Bozoma Saint John’s ascension into the realm of internet sensation began when she walked onstage at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference June, wearing in a bright-pink dress, to talk about the company’s new music services. It was complete by the time she asked the audience to sing along to the classic, “Rapper’s Delight.” Outlets from theBusiness Insider to Der Spiegel gushed about the “badass” (Wired) “true star of the event” (New York Magazine) with headlines like “Bozoma Saint John is my Hero” (The Verge). A auctioned charity lunch with her is now going for more than $2,000 dollars.
But while the internet may have just discovered her, Saint John has been making waves in the entertainment and tech worlds for a long time.
She moved nearly 7,000 miles from Ghana to Colorado Springs at age 13. In her new city, she quickly found that the only way she could make friends with her fellow high school classmates was to bond over pop culture—in 1990, it was Bon Jovi, Madonna, and Michael Jackson who helped her break the ice with students at Liberty High School.
What was a teenage survival method quickly became a passion, and then career, for the now 39-year-old St. John, who is known as “Boz,” and currently heads global marketing for Apple’s streaming music service, Apple Music, and iTunes.
The work is important, Saint John says, just like it was at Liberty High. “Pop culture and entertainment can be dismissed as surface but it’s not,” Saint John said in an interview with Fortune. “It’s the language we all speak and it’s the connection point between people all over the world.”
Music is the thread that ties together her nearly 20-year career in marketing and brand management. She credits her success with landing a temp job as an New York-based assistant for Spike Lee’s ad agency, SpikeDDB, out of college. As the firm’s fourth hire, she worked with several of the agency’s celebrity clients, including Janet Jackson and Beyonce’s first commercial with Pepsi in 2002, directed by Lee himself.
Saint John was then plucked by PepsiCo’s marketing machine, where she ultimately became head of music and entertainment marketing. While at Pepsi, St. John helped ink five separate marketing deals with Beyonce, culminating in a $50 million deal with Pepsi sponsoring the artist’s 2012 tour and 2013 Super Bowl halftime performance.
After that career high, though, came personal tragedy. In late 2013, her husband passed away from cancer. Soon after, she left Pepsi for Beats, then a startup headed by Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, who had been impressed by Saint John’s successes with Beyonce at Pepsi. Saint John took the job to start a new life, moving herself and her young daughter to Los Angeles to head marketing for the startup.
She started her career at Apple almost unwittingly. Four months after St. John joined, Apple acquired Beats for $3 billion in cash and stock in May of 2014. From there, she climbed the ranks to become global marketing for all things Apple Music, charged with how to sell the $531 billion company’s latest streaming service, Apple Music, to the world. It’s no easy feat, considering the competitive space filled with companies with a head start, including Silicon Valley darling Spotify.
To help, she’s enlisted some of the world’s hottest stars. Last fall, Saint John’s vision came to life with a commercial that aired during the Emmy Awards, depicting actresses Kerry Washington and Taraji P. Henson, and music artist Mary J. Blige jamming to mixtapes created by Apple Music in Blige’s home. Earlier this year, St. John was able to turn megastar and streaming music critic Taylor Swift into a believer, debuting a number of ads with the star listening to Apple Music on her phone.
The power of pop is real, Saint John says, if you can harness it. “I love pop culture, I know where Angelina’s third child was born,” Saint John says. “And the fact that I get to use it in my work—I love it.” Not all work, after all, has to feel like it. “Passion should meet your professional life, and I’m a living, breathing testament to that.”