It’s early evening at a five-star hotel in Accra in Ghana, where a group of delegates from the European Union and Ghanaian government are meeting to discuss bilateral trade agreements. In the elegant lobby, an attendant mans the helpdesk, trying to resolve the queries of agitated guests who seem unimpressed with the long queues.
At one end of the room, a group of camera-toting journalists saunter aimlessly waiting for an opportunity to snap Ghana’s economic power brokers as they arrive.
Shortly after 7.30PM, the vice president of Ghana strolls in with his security detail and in one stroke, the lobby is bustling, flashes pop like corn and requests for sound bites are hurled in the air.
As the frenzy reaches a feverish pitch, we leave the commotion and make our way past an impressive art piece of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, part of the collection of over 1,500 pieces of art in the hotel. Our destination is the fifth floor where we meet Bozoma Saint John, Silicon Valley darling and Uber’s Chief Brand Officer since last year.
Hired to turn Uber back into a brand people love, Saint John has a daunting task ahead. The company has been hit with a number of scandals and allegations which led to the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick last year, and the #deleteuber campaign.
In South Africa, Uber drivers have had several clashes with taxi drivers prompting the company to hire private security forces to protect them.
On meeting her, thoughts of Saint John’s herculean task are replaced with impressions of her imposing yet warm personality. Towering at five foot eleven, even without her pink stilettoes, which she teams with a silver jumpsuit, braids and earrings made of Ghanaian Adinkra symbols, her presence is hard to ignore in any room, which can surely be an advantage in the male-dominated corporate space.
“So a good friend of mine called me to come to the Consumer Electronics Summit in Vegas saying they were having a cool kids’ dinner and he needed me to be there. So I stroll into the dinner and Arianna Huffington is sitting there. She looked at me and she said you are the most interesting person in the room right now, what is your name? She told the CEO of JP Morgan Chase who sat next to me to get up and she sat down and said tell me everything about yourself and that is how our friendship started,” says Saint John.
That conversation with Huffington (a founder of The Huffington Post) led to an introduction to Kalanick in Huffington’s home in Los Angeles.
“At the time Uber was going through a lot of challenges and she was on the board and she asked me what would I do. I told her about my experiences taking Ubers and she said you should meet Travis Kalanick. She invited us to her house and what was supposed to be a meet and greet turned out to be a whole day of conversation and brain-storming ideas.”
And the rest is history. Saint John’s list of qualifications, which includes the former head of Music and Entertainment Marketing at PepsiCo and head of marketing for Apple Music, made her the woman for the job. She is one of the few black women to land a senior position at a billion-dollar company. For Saint John, that comes with both positives and negatives.
“If you want to shine like a diamond, you have to be willing to get cut and there has been lots of cuts along the way, in small ways and in big ways. The small ways are about the micro aggression, the comments people make about you and the doubts about your talent; the assertion that your greatness is by accident. It takes a toll on you and your spirit and your self-confidence.
“So having to constantly remind yourself that I am actually talented at this and I do this better than anyone else. In the beginning, people will often remark like, ‘you celebrate yourself so much on Instagram’, but I’m like who else is going to do it? Then all of a sudden, other people start joining the bandwagon and praising the work I do and I’m like ‘I told you I was great’,” says Saint John.
The big cuts along the way have been the most life-changing for Saint John; like losing her husband to cancer in December 2013, four days before his 44th birthday.
“I had never considered that we could die early. It was only six months between his diagnosis and his death so it was not enough time to prepare. Our daughter was only four years old. After his death it really shook me. I was afraid because I did not know if there was ever going to be a recovery in my confidence. Not confidence in work because I knew I could do the job but confidence in life.”
But she turned what was her worst day into her best asset and developed a new philosophy in life.
“It absolutely lit a fire in me to say that, we don’t know how much time we have and I am going to be great today. I am not waiting for 10 years or 15 years to be great; I am going to be great right now. All the dreams have to happen today, not tomorrow!”
It is that philosophy that Saint John brings to her daunting role at Uber while challenging the world via her Instagram page to #watchmework.
“Uber is facing several challenges but I think the addition of Bozoma who happens to be black, a woman and an immigrant is a very strategic move by the brand to help fight some of the negative publicity the company faced last year and that worked. Obviously it helps that Bozoma is an accomplished marketing professional who has a solid track record with some of the world’s prestigious brands,” says John Tawiah, an economist in Ghana.
For Saint John, this is more than a job. It’s about sending a very clear message to three distinct audiences.
