ...In Colorado Springs. And I wasn't aware that there was KKK in Colorado Springs. But at what point did you first cross paths with that sort of, like, close-minded, ignorant, you know, sort of mindset?

SAINT JOHN: Well, it was way before Colorado Springs. When I was 6, my father, who was a politician in Ghana, was thrown into political detention when the government was overthrown in a military coup d'etat. And my mom had to escape Ghana with me, my two younger sisters, and she was pregnant with my youngest sister. And we came to Washington, D.C., under political asylum.

Unfortunately, it's like for me at 6, you know, going to school, again, you would think that in a city that is so used to diplomats or used to people from international territories, that, you know, you would be welcomed with open arms, but that wasn't the case. You know, people had very ignorant things to say and ignorant questions. People would say rude things to my mother, and I was just like, do you know - like I wanted to say, do you who she is (laughter) you know what I mean? Like, you don't know who you talking to.

GARCIA: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.

SAINT JOHN: And so I was very aware early that people's, you know, misconceptions about blackness or about Africanness was really real, and that it wasn't often based on the truth or based on reality. So by the time I was 12, and by the time I got to Colorado Springs, you know, any of that kind of, you know, activity or harshness or misconception I was already prepared for, I already knew was coming.

GARCIA: So you choose Wesleyan in Middletown, Conn. I attended there from '84 to '88.

SAINT JOHN: Hey, hey.

GARCIA: I'm wondering did the, quote, unquote, "diversity university" and, you know, the place that probably coined political correctness, is that what drew you to the school?

SAINT JOHN: Well, OK, so it's kind of a complicated question because - little known fact - I was actually born at Wesleyan.

GARCIA: Oh, word up.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah, my dad actually went to Wesleyan. He has a double Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and anthropology at Wesleyan.

GARCIA: Oh, wow.

SAINT JOHN: I decided I was not going to go to Wesleyan because of those reasons, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: There just no way. And my dad forced me to go to alumni sons and daughters weekend at Wes, and, yeah, the rest is history. I went and I...

GARCIA: You caught the bug?

SAINT JOHN: Oh, man. I made friends. I went to Malcolm X House. I was done.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: It was finished. I was like, you mean I could live with all black kids, and there's no one here to supervise us? I could play spades all day in the hallway? What? Oh, it was over. It was done. I was there.

BARTOS: Turn on the Tupac.

SAINT JOHN: Oh, listen; OK, I was so ready. Oh, it was - it was phenomenal.

GARCIA: I heard that you - or I read that you used to throw parties at the X House, too?

SAINT JOHN: Yes. Oh, man. That was my - that was my jam. Yeah, yeah. I threw parties.

BARTOS: What year was this?

SAINT JOHN: Well, I went there '95 to '99.

BARTOS: Yeah. How come you didn't bring us up there? What's going on?

SAINT JOHN: (Laughter) I know, I should have. You know who I did bring up there, though? Again, little known fact - Jay-Z.

GARCIA: All right.

BARTOS: Yep.

GARCIA: To Malcolm X House?

SAINT JOHN: To MoCon - imagine.

GARCIA: He performed at MoCon?

SAINT JOHN: And there were three people in the audience. It was a disaster.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

BARTOS: OK. You're exaggerating three.

SAINT JOHN: No, I'm telling you, man. It was me and like two other people, OK?

BARTOS: (Laughter).

SAINT JOHN: OK. Maybe a little exaggeration, but it was embarrassing. It was terrible. It was terrible. It's all right, though. It was a good experience. I had a good time.

BARTOS: He got his check.

SAINT JOHN: Yes.

GARCIA: You moved to New York. What was the decision? I mean, half the campus was from New York, you know, any house.

