This spring marks three years of tremendous evolution at ESSENCE, a movement that began when we double downed on our mission to continue to strengthen and stretch the boundaries of Black capital, community, and capacity, and did the earnest work of transforming workplace culture at this treasured institution.
While most will agree that change is necessary for growth, the number gets smaller when the call becomes wanting change, and dwindles even more when the call goes out to lead the change. The choice to opt into the change or opt-out is neither good nor bad, it just is. For most organizational change initiatives, it is expected and strategized that new players will pick up the baton of the mission and commit to moving it further than where they picked it up, in service of that mission and its impact on those yet-to-come.
For almost 50 years, ESSENCE has served Black women DEEPLY, in honor of their always-growing, worldwide influence, impact, and inspiration. We continue this legacy by repositioning the Black woman as the CEO of home, culture, and community. As a result of her role and impact, the determinants of health and wealth benefit ALL communities, not just Black communities. We hold in the highest esteem these Black women leaders who have enriched our lives, propelled our dreams, and shown us the best of who we are in every form and fashion. While ESSENCE’s original mission remains at the core, its evolution has always been a Herculean effort because of its infinite value as a treasured cultural artifact that we are grateful to have returned to the community it serves. And as a brand and a business, we can confidently say ESSENCE once again stands at the forefront of innovation, economic growth, career advancement, and community development.
We are incredibly proud of the remarkable progress our teams and ecosystem have made – work that has resulted in 100% revenue growth since the acquisition from Time, Inc. – and we owe immense gratitude to those who have been with us on the journey as we reflect on the path to this point.
ESSENCE is such a commodity of significant historical value to our community that while others were spectators to its malnourishment a few years ago, we made the radical choice to replenish its strength by investing our treasure, time, and resources heavily in its people and infrastructure to solidify its foundation and ensure its future.
When we acquired the magazine and festival in 2018, we inherited a business that was on the verge of insolvency, losing tens of millions of dollars a year. This neglected print publication had not been invested in and hadn’t made the transition to compete in a rapidly-evolving digital and social marketplace. The team had not been seen or properly resourced and cared for. There was no sustained operational or technological infrastructure. It lacked finance, human resources, and consumer marketing teams and there was no strategic vision for the future. As a result of these circumstances – some that we were aware of pre-acquisition, some not – we invested our time, talent, and resources into moving a legacy brand into the 21st century with a vision towards the 22nd century. Imagine an impactful business on a critical mission such as ESSENCE without crucial teams, infrastructure, and resources: this model was unsustainable and almost guaranteed ESSENCE would not be present in the next year let alone into perpetuity. Change was needed, immediately and urgently.
We have been and are continuing to implement, execute, and iterate strategic intent and vision to transform a neglected magazine business into a multimedia global platform powered by the best talent in the marketplace; disciplined operational efficiency anchored in new and refined processes, workstreams, and functional collaboration; and leveraging the best of technology to build out our own proprietary publishing, commerce, experiential, services and streaming platforms.
As a result, today, 90% of our employees are proud to work at ESSENCE; the team has grown by 36%; our average salary has increased by 47%; profitability has grown by 260%; and we have grown the ESSENCE Festival of Culture into a global and cultural phenomenon, bringing $300 million of annual economic impact to the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana AFTER a forced – but successfully navigated – COVID hiatus. That’s an average of $109 million per day from 167,000 daily attendees who create 14.3 billion social media impressions – making ESSENCE Festival of Culture the #1 festival in the country and eclipsing festivals and events like Coachella and SXSW in each category. But that is not even the most critical element of success born of the acquisition: we meticulously assessed and addressed workplace culture improvements. This included implementing training on harassment, inclusion, and business conduct; creating routines and platforms for transparent exchange of critical communications; instituting a formal performance management, incentive, and pay-for-performance process and resources; developing clarity in roles and responsibilities, job descriptions, career paths, development training; and more.
At the time of acquisition, there were no standardized bonus or benefits plans for many employees whether on a full-time, freelance or part-time basis. Our priority on day ONE was to convert everyone to a full-time basis where they would receive – for the first time – comprehensive plans with bonuses, benefits, and retirement savings plans, which immediately resulted in a 30% compensation increase across the board for all employees. Today, we’re proud of the fact that Essence employees are amongst the highest-paid in our industry. According to Zippia.com, the average salary for Business Insider is $66,860; for Conde Nast, it’s $57,286; and for Hearst, it’s $41,000. Essence’s average salaries are two and a half to three times higher than the average salaries at these companies.
The results of this reinvestment in talent is reflected in our most recent anonymous employee engagement survey (April 2023) which stated that 90% of our team members are proud to work at ESSENCE and almost 75% agree that there’s a culture of teamwork and cooperation within the organization. This presents us with additional opportunities for growth on behalf of the community we serve but also highlights the tremendous progress we are making as an organization.
Another important cultural and organizational shift comes in the form of the investments we made in a cadre of experienced leaders to take on executive roles. Prior to our acquisition company leaders were not supported, were not seen, and the business was not appropriately resourced. Since then, we’ve up-skilled our teams, bringing in professionals with over a century of experience working for best-in-class, next-generation media and consumer businesses like Google, YouTube, Meta, Target, and Disney, along with the mindset, dedication, and skills needed to reach our vision.
We will not stop growing or evolving. As many media companies are downsizing, we continue to invest in the best talent on the planet, growing the core, digital, and studio businesses while leveraging new platforms to build large-scale businesses that provide opportunities for other Black-owned businesses. To date, our ecosystem has invested over $5 million of non-dilutive capital to startup Black businesses.
As a fourth-generation Black-owned family business committed to developing our community, we believe that generational wealth isn’t the wealth you build in one generation and pass on to the next – it is the wealth you create by preparing each generation to grow the wealth for multiple generations to come. We are focused on executing our 100-year family business plan to create wealth and invest back into the Black community.
Now that we have stabilized the business and transformed it into a modern media enterprise, we are excited about driving this brand into the future and investing in new technologies, new acquisitions, and future-proofing the Black business ecosystem.
So we stand unwavering in our mission and unapologetic about our ambition while driving the transformation and evolution to ensure our entire community thrives equitably and at parity with the value we add to the world. WE are powered by community and committed to continue to be celebratory about the greatness of our legacy and transparently committed to flourishing while fixing and fastening in service to our teams, communities, and partners. Black Excellence is not a slogan to us, it is a generational way of life!