“The first is my daughter who I really want to embody for her, what a role model can be. I hope she is going to see the things that I do and that become The Normal for her and she will do better than I have. The second audience is African women and black women. That we can show up as ourselves and still succeed. We don’t need to be like anybody else and I can show up in cornrows, weaves and still be able to let my work speak for itself.
“We talk about cultural appropriation all the time so I find it important to send that message. We need to see each other and know it is ok. The third audience is to show the world that there is an inner intelligence beneath this exterior that we have and you are in charge of your own success.”
Saint John is no stranger to hard work and breaking boundaries. Her innovative ideas at PepsiCo led to the company’s foray into the music festivals and big deals with powerhouse celebrities like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. In spite of the media buzz and speculation about Uber’s future, the lady who calls herself “superexecumummy” is ready to roll up her sleeves and show the world just how great she is, today.
Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent
The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.
The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.
Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.
“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.
The continent has a special place in his heart.
The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.
“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.
Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.
He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.
The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.
Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.
Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.
This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.
Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.
Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.
“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri.
Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.
Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.
“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.
“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.
Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.
It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.
Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron
Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.
cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.
Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.
He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.
Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.
In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.
Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.
But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.
The Story Of The $3,000 Sneakers
South African artist Conor McCreedy on creating what could be the world’s most expensive sneakers.
A literally stumbled upon a business opportunity.
The renowned South African artist, who only paints in blue,was one day at work in his studio, in a 600-year-old, four-storeyed building in Zurich, when he accidentally spilled some of the monochromatic pigment on to his white sneakers.
Who knew it would lead to a designer line of expensive sneakers.
The artist, resident in Switzerland since 2014, now sells the limited edition sneakers for $3,000 a pair.
What helped that day was that the painting accident was shortly before a meeting with an art collector.
“This art dealer wanted some work for a private collection.I couldn’t get time to put my shoes on, so I went in my sneakers, and this guy just loved them… He opened up to me and said he likes the idea. ‘Try and take it further’, he said to me,” says McCreedy to FORBES AFRICA, on the phone from Switzerland.
After spending four months finalizing the collaboration with an established shoe company, Ludwig Reiter, the concept sprung to life.
A regular pair of their white sneakers sells for $685, but with a splash of McCreedy, it costs almost five times more.
“A lot of people can put paint on sneakers. We are not reinventing the world but putting the McCreedy blue on to a sneaker. It has a value chain,” he says.
Even before its launch mid-November, nine of the 200 limited edition sneakers had been sold to collectors from around the world.
“I love when people say that the splash looks like a kid’s.I actually like that, it has taken me 30 years to create that splash, that is a great story,” says McCreedy.
He adds the handcrafted sneaker will not only appeal to art lovers who are looking to collect, but even corporate titans and banking CEOs,and the uber-chic would want to wear it at cultural festivals.
In Switzerland, ultra-networth and high-networth-individuals are his customers.
“The beautiful part is that the sneakers are backed by my art, and compared to the art, they are relatively cheap,” says McCreedy.
The tranquillity and stability the artist associates with the color blue led to the creation of his own pigment known as ‘McCreedy blue’.
McCreedy has used it to create most of his paintings since 2011.
But building a career through art requires more than just mixing color on canvas.
“Art is always considered a luxury; don’t let anyone fool you when they say it is not luxurious. People don’t just buy art, it is a luxury creation… If Picasso was alive today, he would probably have his own app,” he says.
His art inspired him to create products, from candles to a coffee blend on sale on the ground floor of his studio.
The space is curated so it’s an alluring odyssey for customers.
White walls are adorned with original McCreedy blue paintings, showcasing the artist’s work for prospective buyers, collectors and dealers.
The ‘Essence of McCreedy blue’ forms part of the luxurious elements the artist wants to reinstate in the art world.
It took the artist three years in Zurich, one of the global centers for banking and finance, to convert an old bank building into an atelier and studio. “It’s showing how people view the world through the eyes of an artist. It is about being part of the journey and the experience. It is about feeling what luxury is like,” he says.
Staying true to his African roots, McCreedy draws inspiration from Botswana, Nigeria and South Africa, which he expresses through abstract images.
“I love African and South African art. It is really stimulating for me and as a growing artist, I like to collect whatever I can afford. One day, I will create my own museum and show what I have from different parts of the world,” says McCreedy. Open to exploring more markets, McCreedy wishes to collaborate with African artists. He would not have it any other way.
The world may present the artist with greater opportunities,but it cannot compete with the culture and the spirit of ubuntu [humanity]found in his country of birth, he explains.
“I miss good South African beer, I miss sitting on a Land Rover with no shirt on, drinking a beer. I miss the weather and the locals.”
But wherever McCreedy goes, he ensures his prized pair of sneakers is never too far away.
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