Big-brand executive Bozoma Saint John shares deeply personal lessons on living through and helping others face loss
PepsiCo, Apple, Uber, and Netflix—Bozoma Saint John has held senior executive positions at each of those major brands in a career that has seen her named the world’s most influential chief marketing officer (Forbes, 2021) and inducted into the American Marketing Association Hall of Fame (2022).
But when she came to write her first book, Saint John didn’t share some of the sought-after C-suite wisdom she has presented at Harvard Business School in a program called The Anatomy of a Badass. Instead of offering her playbook to business success, she opened her heart about overcoming personal tragedy and less.
Released earlier this year, The Urgent Life: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival tells how Saint John has navigated multiple griefs in her personal life while making an impact in the working world, including the suicide of a college boyfriend, the loss of a premature baby, and the death of her husband, Peter, with whom she reconciled after their separation on learning he had cancer. He died in 2013, leaving her to raise their young daughter, Lael (now 13), alone.
Saint John spoke with Waymaker Journal about some of what she has learned through these experiences. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In putting away all of the pain and the grief… I also put away the joy.BOZOMA SAINT JOHN
Waymaker Journal: How was the process of writing such a personal book?
Bozoma Saint John: It was tough. It’s difficult to write the truth and to be honest through it. A really big lesson I learned while writing was that, especially writing about grief and writing about pain, that many of us, myself included, when you go through pain and you go through grief, you want to put it as far behind you as possible. You want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Not because you want to get rid of the people who you lost or the experiences which are painful, but because it’s difficult to live with that. But what I discovered is that in putting away all of the pain and the grief of those experiences, I also put away the joy that was in those experiences. Because our experiences aren’t linear, they’re not flat, they’re not one-dimensional. So, it is possible to cry and laugh. It is possible to love and hurt and have heartbreak. It is possible to be giddy and also inconsolable. All of those things work in concert together. And so in writing my book, I found the joy and the giddiness and the excitement that was intermingled in my losses that I had forgotten. It was a freeing experience.
WJ: What did you learn in the process of writing?
BSJ: That an event can happen, and if it happens to 10 people, all 10 will have different viewpoints of that singular thing. I found that my truth was not everybody else’s truth… So, I think that the idea of memory and living is that we have to remember that these are our singular experiences… Oftentimes we look at ourselves and think, “Oh, my goodness, this thing happened to me, and everybody saw it, or everybody felt it,” but no, that’s not true necessarily. That’s why when you’re in grief you really do have to center yourself not just in the feeling of the grief, but also how you come out of the grief. The centering yourself is inherently important because that truth, that situation that’s happening, is yours and yours alone.
WJ: People talk about “getting over” a loss. What does that mean to you?
BSJ: I don’t know what that means because I’m not over it. God and I have got a beef too, you know? I consider that I am living with it. I’m living with my grief. I see it kind of like a scar… With some scars, when you push on it, the tissue is still sensitive underneath. And sometimes old scars, they just are there to remind you that the thing happened, even though you don’t feel it as deeply anymore… I don’t know that there’s an “over.”
[Loss] has changed me in dramatic ways… I think I’m a better executive.
WJ: How has grief changed you?
BSJ: In so many ways… I am not the same person I was before my husband got sick and died. I’m not the same person I was before my first daughter was born on the day she died. I’m not the same person I was before my college boyfriend died by suicide. I am not the same. And it has changed me in dramatic ways… I am more empathetic; I think I’m a better executive.
WJ: How are you a better leader?
BSJ: First of all, I am much more able to identify and empathize with people on my team for their various ways that they live. My losses have created me as a single mother, for instance, so my viewpoint about work-life balance, or when meetings are, or people’s responsibilities to their children or family members, has changed. I have been the person who has taken care of a terminally ill loved one. So, I understand better when somebody has responsibilities that take them outside of their current space and they need time to be able to do that—not necessarily that they want time off, but that they need adjustments, they need some flexibility. It has made me much more attuned to people who need to escape into the work. It makes them work harder, [but] it makes them burn out faster. And even as a marketer, it has made me better because I’m looking at the world through different eyes: I can see people differently… I’m a much better executive because I’m a widow. I’m a much better executive because I’m a single mother. I’m a much better executive because I’m a sister. I’m a much better executive because I’m a daughter of immigrants. I’m a much better person because of all of these things that have been challenges for me, but which have made me a much more unique human being.
I’m looking at the world through different eyes: I can see people differently.
WJ: How has it been raising your daughter as a single mother through this grief process?
BSJ: Both harder and easier. I’ll start with the easy part: co-parenting is hard regardless of if you’re divorced or you’re together. You’re negotiating how to raise a person and sometimes that comes with some disagreements on direction. So, I have found it easier because I’m the sole person making these decisions. At the same time, that comes with its difficulties because I don’t have anybody else to bounce ideas off of. When she says something out of left field, I turn around and look around the room and there’s nobody else there [for advice]. Or the responsibilities of being an ambitious career person: when I have to travel for work, or I have to stay late for a meeting, or I am distracted during vacation… [there’s] the guilt that I feel over that because I can’t pass on the responsibility to somebody else.
WJ: What advice do you have for parents wanting to help their children go through grief?
BSJ: Oh, this is a really tough one. When my husband first got ill, I got some great advice from one of our family friends, a psychologist, [Melissa Robinson-Brown], who I still talk to and still love. She said that we should be honest with our daughter, who was three at the time… We should tell her the big words. We should use all of the words. You know, don’t pretend, don’t hide it. And it got even harder when we knew he was going to die to be honest with her because she was four… As parents, we just want to protect them from anything that hurts, and we think that hiding the grief or hiding the pain is what is best for them and it’s not. They need to see our pain, they need to see our grief, they need to see our hurt, and that way they feel free to express theirs. You know, if we’re concealing ours, they feel like they have to conceal theirs. Maybe the best gift that I’m able to give Lael, up until this point anyway, has been to [let her] be OK in her grief, OK in her sadness… It’s important for us as parents to be aware of our own grief and to share it so they feel free to be open and sharing. That’s why I feel thankful now when Lael comes to me with anything that she’s feeling about her dad and feeling it’s OK for us to be open and honest about it; there’s no need to hide it.
WJ: What brings you joy these days?
BSJ: Joy for me is an active choice. In the past, I would look at things and think that they were supposed to give me joy, instead of the other way around—me finding joy in the things. It’s not even so much like are there big things that bring me joy? I’m finding joy, I’m choosing joy in everything. I’m finding joy in my child; I’m finding joy in love as I navigate that again. But it is an active choice of mine to find it in [the] mundane and in the big moments.
BOZOMA SAINT JOHN: MY WAYMAKERS
There have been so many… of course, my parents, for sure; my sister circle—those who were born to me in my DNA and those that I’ve chosen. My daughter is a waymaker for me. Several bosses that I’ve had have been waymakers. I’ve worked for a lot of founders in my life, which has been an interesting pattern. But those who have believed and those who have given opportunities that I have taken have been waymakers… There have been so many waymakers who have given me opportunities in my business world that have not looked like me, but then there have been waymakers who have been part of my community who have helped me as well in my executive life.