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I'm really glad to be here. I'm glad to see all your faces. I'm glad for the conversation, which I'm hoping that the energy in this room will welcome. What I am going to share with you—it's not often that I talk about my very personal journey. Usually when I'm on a stage, I'm talking about women's empowerment because we're fierce. I'm talking about diversity inclusion because we slay. I am usually talking about things that are difficult from a corporate standpoint, but today, I'm going to talk to you about something that is difficult for me, personally.
These are present tense words, not past tense words, and I want you to think about two things. One, healing does not mean “wholeness.” We'll get into what that means because I think oftentimes we think about being healed and you think, well, I must be going back to a state of hope, of “wholeness,” and “I must be okay.” That's not necessarily true, and that's okay, because the next part of that is that accepting that state does not mean surrender. It doesn't mean that you are laying down, that you are no longer fighting, that somehow you not being whole is necessarily a bad thing. So I'm going to share with you some things that I've learned over my journey, of which I'm still on, thank you Jesus, because they have certainly affected me. I tried to get through it without crying, but y'all going to have to pray for me because these eyelashes need to stay on.
But often when I think about acceptance and healing, as I said as action words, I also think about what lies in their wake. The thought about what happens when you're hurt, what happens when something traumatic affects you. There's a wound, right? Wounds heal, yes, sure they do, but they leave a scar, which sometimes means there's a little nick or a gouge. Hell, if you ever had a paper cut, you know, you get some orange juice on it, you'll be hollering, and that's just a small little paper cut. So we can't judge our wounds or our pain on the bigness of the hurt. You're allowed to feel something, even when it may be perceived as small, like a small little nick. So on this journey, I've learned so much about what that means, and how I can be active in my own healing and the acceptance of that healing and the acceptance of my present state.
What you're seeing is a picture of a woman who has accepted herself, accepted all of herself: wounds, scars, bad days, good days, the failures, the triumphs, all of it.
Now, you may look at this picture—that's me in Accra in December, jumping on New Year's Day. It was dawn, guys. It was very sexy. I came straight from the club—I hadn’t even slept yet. And you look at this picture and you might think this woman is carefree. You know, she's not seen a bad day. Look at her and her little sequins outfit, looking cute. I know that's what you're thinking—I'm so cute. But that's not necessarily true. What you're seeing is a picture of a woman who has accepted herself, accepted all of herself: wounds, scars, bad days, good days, the failures, the triumphs, all of it. Pure acceptance and acceptance of future wounds and future failures and future triumphs, future challenges, all of the things that are unseen—accepting all of that—makes me stronger because I'm a fighter, not just a survivor. Yes, I have overcome quite a bit in my life, but fight is what keeps me motivated. Fight is what gets me through, when the wounds seem too big, when it feels like I'll never heal. Some of these wounds are personal, as I said, which I'll share with you. Some of them are professional, some of them have made the news, but it's always about the acceptance that causes me to continue moving forward, that causes me to keep fighting.
One of the most challenging times of my life was about 10 years ago. In July of 2008, I was pregnant for the first time. Look at me, looking all smiley with my little baby bump. This was before preeclampsia made me gain 70 pounds of water weight and I didn't know what that meant. I was about five months pregnant. I started swelling. I knew something didn't feel right. Now, I talked to my doctor and he's like, “All pregnant women go through this kind of swelling, go home, eat some bonbons.” He didn't actually say bonbons, but you get the drift.
I should listen to it because sometimes that intuition will help to prevent wounds. Sometimes we think that the expert should tell us how to feel and somehow that will protect us from any wounds that would happen. He didn't protect me, because a few months later my daughter was born, Eve. She died the same day.
In that moment, I knew that I could not continue in a life in which I couldn't be my whole self. That I could not live life by burying a piece of myself with her. Sometimes people say that. Maybe you felt it before. You know when they say, “I buried a piece of my heart with x, fill in the blank.” That is dangerous. We can't be in this life without accepting all of the hurts and the wounds and the challenges that we go through. I'll tell you what happened to me in the moment of acceptance of her death. I realized that I had been preparing to be a mother and I still wanted to be one, that this experience would encourage me to ask the questions, to be aware of my own body, to challenge anyone who told me what I already knew.
I'm not saying I was fearless now. Certainly was not. My next pregnancy was full of fear. I was terrified every day—would it happen again?
Eight weeks into that pregnancy, I was diagnosed with preeclampsia again and this time I was like, “Oh, hell no.” No one's going to tell me what to do or how to do it or to calm down or to go sit down or put up your feet or any of the miracle home remedies that everyone on the internet would tell me. Somebody told me eat a lot of garlic. I was like, what the hell for, I’m not a vampire, I'm pregnant, you know what I mean? But for me it meant that my fight was born out of the acceptance of Eve's death. I don't know that I would have been able to continue with my pregnancy in any kind of sane manner without accepting that and therefore fighting, not surrendering to my fear.
I'm happy to say that Lael was born in May 2009. She is the light of my life. She is quite a fighter, too. I don't believe in coincidences. I do believe in energy. I think some of that fight came out in her. She came out screaming, born early too. Interestingly enough, my doctor at that time was warning, you know how they do, they tell you all of the things that could go wrong, and they gave me extra steroids shots to get her lungs built and all of that, because we knew she would come early and he said, just to warn you, we're going to have to grab her as soon as she's delivered so you may not be able to hold her. Well, this child came out like blah. And I was like, oh, her lungs are just fine. Thanks. Give me my baby.