SAINT JOHN: (Laughter) Yes, half the campus was from New York. I idolized New York. My parents, like, were ruling with, like, an iron fist from all the way across the country, you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: And I was generally an obedient kid, you know? And so if they said, don't go to New York, I didn't go to New York. You know, it was like I went one time with my best friend, who was from Brooklyn, from Bed-Stuy. And she took me, my wallet was stolen, and then that was the end of that.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: My parents were like, see we told you, you know? My father - oh, my God.

GARCIA: (Singing) Manhattan keeps on making it. Brooklyn keeps on taking it.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: Wow.

SAINT JOHN: I mean, listen. It was just - but I idolized New York, so I absolutely had my sights set on moving to New York after graduating. But I was supposed to go to med school. So I was just in a crisis. I didn't have a plan (laughter). And my parents were like, well, you have to go to school. Like, you're going to do that. And I was like, OK, well, how about I take a year to get all of these, like, emotions out, you know? Like, I just want to get all that childish stuff out. I'm going to do it in New York. And they were like, OK, you could do that. We're not supporting that, though, so no money for you (laughter).

BARTOS: So all that childish stuff, what is that?

SAINT JOHN: Oh, well, I thought it meant, like, just going out, you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: OK, you want to party.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah, I want to party. I wanted to, like, live in New York by myself, you know? I just told my parents the childish stuff so that they would think I would get that all out of my system and then go to med school and become a serious doctor somewhere, you know, some surgeon. But I definitely had other plans. I had one friend, who had graduated the year before me, and she was getting her MFA from Columbia. And so she had an apartment just above, like, 126th. There was this restaurant called Floridita that was right on the corner.

GARCIA: No doubt.

BARTOS: We are very familiar with it.

SAINT JOHN: Right? Yo, Floridita saved my life. Let me tell you something. I - when I tell you I had no money, I had no money - no money.

GARCIA: Five dollars.

SAINT JOHN: Listen; no, less than. Let me tell you what I would do. There was a wonder - I wish I knew where she was now. There was this woman who worked there, you know? She worked behind the counter. She worked in, like, the area - they sold the rolls, you know, like, by the entrance of the - the back of the entrance.

GARCIA: Yep, yep, yep (laughter).

SAINT JOHN: And I would go back there, and she would sell me - I don't know if she was supposed to do it or not but she would sell me a roll for 10 cents. And I would take that roll - and I had temp jobs - and so I would go to whatever job I had that day, and I would drink the tea or the hot chocolate and eat my roll. And sometimes that would be the only meal for the day.

BARTOS: While you're clubbing, while you're - if you've got no money, you're just - you're couch surfing. Is this dark cloud, this like - this bit of anxiety about you realizing you're not going to go to medical school, and I've got to talk to Mom and Dad about this - was that just over your head?

SAINT JOHN: Yeah. Oh, yeah. That was over my head, for sure. But I - maybe counterintuitively, it was also making me live very fast, you know, because I was like, oh, this is going to come to an end.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: So I've got to like - you know what I mean? I got to make the best of this. So I was living really, really fast, but also, you know, trying to make anything secure because I knew the only way to get out of it is if I actually had a plan for something else. Divine intervention happened one day when the temp agency said Spike Lee's office had called. He had fired his assistant, and he needed someone to come answer the phones. And I was going to go in and do the best damn answering of phones that I could do.

GARCIA: And this is at the DDB ad agency.

SAINT JOHN: Yes, yes, yeah, yeah. He had a joint venture with DDB. And by the way, I think the only reason I got that job was because I was black (laughter), you know what I mean? I was, like, the only black person at the temp agency, so they were like, send the black one, you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: Which was great - the only time being black has helped me.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: But anyway, you know, Spike now, he loves to tell the story that in the first few days, you know, he was writing "Bamboozled" at the time, and he knew I was an English major, and I was a pretty uppity English major, you know, felt like I knew everything. And he was like, fine, here, read this, you know, I think as a challenge. And I think he thought it would take me a couple of weeks. Well, no, I went home, and like everything else, I'm very intense about it, and I read it in two days. And by the way, when he said, read it, I heard, make edits. That's what I heard him say.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: That's not what he said. And when I came back to the office - by the way, I made the edits in red pen. Like, I mean, this is legit. Like, why? Why would you do that, you know? So I - he comes in the office, and I'm like, oh, I finished reading the script. Here you go, you know? And first he looks at me like, no, you couldn't have. And I'm like, yeah, I did. Here, I read the whole thing. And I made some edits to it, and that's when I knew I'd made a mistake, you know? He was like, you make edits to my script?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: You know, and I was like, oh, was I not supposed to do that? That's not what I was supposed to do? You didn't want that, you know? But he like...

