The year known as 2020 was unfathomably challenging by anyone’s estimation; but as Essence magazine celebrated its 50th anniversary, the pioneering and enduring imprint and lifestyle brand, by its own admission, proved not to be immune. Now, nearly a year after the lockdowns that literally stopped us in our tracks, the legacy media brand shared its newest developments as it plans for the future, including the appointment of a new executive team comprised primarily of Black women.
To recap: Already forced to pivot its lucrative annual festival in New Orleans to a virtual format amid the pandemic, Essence faced a firestorm of allegations just ahead of its first-ever virtual festival. A coalition of current and former staffers dubbed #BlackFemaleAnonymous accused Essence Ventures owner Richelieu Dennis and other C-suite execs of discriminatory, irresponsible and potentially abusive behavior, including charges of sexual harassment and inappropriate relationships on the part of Dennis.
Two investigations commissioned in response to the allegations found no misconduct by Dennis, who’d already stepped back from temporarily overseeing Essence’s daily operations following the departure of longtime CEO Michelle Ebanks earlier in the year. In his stead, former Target exec Caroline Wanga, who’d joined Essence Ventures (parent company of Essence) as Chief Growth Officer in 2020, was appointed interim CEO. While the investigations ostensibly cleared Dennis of any and all wrongdoing, the widespread financial effects of the ongoing pandemic were not as easily resolved. After already moving to a bimonthly format for its print editions at the start of 2020, in September, the magazine announced six-month furloughs of an undisclosed percentage of its staff—and seemingly the majority of its editorial staff.
Nevertheless, the magazine continued to produce groundbreaking content, including a covetable triple cover with Emmy-winning actress and fashion icon Zendaya for its December-January issue, immediately followed by a highly innovative cover collaboration between Rihanna and acclaimed artist Lorna Simpson for its January-February issue.
The theme of Zendaya’s issue was “Black Resilience.” Fittingly, as “the leading and only 100-percent Black-owned media, technology and commerce company at scale dedicated to Black women and communities,” Essence’s latest “strategic realignment” (as outlined in a press release shared with The Root) has also been designed with the beloved brand’s resilience in mind. Making an “investment in continuing to serve Black women deeply, [and] bridge Black culture globally,” on Tuesday, the magazine announced the appointment of a new C-suite and senior leadership team to lead Essence’s “innovation focus and community impact,” effective immediately.
After serving seven months as Interim CEO, Caroline Wanga has been officially appointed Chief Executive Officer and Chief Growth Officer of Essence Ventures. Of note, the Kenyan-born Wanga previously served as Chief Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Target Corporation, as well as on the Intersectionality, Culture, and Diversity Advisory Board for Twitter and as co-chair of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) Diversity & Inclusion Initiative. Wanga shared the following statement about her new role and Essence’s future:
Since the beginning of time, Black women have been changing lives, changing communities, and changing the world—and most often have not been recognized for it. While we may still be fighting for the C-Suite in Corporate America, we have held practically every seat in the C-Suite of our lives—Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Communications Officer, Chief Wellness Officer, Chief Strategy Officer and the list goes on. It is what we do, and for the past 50 years, the evolution of Black women’s history—and thus, the evolution of the Black woman—has been captured and curated in one place and one place only—Essence.
I could not be more excited for the opportunity to serve this cornerstone of Black culture into its next phase of growth, innovation and impact alongside this incredible team of accomplished women. Essence has at our disposal some of the most recognized, trusted and treasured assets through which to engage Black women and our communities in service to not just surviving, but thriving, and we are grateful for our broader teams across the organization who demonstrate commitment every day to ensuring that we are building our capabilities in service to that purpose.
Several other prominent appointments were announced Tuesday:
Current Chief Strategy Officer for Essence Ventures Latraviette D. Smith-Wilson will expand her role, joining Essence as its Chief Strategy & Engagement Officer. In this newly-created role, Smith-Wilson will oversee several departments: Business Development/Sales, Marketing, Content, Creative, Experiential, Video, and Stakeholder Engagement (PR, talent, and strategic partnerships). As Essence’s press release notes, Smith-Wilson’s 20-plus years of global experience include senior leadership roles across newsrooms, agencies, Fortune 100 companies, and “entrepreneurial ecosystems,” including the Dennis family-founded Sundial Brands (owned by Unilever), American Express, Edelman, Deloitte and National Urban League.