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Now my husband, Peter, is in this picture. We were married in 2003. He definitely was very supportive throughout the experience of our becoming parents. He gained some pregnancy weight as well, which he denied. I was like, I can see your belly. We didn't yet know that we'd be facing another battle with him. Four years after Lael was born, we found out that Peter had been diagnosed with cancer. It's a rare cancer called Burkitt's lymphoma. He wanted to fight, as anyone would with that kind of diagnosis. I was tired, quite frankly, I'd already been through so many doctor's visits, I'd already been worried, I'd already had sleepless nights. I was a new mom, Lael was running around as a toddler. I didn't want to fight anymore. I really didn't. But about a month after he was diagnosed, we realized that the tumors, which were growing, his lymph nodes were getting bigger and bigger, they were appearing everywhere and after a lot of other types of treatment and searches and countless doctor's visits, his oncologist told us that he would not survive his cancer.
And I thought, well, I don't even know what to do with this. No, I can't. I can't go on without your support. We've already been through all of the battles together. You can't leave me here by myself. And I remember going home after one particular doctor's visit where they were telling us all of the options, like, if you want to continue treatment, this is what you'll do, et cetera, et cetera. And we got home and Peter said, “We, we can do that. We, you know, we'll do it, but I don't want to be stuck in the hospital doing this. I want to be living my life, whatever I have left.”
He died three months after that diagnosis, and accepting his death has been one of the greatest blessings.
The doctor told us we had six weeks. And every day we got up, we would decide what we would do that day. It was such a gift. It is still a gift. He died three months after that diagnosis, and accepting his death has been one of the greatest blessings. It causes me to fight everyday for my life, to enjoy my life, to be unapologetic in my life, to not wait until next year to do whatever thing it is that I wanted to do. I'm living right now. I'm doing everything I want to do right now and not because of some pithy saying that says “live every moment and seize the day,” but because I really know what that means—accepting his death meant that I could then take on life, that I can move forward in a way that will even honor him. I want to be an example to my daughter, first and foremost, that even the big wounds, while you may no longer be whole, do not have to stop you and you don't have to surrender, that you can live the bigness of your life even when parts are missing, and maybe that's a lesson for someone in here. I certainly feel blessed by it and that's why even through my tears I'm still smiling. I still crack jokes. I still enjoy my life because my acceptance is not surrender. It's not surrender to something that I feel like I can't control.
It doesn't mean that I lay down and let life run over me. And I won't pretend that there aren't some days when I literally want to crawl into a cave. Those days come. But I also know that the next day will come and I will get up and I will keep going.
Some of the things that have also inspired me, even past Peter's death, were in my career, maybe surprising to some folks, but it gave me a shot in the arm. It really did, in that I wanted to achieve more because I knew that, should something happen, I wanted to go out on top. Interestingly enough, some of the wounds have also come in my career. I don't think I need to tell you—it ain't easy being a black woman in corporate America, especially when you like to wear bright colors and have big hair. Sometimes I wear wigs, too. You know what I mean? I like a long Beyoncé wig I can just swing around. Sometimes I wear my hair natural, which scares all of the white people. Totally fine. Sister, I see you.
But for me, the wounds in my career have also been a point of fight. I can't tell you how many times I've been silenced or made to feel that my ideas were too small or that my passion meant that I was the “angry black woman.” I'm like, no, I'm just excited. Or that I'm the expert in the room and somebody else wants to pretend like they knew more than me—you can sit all the way down. “I know more,” is what I usually say in a very nice way, but the amazing thing is that, even though I have been through lots of fights in my career, fighting for my voice, fighting on behalf of my sisters, fighting on behalf of all women, fighting on behalf of our representation and believe me, those come with wounds, too, it hurts. I can't pretend like I'm just made out of Teflon, even though I will kick your ass with some Teflon. But it means that I have been wounded in a way that perhaps people would expect me to sit down quietly in a corner somewhere and not use my voice any longer. That maybe the criticism would be reflected in my behavior. “Ta” is more like it. I don't let that slow me down either, because the acceptance of what they—the proverbial “they”—try to do to me in my work is not surrender.
For me, it's meant success in a way that perhaps is not traditional. Somebody reads my story on paper, and they may say, ooh God, she hasn't had an easy road, but okay. I look at it as a success story. Even with the sadness, even with the grief, even with the boardroom battles, all of that. I take it all because there are nicks and bruises and wounds and scars, but when I take off this lovely Carolina Herrera dress and these Giuseppe shoes, I look at all of those scars and wounds, some of them on my body, some of them in my spirit, and I’m proud, I'm a fighter. I'm going to fight today. I'm going to fight tomorrow. Because that whole saying, “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.” That’s so true.
Let's use it to empower us. Let's use it to keep us fighting. Let's use it to make us the best people that we can be.
I am strong. I'm not just bad ass, I am strong and I'm so proud, and so I want to leave you with that thought around healing and acceptance, that healing is an active word. It doesn't have to be left behind you and to accept the fact that, even if you've been wounded, it doesn't mean you need to surrender. Let's use it to empower us. Let's use it to keep us fighting. Let's use it to make us the best people that we can be. Thank you so much.
Bozoma (“Boz”) Saint John is Chief Marketing Officer for Endeavor, a global leader in entertainment, sports and fashion. She previously has served as the Chief Brand Officer at Uber, the Head of Global Consumer Marketing at Apple Music & iTunes and the Head of Music and Entertainment Marketing at PepsiCo. She was inducted into the American Advertising Federation Hall of Achievement, named 2016’s Executive of the Year by Billboard Magazine, featured in Fortune Magazine’s Disruptors, Innovators & Stars 40 Under 40 feature, Billboard’s Top Executives 40 Under 40 and Power 100 lists, Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People, Ad Age’s 50 Most Creative People, Ebony Magazine’s 100 Powerful Executives, Black Enterprise’s Most Powerful Women in Business, Fortune Magazine’s 2018 list of Most Influential CMOs, and made the cover of AdWeek as one of the most exciting personalities in Advertising.