BARTOS: Reaches for the Wite-Out.

SAINT JOHN: Right, exactly. He, like, storms off into his office. He slams the door. I definitely knew I was fired that day. So I just grabbed my bag, and I was sitting there waiting, you know, for him to come say, like, get the, you know, out of here. And I think he waited - he made me wait a long time on purpose. He came out probably, you know, a few hours later. It felt like a year later, but he came out a few hours later. And he was like, you made some good suggestions. You should stay here. And I was like, oh, I have a job. I have a job. I finally have a job.

BARTOS: And was that the job that put the battery in your back to tell your parents that plans are changing?

SAINT JOHN: Yes, that was it. That was it. Plans are changing. Plus I, you know, dropped Spike's name heavy, you know? I called Dad. I was like, Dad, I have a job with Spike Lee.

BARTOS: What'd he say?

SAINT JOHN: And he was like, (imitating Ghanaian accent) eh, so you are not going to become a doctor, eh?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: I was like no, no, no. This is Spike. (Imitating Ghanaian accent) Eh, is he going to put you in film to be doctor, eh?

And I was like, no.

BARTOS: One more. One more.

SAINT JOHN: Exactly, right, right, right. (Imitating Ghanaian accent) You are getting no money from me.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: And I was like, ahh (ph).

GARCIA: So what - you know, what quirky run-ins did you have with his - aside from this moment...

SAINT JOHN: Oh, my gosh. Yeah.

GARCIA: ...You know, because, I mean, Spike is beloved, particularly, you know, in the last - with "BlacKkKlansman," what he did for the Netflix series with "She's Gotta Have It."

SAINT JOHN: Yes, yes.

GARCIA: And, I mean, he's just, like, super on top right now. But, you know, a lot of people don't know, like, yo, Spike has his moments where he can be a little bit of asshole. Yeah.

SAINT JOHN: Oh, man, yeah. I mean, he likes his way his way, and that's it. And he loves to teach tough lessons. Probably one of the biggest lessons I learned - or one of the quirks - was that I at one point quit working at the agency because I thought I wanted to be a writer. And (laughter) he was like, you don't know anything about writing. You know, he was like, you think you do, but you don't. He's like, you're a good editor, you're not a great writer. So I quit.

And it was terrible. Like, you know, two months of, like, sitting in cafes. Like, you know, I was wearing a black T-shirt, thought I was, you know, super cute. I was doing it for the looks, not really for the work of it. And I called him. And I was like, OK, maybe you were right. Like, I would like to have lunch so we can talk about it because I need some advice. And, you know, maybe you can let me come back a little bit...

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: Little bit.

SAINT JOHN: ...So I could, like, lean somewhere. I was like, as a part-time basis so I could, like, get some money.

BARTOS: Temp status.

SAINT JOHN: And so I told him I want to go to lunch. And we make the date. We go to lunch. You know, during lunch he gives me great advice. Like, you know, gave me, like, a - you know, like, a - like, the big brother or, like, the older cousin talk. Harsh, but it was all right stuff. And the bill comes. And he looks at it. I mean, I was like, I definitely don't have enough money in my account, you know, to, like, cover this bill. There's no way. But I was looking at him like, yo, isn't he going to pay for this? Like, I can't believe - like, he was my boss. Like, he should pay for it. And plus, I make no money. He should pay for it.