One of the issues raised in the complaint made by #BlackFemaleAnonymous was the purported presence of Dennis’ wife Martha Dennis as acting head of Human Relations at Essence Ventures, a role which had reportedly previously been performed by then-departing COO Joy Collins Profet (notably also the subject of complaints by the still-unidentified group). The role of Essence Ventures COO will now be held by previous Chief of Staff & Vice President in the Office of the CEO Avani Patel, who will lead the company’s technology, finance, and human resources functions moving forward. Prior to her tenure at Essence Ventures, Patel led technology at Sundial Brands/Unilever and professional services at Verizon/Totality Corp.
Cori Murray is a familiar name and face to faithful Essence readers, having been with the magazine in various editorial roles since 1999, most recently as Entertainment and Talent Director for both Essence’s print and digital platforms. A renowned cultural critic and contributor, she is also recognizable as co-host of Essence’s popular and two-time Webby Award-winning Yes Girl! podcast. Murray, who led the team behind the landmark Rihanna/Lorna Simpson cover story has now been promoted to Deputy Editor, where she will lead the brand’s editorial content team across print and digital, as well as magazine operations.
Lastly, former Essence Executive Producer Stephanie Hodges-Dunivan (aka NöNe), has been promoted to Vice President, Experiential, Branded Content & Video, bring nearly 20 years’ experience in television and digital production to the role, with previous tenures at Inside Edition and BET. Hodges-Dunivan, who joined Essence in 2017 to lead video production for Essence Festival and events before being promoted to helm Essence Video in 2018, is credited with leading the development of programming to record-breaking levels within the company, including capitalizing on the limitations of the pandemic to leverage a 145% increase in video views in 2020, and leading the production on the first-ever virtual Essence Festival of Culture (which garnered 70 million views of related content and more than 45 million full streams across all platforms).
Per the press release provided to The Root:
These appointments are part of the final phases of the restructuring process aimed at positioning the company for continued growth and maximum impact following its acquisition from Time Inc. To date, this transformation has included, among other focus areas, building critical operational infrastructure across finance, human resources and technology; making significant investments across Essence Magazine, digital, e-commerce and experiential platforms—resulting in the brand almost doubling its reach over three years; expanding platforms for other culturally-rooted entrepreneurs and businesses that create economic opportunities for Black communities; introducing heightened capabilities, technology, products and touch points that super-serve the interests of Black women locally and globally—including the launch of Essence Studios streaming platform; refining organizational culture and accountability; and developing a new strategic framework and targeted partner engagement approach—with more to come.
“Moving forward, we will be bringing this [new phase of growth] to life through a three-pillar focus—Culture, Equity and Celebration,” says Wanga, “and are driving each of those through a prioritized set of goals that include engaging the global Black diaspora, leveraging an inclusive and multigenerational approach, optimizing our 360-integrated capability including virtual and live agility, capitalizing on our first-party data and research to uncover key insights and more.”
As for what this means for the next phase of a media entity beloved for a half-century and currently followed by millions Black women globally, Smith-Wilson offered the following context and assurances about Essence’s future:
When Essence was founded 50 years ago, it had a very clear mandate—to show, empower and celebrate the many facets of Black women and to do so understanding the power of media images and the importance of controlling our own narrative. Today, in a season where almost everyone professes to care about the needs of Black women and particularly in this time of national and global reckoning on the systemic injustices that we face as Black women and as a Black community, this mandate is ever-more clear and critical as we put an even deeper stake in the ground that our culture is not a trend or a marketing opportunity.
Today, more than 31 million Black women globally call Essence home. Home is the place where we lay our heads, our hearts, our insecurities, our fears, our aspirations, and our dreams. It is where we return to be renewed and restored. That is Essence—equipping her with what she needs to lead in all areas of her life. Black women are speaking. Black women are leading. Black women are continuing to change the world as we know it. We always have, and we always will.