FOR THE FIRST hour or so, Apple’s annual WWDC conference was every bit as exciting as you’d expect. Which is to say, not very. A-list execs like Kevin Lynch, Craig Federighi and Eddy Cue droned on and on about updates to this, improvements to that. Then Bozoma Saint John took the stage.
It was amazing.
It’s not just that Saint John, head of marketing for Apple Music, was a black female executive appearing onstage at WWDC. It was the way she commanded the room—and the show—that blew everyone away. Moments after Cue introduced her, Saint John cued up The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” a song that is the antithesis of Apple’s tendency toward the milder fare of bands OneRepublic and U2. “We’re gonna make this whole auditorium rock,” she told the crowd. “One, two, three, rock!”
WWDC does not attract a crowd given to rocking on cue. This did not stop St. John from sashaying onstage as cameras panned over a sea of mostly bewildered, largely white and male faces struggling to keep up. Those watching the live webcast sat uncomfortably at home or work, embarrassed for them. St. John was not having any of it.
“No,” she said, with detectable sass. “We’re gonna pause this, because some of you guys are not rapping to the beat.” It was a hilarious wink to the lack of diversity in the room, and Saint John pulled it off without offense. And everyone in that darkened auditorium and beyond wondered: Who the hell is this badass woman, and how did Apple keep her secret for so long?
Bozoma Saint John—”Boz” to her friends—is every bit as boss as her masterful performance suggests. She’s led Apple Music’s marketing division since April 2014, a short three months after she joined Beats Music and it was acquired by Apple. But she’s no stranger to the music industry. Before joining Apple, she ran the music and entertainment marketing group at Pepsi-Cola’s North America division, where, according to the website XO Necole, she landed deals with the likes of Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, and Eminem. Oh, she also reportedly convinced Beyoncé to agree to perform at half-time during the Super Bowl in 2013. No big deal.
“She’s singular,” says Tiffany Warren, a senior vice president and chief diversity officer at the advertising and marketing company Omnicom group. Warren says there’s a term for people like Saint John: unicorn. No, not the usual reference to a startups worth a billion-plus. “The unicorn is a mythical horse that people don’t think exist,” Warren says. “When you’re an African American woman, and in a very senior role, we talk about how when we walk down the hall, people ask, ‘Wait, did I just see what I saw?’ Because it’s just so rare.”
Saint John’s path to success wasn’t a smooth one. She was born in Ghana, and she was 14 when her family immigrated to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Her father, a clarinetist who served in the Ghanaian army, earned his college degree in the US and became a source of inspiration—and likely her daring nature. She ran for the student council in 10th grade under the slogan “Nuthin but a Boz thang,” according to The Hollywood Reporter (Saint John did not respond to WIRED’s request for an interview), and went on to Wesleyan University. She earned a degree in African American studies and English. Before going to Pepsi, Saint John worked at the fashion brand Ashley Stewart and the advertising agencies Arnold Worldwide and Spike DDB.
Through it all, Saint John has remained fiercely devoted to helping others excel. She’s been deeply involved in Adcolor, which celebrates and promotes people of color in the ad industry. Two years ago, the organization made her the first recipient of its Rockstar Award. She was inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Achievement later that year. The list of accolades goes on. Billboard named her one of the top women in music and one of its top 40 executives under 40. Fast Company included her on its list of 100 most creative people and Ebony listed her among 100 powerful executives.
But Saint John doesn’t let it go to her head, Warren says. She always helps others along the path. “It’s sometimes difficult to be one of none, but she turns around and gives it back immediately,” says Warren. “She’s not someone who says, ‘I’m going to wait until I retire to give back my wisdom.’ She’s an incredible sponsor and mentor to many.”
That humility shined brightly even as Saint John prepared for her keynote appearance, says Michele Thornton, a senior vice president at Black Entertainment Television who knows Boz from working with her in the entertainment industry. Thornton says she and Saint John exchanged texts and calls as Saint John prepared to go onstage, and she wasn’t at all surprised that her friend crushed it. “She’s a unicorn,” Thornton says, repeating the metaphor, “and she owns her horn in the middle of her head. I know she gave her presentation a lot of thought.” Thornton says she isn’t sure who tapped her friend to appear at Apple’s developer conference, but she can say Saint John has the support and respect of everyone “from Jimmy Iovine all the way up to Tim Cook.”
But Thornton says people should look beyond Saint John’s performance onstage to the role she plays in an industry that sorely needs diverse figures to look up to. “She’s hopefully allowing [the tech industry] to understand that other people who look different can do a phenomenal job,” Thornton says. “I hope she’s creating a pathway for other people coming up behind her—and I know that’s her mission.”