Everything wrong with that New York Times profile of Uber’s Bozoma Saint John

A single mom with a cool Instagram.
A single mom with a cool Instagram.
Image: Mitchell Zachs/Invision for ADCOLOR/AP Images
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Over the weekend the New York Times profiled Bozoma Saint John, a former Apple executive who Uber hired in June as its first-ever chief brand officer. The story ran on the front of the Sunday Styles section, beneath a photo of Saint John that filled three-quarters of the page, and under the headline, “Saving Uber.”

Here are some things you will learn: Bozoma Saint John once took an Uber driver to a dinner with Iggy Pop; she chronicled the moment on Instagram, where she has more than 40,000 followers (@badassboz). She likes to Instagram photos in her bikini with her fellow “baddies.” Media mogul and Uber board member Arianna Huffington attended her 40th birthday party; it went on Instagram, too. Bozoma Saint John is a single mother whose husband died of Burkitt lymphoma in 2013. She takes selfies with her daughter. Bozoma Saint John wears “statement-making ensembles” and has a hard-to-pronounce name. She was captain of her high school cheerleading squad, befriended “influencers” at nightclubs, and is, generally speaking, cool.

Here are some things you will not learn: What Saint John will do at Uber; what she did at Apple (there is one paragraph describing her time at Apple); what her role is in Uber’s search for a new chief executive, following Travis Kalanick’s resignation; what she thinks of Uber’s record on diversity; what she thinks of Uber’s hard-charging culture; or how she plans to humanize Uber’s brand. These are big, important questions, but they are not answered, or even explored.

We are living through a landmark discussion of sexism and discrimination in the technology industry. Uber is a centerpiece of it. The women who have come forward with allegations about venture capitalists who harassed them have been inspired in large part by Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer who earlier this year published a detailed account of her poor treatment at the company. Saint John, in her role as chief brand officer, needs to tackle these problems. “I know what I’m walking into,” she told Recode in early June. “I think it’s a really exciting time to tell the story well.” Somehow the Times deemed Saint John’s approach to that story less important than her outfits, her nightclub connections, and her Instagram account.

Would the Times have profiled Uber’s first-ever chief brand officer in the Styles section, with an emphasis on that person’s Instagram, if a man held the position? It is hard to say, but consider this story on Amit Singhal, written shortly after Uber announced his hiring as senior vice president for engineering in January. In it, we learn Singhal’s credentials, his role at Uber, the skills he brought from Google, and his “excitement for solving complex computer sciences problems.” He was later pushed out of Uber over undisclosed allegations of sexual misconduct from his time at Google. A spokesperson for the Times said in an email that the paper has been criticized before when important stories run in Styles, but that its writers and editor feel the section is well-positioned to attract readers. In any event, Saint John “posted about the story on Instagram,” the Times’ spokesperson said.

Here are some things the Times could have said about Bozoma Saint John: She led Apple Music’s global consumer marketing division from 2014 to mid-2017, and before that ran the music and entertainment marketing division at PepsiCo for three years. She was the first recipient of the Rockstar Award from Adcolor, an organization that promotes diversity in creative industries (the Times profile includes a photo of her receiving the award). She was inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Achievement in 2014, which recognizes outstanding people in advertising under age 40. Last year she was named executive of the year at Billboard’s Women in Music awards, an honor she accepted on behalf of “the sistahs at Apple who boldly defy the Silicon Valley stereotype every day to be heard.”

At Uber, Saint John has her work cut out for her. She is reporting to Frances Frei, the academic Uber hired from Harvard Business School as its senior vice president of leadership and strategy. She has spoken to “a lot of people” about what needs to change for women at the company, and has navigated difficult situations in her own career. “There have been times when I felt someone was unclear about the intention of a dinner or a drink,” she told Glamour in a recent interview. “Being firm and clear about the ‘no’ and my intention has helped.” Saint John wants to brand what makes Uber “human,” a task that will only become more challenging as driverless cars develop. Put simply, she must make people love a company that is besieged by internal scandal and, at the moment, widely disliked.

Bozoma Saint John is excited about her job. “There’s no more exciting moment for me as a brand strategist than a turnaround,” she told Glamour. Perhaps if she’d shared all that on Instagram, the New York Times would have written about it, too.