The - he looked at it. And he - then he pushed it to me, you know. And he was like, you asked me to lunch. I give you great advice. You're going to pay for this lunch. And I was like, you know? But thank God for delayed technology at the time because I put down my card, I knew that joint was, like, going to bounce like a mother, you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: But, like, I put down my little debit card. They ran it. I signed it. We ran up out of there. You know, I still don't think it cleared. But whatever, it's fine, you know. All those years later, I just - I really appreciated that lesson, you know, which was just, like, you know, you got to pay for the advice.

GARCIA: Word.

SAINT JOHN: You know? Yeah.

BARTOS: After a series of jobs at different places, you end up at Pepsi.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah.

BARTOS: It was your idea to bring Beyonce in for the halftime show at the Super Bowl.

SAINT JOHN: Oh, man. Yes, that was...

BARTOS: Can you tell us, like, how that went down?

SAINT JOHN: Oh, man. My relationship with Beyonce started actually back when I first started working as - with Spike because, like I said, I was out on the street, out in the club. Many people don't remember that when she decided to leave Destiny's Child, it was, like, not - people panned her. And so I think now people look at it and think, oh, that must have been easy for her. She was always, like, on top. But at the time, she wasn't.

She had played Carmen in an MTV special called the - you know, "Carmen: The Hip Hopera" (ph). You know, when Spike asked around the office to all the young people what they were interested in and what they thought was great, I mentioned that. And he took that idea and created a commercial for Pepsi in which Beyonce starred as Carmen. And it was her first deal with Pepsi, was her first big, like, you know, endorsement deal.

And so after I got to Pepsi, I was involved in five deals with her. And the last one was the one with the Super Bowl with the NFL. The reason why that was really important is, again, I think, you know, we forget a little bit of history in that the last black woman to have been on that stage was Janet Jackson.

GARCIA: And her nipple was exposed, and...

SAINT JOHN: Yeah. Yes. The wardrobe malfunction.

GARCIA: Yeah (laughter).

SAINT JOHN: You know? And it was just such a win because there were several things that, of course, were also complicating the matter. One was that - having to prove the fact that a black woman could take center stage by herself with no secondary act, you know, and hold the audience. There was a real argument about that...

BARTOS: That's wild.

SAINT JOHN: ...And whether or not that the audience that was watching the Super Bowl would be engaged. The second thing is that that year was Barack Obama's inauguration, and Beyonce sang at his inauguration. She used a backing track, and people said that she couldn't sing, that - it was, like, a scandal.

It was going into that Super Bowl with that scandal. And the NFL was, again, very upset about the fact that not only were they nervous about the fact that she could carry the audience or not, but now we have this singing scandal. You know? And Beyonce does what she does best. And at the press conference leading up to the Super Bowl, she asked everyone to rise.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BEYONCE: Would you guys mind standing?

SAINT JOHN: You know, we walk in. By the way, no one really had an idea about what she was going to do. I definitely thought - again, I thought I was going to get fired (laughter) because I was like, oh, what's this woman going to do now?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: She sang the anthem a capella.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEYONCE: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see by the dawn's early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming...

SAINT JOHN: And it was just - I mean maybe one of the most beautiful musical performances I've ever heard. I mean, she sang the hell out of the song. Ah, it was beautiful. It was beautiful. But then she went on the stage and killed - destroyed it. You know, it was like - it was just - it was just beautiful. You know, it really felt like such a win because it was - like, listen, guys. Like, again, you know, the emotion and our connectivity as human beings is what's going to win - you know, not the fact that, like, she's black and will people, like, connect to her - what a crazy thought.

BARTOS: That particular Beyonce deal, as you described, was a major win. But it also coincided with what would become a colossal loss for you personally.

SAINT JOHN: Yes.

