ESSENCE Appoints Executive Team To Lead Company’s Strategic Realignment, Innovation Focus And Community Impact
From left: Caroline Wanga, Latraviette Smith-Wilson, Avani Patel, Cori Murray and Stephanie Hodges-Dunivan

February 9, 2021 (New York, NY) – ESSENCE, the leading and only 100% Black-owned media, technology and commerce company at scale dedicated to Black women and communities, today announced updates to its executive leadership team. 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. 

ESSENCE’s January/February 2021 print issue featuring Rihanna by Lorna Simpson, Photographic collage, Dimensions variable © Lorna Simpson, Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

In continuation of the critical work that they have been leading, Essence Communications, Inc. (ESSENCE) has appointed the following to its C-suite and senior leadership team, effective immediately:

Caroline Wanga, Chief Executive Officer, ESSENCE and Chief Growth Officer, Essence Ventures

Wanga, who has served as Interim CEO of ESSENCE for seven months, has been officially appointed as Chief Executive Officer. She joined Essence Ventures, parent company of ESSENCE, as Chief Growth Officer in 2020 from Target Corporation, where she served as Chief Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Officer. Wanga began her Target career in supply chain, serving in a variety of transformational leadership roles, including modernizing Supply Chain, Business Intelligence, Digital and Strategy capabilities.

Caroline Wanga, Chief Executive Officer, ESSENCE + Chief Growth Officer, Essence Ventures | Photo courtesy of subject

Prior to that, she held several non-profit roles. Among other accolades, Wanga has been named Top Executive in Corporate Diversity by Black Enterprise and recognized at Savoy Most Powerful Women in Corporate America, as well as is a member of the Executive Leadership Council (ELC), the Talladega College Board of Trustees and the American Airlines Community Council. She previously served 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, who was born in Kenya, is an innovative and inspirational thought leader and public speaker and earned her bachelor’s degree from HBCU Texas College. 

Latraviette D. Smith-Wilson, Chief Strategy & Engagement Officer

Smith-Wilson, who also serves as Chief Strategy Officer for Essence Ventures (parent company of ESSENCE), has joined ESSENCE as Chief Strategy & Engagement Officer. In this newly-created role, the following teams will report to her: Business Development/Sales, Marketing, Content, Creative, Experiential, Video, and Stakeholder Engagement (PR, talent, and strategic partnerships). With 20-plus years of global experience building brands through a lens of purpose, social impact and inclusion and a career spanning journalism, marketing & communications, DEI and business strategy, Smith-Wilson has worked and held senior leadership roles across newsrooms, agencies, Fortune 100 companies, and entrepreneurial ecosystems, including Sundial Brands/Unilever, American Express, Edelman, Deloitte and National Urban League. 

Latraviette D. Smith-Wilson, Chief Strategy & Engagement Officer, ESSENCE | Photo courtesy of subject

She has been recognized by Black Enterprise–Next Generation Women of Power, Café Mocha–Powerhouse Award/Outstanding Business Leadership, Ebony– Women Up, and Forbes–Black Women Leaders to Follow, among others. Smith-Wilson is a board member and the immediate past Chair of the Board of Harlem United and has previously served on the board of the PRSA Foundation and as the Diversity & Inclusion columnist for PRWeek. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and received her double-major bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University and her Master’s Degree from New York University.

Avani Patel, Chief Operating Officer

Patel, who previously served as Chief of Staff & Vice President in the Office of the CEO, has been promoted to Chief Operating Officer. In this role, she will lead the Technology, Finance, and Human Resources functions. A veteran of the technology industry, her career spans product launch, management/operations and consulting across Fortune 500 companies and start-ups.

Avani Patel, Chief Operating Officer, ESSENCE | Photo courtesy of subject

Patel previously led technology at Sundial Brands/Unilever, as well as professional services at Verizon/Totality Corp. She has PMP and Six Sigma Black Belt certifications and received her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University.

Cori Murray, Deputy Editor

Murray, who joined ESSENCE in 1999 and has held various editor roles across the organization, has been promoted to Deputy Editor. In this role, she will lead the brand’s editorial content team across print and digital, as well as magazine operations. Murray led the team behind the January/February 2021 Rihanna + Lorna Simpson cover, and most recently served as Entertainment and Talent Director, curating and editing the celebrity and culture content for ESSENCE’s editorial and digital platforms. She also cohosts the brand’s leading podcast – Yes, Girl! – which is a two-time Webby Award-nominated podcast and has received 5+ million downloads. 

Cori Murray, Deputy Editor, ESSENCE | Photo: Michael Rowe

Murray has served as a cultural critic for numerous outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, and Access Hollywood, had articles published in outlets including the Associated Press and Vibe, and been featured on Stoop Talks (Luminary) and Going Through It with Tracy Clayton (Mailchimp) podcasts. She was also featured in the OWN documentary, Light Girls and Ava DuVernay’s My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip Hop, and contributed to the anthology, He Never Came Home: Interviews, Stories, and Essays from Daughters on Life Without Their Fathers (Agate Bolden). Murray received her bachelor’s degree from HBCU Hampton University.

Stephanie Hodges-Dunivan – Vice President, Experiential, Branded Content & Video – Hodges-Dunivan (aka NöNe), who most recently served as Executive Producer, has been promoted to Vice President, Experiential, Branded Content & Video. With nearly 20 years experience in television and digital production, she joined ESSENCE.com in 2017 to lead the charge for video production for ESSENCE Festival and events and took over ESSENCE Video in 2018, leading the team to develop programming that has since catapulted video performance to record-breaking levels in the company’s 50-year history, including a 145% increase in video views in 2020.

Stephanie Hodges-Dunivan, Vice President, Experiential, Branded Content & Video, ESSENCE | Photo: Leon Le

Hodges-Dunivan also led the video production for the first-ever virtual Essence Festival of Culture in 2020, which garnered 70 million views of Festival-related content, with more than 45 million full streams across all platforms. She has previously worked at Inside Edition and BET, where she was Senior Producer at 106 & Park and produced Red Carpet Specials for the BET Awards and Soul Train Awards. While there, she also produced the first-ever live game show in a mobile app. Hodges-Dunivan received her bachelor’s degree from Hunter College–The City University of New York.

Wanga said, “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.”

She continues: “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. Moving forward, we will be bringing this to life through a three-pillar focus—Culture, Equity and Celebration—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.”

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Smith-Wilson added, “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.”

ABOUT ESSENCE COMMUNICATIONS, INC.

Essence Communications is the number one—and only 100% Black-owned—media, technology and commerce company at scale dedicated to Black women and communities.  With a community of more than 31 million Black women, ESSENCE inspires a global audience through diverse storytelling and immersive original content rooted in Culture, Equity and Celebration.  The brand’s multi-platform presence in publishing, experiential and online encompasses its namesake magazine; digital, video and social platforms; television specials; books; and signature live events, including Black Women in Music, Black Women in Hollywood, Street Style and the ESSENCE Festival of Culture. 

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