KITCHENER, Ont. — Bozoma Saint John, chief brand officer for Uber, doesn’t try to sugar-coat the troubles the ride-hailing service has come through in the past couple of years.
The company was rocked by scandal after reports of endemic sexual harassment, drivers who feel exploited, a “greyball” program designed to secretly undermine government regulators, and many negative headlines about the most egregious swashbuckling corporate culture out of Silicon Valley.
“We look at Cambridge Analytica and we’re like, ‘No you can’t come back. You’re done. Finished.’ We look at Roseanne and we say, ‘Hey listen, you said a bad thing; we’re done with you.’ Or we look at Uber and we say, ‘You’ve done some bad things. Change those things or we’re never coming back,’” Saint John said in an interview with the Financial Post.
“By the way, these are good things, you know? I want society to continue to keep us held to a high bar, because it will force us to always do the right thing.”
Saint John took the stage at the True North tech conference in Kitchener, Ont. Thursday, just after Governor-General David Johnston unveiled the “Tech For Good” declaration.
The declaration is a series of principles that technology companies should adopt, such as “Build trust and respect your data” and “Think inclusively at every stage.”
Saint John’s speech, and subsequent onstage interview with host Talia Sanhewe, was a wide-ranging affair dealing with the lack of diversity in tech companies, her time working for Pepsi and Apple, the importance of staying in touch with your sense of humanity, and even a short anecdote about Iggy Pop.
Afterward, speaking to the Financial Post, Saint John, 41, elaborated on one of her ideas, about how you’re never going to get anywhere, you’re never going to innovate if you don’t take risks. And taking risks means making mistakes.
“I think mostly in tech, we are so obsessed with efficiency, you know? And making it better, stronger, faster,” she said. “We’re so obsessed with moving it forward and innovation, that oftentimes we do forget: Why are we doing it?”
She said that for companies and individuals managing a brand, it’s important to admit you were wrong.
“Brands are human. There are human beings that are running them, and none of us are perfect. At some point, you do something for which you have to apologize,” she said.
“The truth of the matter is there really is no redemption without the knowledge of wrongdoing.”
She said that as somebody trying to rehabilitate Uber’s brand, a big part of it is about establishing norms and standards for the company, and then distancing the company from people who fall short.
“Everybody and everything can be redeemed,” Saint John said.
This idea is personal for her, as a black woman who has dealt with the challenges of working in an industry that tends to be overwhelmingly white and male.
There are plenty of people ready to simply write off the tech industry as sexist and racist, but she won’t.
“I’m not going to throw the whole thing away,” she said.
“I want to exist in executive roles. I want other black women to exist in executive roles. So no, I’m not going to throw the whole thing away.”