BARTOS: At the time, your husband was diagnosed with cancer. You say that he gave you the gift of urgency. And you've spoken about how that informed your career. But I'm just curious how it affected your relationship with him and what things you did together urgently in that time.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah. Oh, well, 2013, I mean it was really pivotal. You know, the high of the high with Beyonce at the Super Bowl - I felt invincible. Like, we were just - you know, we were living in Manhattan and just feeling great. And then in May, he was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma, which is a rare cancer. By October, we knew that he was not going to survive the cancer. The decision at that point was whether or not he was going to continue treatment, you know, or stop, and we would just try to live every day.

He wanted to do everything that he could - that he'd always waited to do. I, on the other hand, was trying to, like, gather the past. And the urgency - or the gift of the urgency was that every day he'd wake up, and there'd be something else that was wrong, you know, because he was losing functionality. So whatever we could do that day - literally whatever he could physically do, we would then make the decision and do that thing. And by the way, sometimes it was like simple things. You know, sometimes it was like the - you know, going to, like, our favorite little cafe one last time, taking that drive in Edgewater, you know, where you can see Manhattan.

GARCIA: Yeah, in Jersey.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah. It's such a beautiful drive. I never appreciated it. We stopped at this little lookout point, and he proposed all over again, you know, just one last time.

GARCIA: That's beautiful.

SAINT JOHN: And it just really enforced for me the fact that not only do I live urgently, but I don't wait for the experiences. You know, often we say, like, oh, you know, in six months, I'm going to do this. Or, you know, in two years when I have enough money, I'm going to - duh, duh, duh. Nah. You know, like, why are you going to wait? Just do it.

GARCIA: He passes. And I don't know how shortly after or how long after, you get approached and solicited by Jimmy Iovine to join Beats in Los Angeles. Now it's like a complete change of scenery.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah.

GARCIA: Was it helpful to to change locations with your daughter after?

SAINT JOHN: Absolutely, absolutely because everything in Manhattan reminded me of him. And what Jimmy did, which was, you know, three months after Peter died...

GARCIA: Was he aware of that?

SAINT JOHN: Who? Jimmy?

GARCIA: Was Jimmy aware that...

SAINT JOHN: He was not aware before we had lunch.

GARCIA: So he's coming at you just because he thinks you're like...

SAINT JOHN: Yeah, he's coming at me like, you know, I think you're a great marketer. You know, he wanted someone who - he was building Beats Music on top of Beats Electronics, right? And he wanted a marketer who understood, you know, big brands who also understood the intricacies of pop culture and could put those two things together. And so he was just - he was just interested in me.

And then I sat on his couch, and I was like, this is like the worst time of my life. You know, I was like, I'm just - I'm not only afraid. I am very sad. And I don't know that I have the joy, you know, to actually bring to the work that you will need. And he was instrumental to me anyway in my healing really because he said, you know, well, if you sit in New York and think about the past, you will be stuck there. And he was like, you need something to draw you into the future. And I was like, well, I don't even know about tech, and I don't know how to do that. And he's like, well, I don't either, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: He was like, I don't know. But what better way to live than to go figure it out.

GARCIA: Yeah.

SAINT JOHN: You know, he was like, do that. He was like, focus on something else. Focus on something you don't know that you haven't experienced before - a new thing in a new city. And I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, that make - that totally makes sense. So I literally left his house, called my boss and quit my job.

BARTOS: Currently you're at Endeavor, which is a little bit different from the marketing jobs you've had before.

SAINT JOHN: A little bit.

BARTOS: So can you just describe what you're doing there exactly?

SAINT JOHN: Yes, yes, yes. So it feels actually like the culmination of a career - you know, this Endeavor job because Endeavor is the parent company of WME, which is the largest sound agency in the world, IMG, which represents a lot of fashion and sports - Miss Universe, the UFC, Professional Bull Riders Association, which is based in Pueblo, Colo., by the way. And it just - it allows me to touch all kinds of silos, you know, in pop culture. I get to do a bunch of stuff with people that I've always dreamt about partnering with, you know, and helping to navigate the next evolution of their careers and their brands. So I'm really excited about that.

