Michelle Ebanks and Richelieu Dennis Share a Vision for the Future of Essence Magazine
I was able to hear first hand about the vision for the future of Essence Magazine at The My Journey: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” a Women’s Entrepreneurial Forum for Aspiring Female Business Leaders. It was an evening celebrating Essence Magazine featuring the President of Communications, Michelle Ebanks and the new owner, Richelieu Dennis presented by Germaine Leftridge, Founder, and CEO of Ubiquitous Beauty|Hair|Health expo and Sheila Eldridge, Founder and CEO of Miles Ahead Entertainment. The event hosts were comedian Loni Love and Allison Seymour of FOX 5 DC.
How has Essence maintained its success for 50 years?
If you asked Richelieu Dennis he would say, Pure Black Girl Magic. He was referring to the leadership and industry knowledge of Michelle EBanks.
She has more than 25 years of experience in the magazine industry. She has held a number of roles such as financial analyst, corporate business manager, financial director, general manager and group publisher. A partnership with Time Inc. opened the door for Michelle to become part of the Essence team leading to her current role as the President of Communications, since 2005.
“Out of college, I was in the publishing industry. So I grew up learning how the business worked,” said Michelle. This experience was vital to the success of Essence Communications. Michelle understood how other magazines worked from the business perspective and brought that knowledge with her. This experience was vital to the success of Essence Communications.
“I was able to come in and understand we’re not priced right here and here and here.” Michelle went explained that because of her previous example she knew the rate black magazines were charging advertisers was a fraction of what others in the industry were charing. She noted that other Black magazines may not have had this type of information to maintain the revenue needed to sustain themselves. With this insight, she increased the advertising rates and the newsstand prices.
Another stream of revenue started as a celebration of 25 years of Essence Magazine in New Orleans. The Essence festival is now an annual three-day event that draws nearly 500,000 attendees. What people may not know is Michelle and her team fought to keep it going.
She shared, “I was told to shut it down after Katrina.” With little resources and no support, she was able to keep the event going and this year will be a huge celebration now that Essence is black-owned again!
Michelle described this period as a frustrating time that many of us in corporate can relate to. When you are passionate about an idea or project but others don’t understand the opportunity.
Her team knew that they would find the leadership that understood these ideas and would support them. They continued to work hard and remained faithful that the future would be different. Michelle brought up one light in this dark situation; faith.
“You don’t know how it will work that’s a good feeling. Not at the time...it’s a good feeling when you look back and you know it wasn’t what you did but it was God who got you through,” she continued, “Sister L. Taylor always said that Essence had angels.” (Susan Taylor was the previous editor-in-chief).
“Now we have what is the genius of understanding how to build your content because you have to be out in community and Time Inc. didn’t understand that,” said Michelle. They were looking at the audience as a reader on a piece of paper. What Richelieu brings to the table is his expertise in the community commerce model that he used to build his business.
After graduating from college, he was unable to return to his home in Liberia because of Civil War, he needed a way to survive so he started making the products his Grandmother created and selling them on the street.
The important part of this story is he had to educate his consumer because his ingredients weren’t mainstream yet. This is important because he understands a part of the future vision for Essence. To truly see the reader beyond a number and create local connections. Outside of local efforts, Michelle explained that technology and media will allow an opportunity for our faster growth. “We need to reach more of our women and across more verticles that serve their needs and to extend that locally to deepen the connection,” said Michelle.
“Our minds are wired to tell stories. Essence needs to tell quality stories so that we know we are beautiful, we are smart, we can launch more businesses, we can be president, we have to tell ourselves those stories and that’s what we do,” said Michelle Ebanks.
Richelieu talked about this new role is exciting for him viewing Essence as an opportunity to serve black women in the community. For example, as part of the deal, they have launched a one hundred million dollar fund to invest in Black women businesses.
“What we are trying to do is, to empower enough pockets, and get on the course, and the habit, and expectation of creating generational wealth in the community,” said Richelieu Dennis.
“We are focusing in on finding those businesses that we believe need capital, expertise, and access,” said Richelieu. “We got to monetize our culture in order to own our economics.”
Hear how Richelieu Dennis started Sundial Brands.
Read more about this partnership on Essence.com.