BARTOS: So you get to pick and choose the projects you work on?

SAINT JOHN: Sort of, yes.

BARTOS: I'm just curious about Papa John's, specifically.

SAINT JOHN: Oh, yes. Yes.

BARTOS: So the CEO - so Papa John's positions itself as a company as being against the NFL players that were taking a knee - is that right? Or was it the CEO, particularly?

SAINT JOHN: The CEO, particularly.

GARCIA: The former CEO?

SAINT JOHN: Yes, yes. John Schnatter.

BARTOS: And he used some rather improper language...

SAINT JOHN: Yes. The N-word.

BARTOS: ...Describing black people. Right.

SAINT JOHN: Correct.

BARTOS: Right. And then he was...

SAINT JOHN: Ousted.

BARTOS: ...Gone.

SAINT JOHN: Yes, fired.

BARTOS: You come in.

SAINT JOHN: Yes.

BARTOS: And it's your job to do some damage control, sort of - no?

SAINT JOHN: No. So here's the thing is that I think, you know, that's what it looks like on the surface. What I have, good or bad, fallen into is what I call, like, corporate activism - you know? - because my job is not just my job.

Because I happen to be a black woman, I also end up taking on the responsibilities of driving diversity and inclusion in almost every company I'm at, whether it was Apple or, of course, at Uber and now at Endeavor, where I'm able to do it for other brands.

You know, and so when I first heard about this opportunity, I turned it down because I was like, I'm not working with that guy. No way. And then he was fired. And I was like, oh, OK.

BARTOS: Oh, interesting.

SAINT JOHN: Well, now maybe there is a chance here because, to me, there was a couple of things that need to happen. When companies face that kind of situation, they have to do everything in their power - right? - to, essentially, rehabilitate.

Rehabilitation is not just surface. It can't just be the brand. It's not a new commercial you put on air. There's something wrong with your culture, you know? And there's something wrong with the way that you are operating, which would allow such behavior. Now listen.

GARCIA: So what do you say, fire 500 people (laughter)?

SAINT JOHN: No, no. I think it's so much bigger than that, you know, with things like economic advancement. You know, so if you have franchisees and you have franchises that are not diverse currently, then how can you create a pipeline to allow for more diversity in franchise communities? I mean, there are black and brown owners of Papa John's who have put their life savings into these stores, and who are losing them. You know, I'm like, that - we can't have that happen, you know?

And also, it's like, you've got 700 franchises, how many of them are owned by black and brown people? It's like this company can now have a real position in creating a pipeline that will allow for more diversity in those lines. Women's empowerment - how many women are in their executive suite? Not very many. So how can we diversify that?

You know, there are some real things that need to happen culturally and structurally in the company that will then allow for the rehabilitation. So that's what I'm doing.

GARCIA: So...

BARTOS: Amazing.

SAINT JOHN: Thank you.

GARCIA: Let's take a little breather, and we're going to jump right back.

SAINT JOHN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARTOS: Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. It's the sound of the drums (imitating drums) - congas and bongos and timbales.

SAINT JOHN: Wow.

BARTOS: And that only means one thing; it's time for the Impression Session.

GARCIA: And what we're going to do here is super simple.

SAINT JOHN: OK.

GARCIA: We're going to play two tracks for you. Stretch selected one; I selected one.

SAINT JOHN: OK.

GARCIA: You react, and that's it.

SAINT JOHN: OK.

GARCIA: Sound good?

SAINT JOHN: Yes.

BARTOS: Let's go with yours first.

GARCIA: Mine first.

BARTOS: Yeah.

GARCIA: OK. So cue it up, Michelle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REMEMBERING THE FUTURE")

BLITZ THE AMBASSADOR: (Singing) I am who I am.

BALLA TOUNKARA: (Singing in foreign language).

BLITZ THE AMBASSADOR: You can never change me.

TOUNKARA: (Singing in foreign language).

BLITZ THE AMBASSADOR: Reaching for the sun.

TOUNKARA: (Singing in foreign language).

BLITZ THE AMBASSADOR: Remembering the future.

TOUNKARA: (Singing in foreign language).

BLITZ THE AMBASSADOR: I am who I am.

TOUNKARA: (Singing in foreign language).

BLITZ THE AMBASSADOR: You can never change me.

TOUNKARA: (Singing in foreign language).

BLITZ THE AMBASSADOR: Reaching for the sun.

TOUNKARA: (Singing in foreign language).

BLITZ THE AMBASSADOR: Remembering the future.

TOUNKARA: (Singing in foreign language).

GARCIA: So if you're familiar with the artist, it's Blitz the Ambassador.

SAINT JOHN: Wow.

GARCIA: And the name of this track is "Remembering The Future." He was born in Ghana.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah.

GARCIA: Moved to New York.

SAINT JOHN: Amazing.

GARCIA: Similar story, right? You know?

SAINT JOHN: Yeah. Yeah.

GARCIA: And the reason why I played it for you is because he has this supreme connection to his homeland. But he has a supreme connection to his new land.

SAINT JOHN: Yes.

GARCIA: How do you infuse your roots...

SAINT JOHN: Yeah.

GARCIA: ...From Ghana and your daily existence?

SAINT JOHN: Oh, it's constant. It's constant. You know, I don't think there is an opportunity not to be, you know? That - but I actually credit my parents with that, you know? Because when we moved to the U.S., it could've been easy to assimilate - you know? - because that's what a lot of immigrants do, right? You try to get into the culture and be that and forget everything you've been. But my mother didn't allow that. You know, she was like, people are going to come into our house. They're going to hear us speak our language. They're going to eat our food, and they're going to like it.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: You know? And it has absolutely, fundamentally been a gift, you know, because I don't hide any parts of myself. I don't - I'm not ashamed of them, you know? It's like, when friends come to my house, there's usually jollof on my stove.

GARCIA: Nice. Nice. Yeah.

SAINT JOHN: You know? And you're going to eat it.

BARTOS: Whose jollof is better...

SAINT JOHN: The Ghanaian's, of course.

BARTOS: ...Ghanaian or Senegalese?

SAINT JOHN: Well, first of all, the Senegalese have no argument in this fight, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: Seriously. OK? They say they started it or they created it - whatever. The Ghanaians - and, you know, let's give it up a little bit to the Nigerians - you know, made it better. Now between Ghanaians and Nigerians, that's where the war is. And the Ghanaians clearly win.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: Ours just has more flavor. They're not the same in any case. But I show up with Ghana on my sleeve, literally.

GARCIA: Word.

SAINT JOHN: You know, I wear the clothes. I speak the language. I - you know, I celebrate everywhere.

GARCIA: Word.

BARTOS: That's a great song, man.

GARCIA: Thank you.

SAINT JOHN: I love it.

GARCIA: You want to get to yours?

BARTOS: See, we're still learning from each other.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: Beautiful.

BARTOS: Well, let's try mine. It's a little lighter.

SAINT JOHN: OK.

BARTOS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUNKY")

ULTRAMAGNETIC MCS: (Crosstalk).

GARCIA: Did you play this for me or for her?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUNKY")

ULTRAMAGNETIC MCS: (Crosstalk).

SAINT JOHN: I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUNKY")

CED-GEE: One, two, three, four. One, two, three and...

KOOL KEITH: (Singing) I brought a band, Sam is on trombone. He's blowing hard back-to-back notes. Get with it. Take off your coat, meditate, let your brain compel. Just think. As the beat excels to your eardrums cause cells to numb and freeze while I break off at ease. Real smooth, combined the piano. My voice nasal, no soprano is needed.

GARCIA: (Singing) My voice nasal, no soprano is needed...

SAINT JOHN: Amazing. Amazing. Amazing.

GARCIA: (Singing) ...To get overheated and burn while the Technics' turn...

BARTOS: So...

SAINT JOHN: He won't stop. He won't stop. He's going. He's going. He's going.

GARCIA: (Singing) ...For the U-L, the T, R-the-A.

BARTOS: I mean, it's a hook. I know that "California Love" Tupac...

SAINT JOHN: Yes.

BARTOS: ...Is your anthem.

SAINT JOHN: Yes.

BARTOS: And I'm not sure if you're aware of this record, but this was the first record to sample "Woman To Woman" by Joe Cocker.

SAINT JOHN: Amazing. Yeah.

BARTOS: That's from 1987. That's the Ultramagnetic MCs. And, actually...

GARCIA: Title - song title.

BARTOS: It's called "Funky." Ultramagnetic is a group that Bob and I bonded over when we first became friends in 1990 - '89?

GARCIA: '90, '90.

SAINT JOHN: Amazing.

BARTOS: Yeah. Are you up on that record?

SAINT JOHN: No.

BARTOS: No?

SAINT JOHN: I'm not. It's amazing.

BARTOS: Yeah. Well, I was thinking, you know, if...

GARCIA: She likes Ultramagnetic. This is a great moment in hip-hop.

SAINT JOHN: I mean, this is like - I immediately was like, what? What? What? It's amazing.

BARTOS: If I can walk out of this experience with you knowing that you might become an Ultramagnetic MCs fan...

SAINT JOHN: I mean...

BARTOS: ...I'm winning.

SAINT JOHN: You feel like you're - OK.

BARTOS: Yeah. I might feel like you felt after Beyonce did at the Super Bowl halftime show.

(LAUGHTER)

SAINT JOHN: Yes. This is the winning moment.

BARTOS: But honestly, Ultramagnetic is a colossally important group. They came out with an album called...

GARCIA: "Critical Beatdown."

BARTOS: ..."Critical Beatdown," and it's just revolutionary lyrically, in terms of production, sampling...

GARCIA: Sonically.

BARTOS: ...Et cetera - yeah.

SAINT JOHN: Amazing.

BARTOS: And I like it more than "California Love."

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: How do you feel?

SAINT JOHN: I just - I actually love this because I was not aware. And I love learning new things. But I really love Tupac. Like, I love Tupac a lot. I find it, like, you know - I love to, obviously, find the history of things and understanding where things come from - again, part of the curiosity about how things are made and origins and things like that. Yeah, I love it.

BARTOS: Amazing.

SAINT JOHN: Thank you.

BARTOS: Bozoma, that's our show. I just thank you for coming through...

SAINT JOHN: Thank you.

BARTOS: ...To WHAT'S GOOD WITH STRETCH AND BOBBITO. We've had an amazing time with you.

GARCIA: A super dope time. And to all our Wesleyan grads out there...

SAINT JOHN: Yes.

GARCIA: ...Yo, we repping out here, all right?

SAINT JOHN: Correct. WesTech, stand up.

GARCIA: Word up.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: Amazing. Thank you.

SAINT JOHN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARTOS: That is our show. This podcast was produced by Michelle Lanz, edited by Jordana Hochman and N'Jeri Eaton. And our executive producer is Abby O'Neill. Music by composer Eli Escobar and our own Robertino (ph) Garcia.

GARCIA: (Laughter) If you like the show, you can find more at npr.org or wherever you get your podcasts, including bonus video content on Spotify on Fridays. Thanks to Spotify for this support. While you're at it, please go to Apple Podcasts and rate, review and subscribe. That's how we know you are listening.

BARTOS: You can follow us on Twitter, @stretchandbob, or Instagram, @stretchandbobbito.

GARCIA: Word up.

BARTOS: Peace.

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