“I know what they say about me – that I am too quiet and low-key, unassuming, even clueless. Not the one you’d expect to be the last man standing after the smoke has cleared and the body count taken. Yet here I am, in the position to tell a remarkable story as the only cofounder remaining on the masthead of a multimillion-dollar magazine I helped launch more than forty years ago with three other black businessmen.
We four partners were all young bloods in the beginning, emboldened by a rather extraordinary, even revolutionary idea: that there could be a profitable business in starting a magazine that affirmed the strength, beauty, style and achievements of American black women. My being here may seem as improbable as that idea was back in 1968.
What was groundbreaking at the time was not just the idea of a business partnership among black men, but the notion that the American black woman constituted a viable economic market that could be sold to Madison Avenue as a demographic force distinct and different from the general women’s magazine market. A force to be recognized, reckoned with, and valued.”
-An excerpt from 'The Man from Essence – Creating a Magazine for Black Women' by Edward Lewis with Audrey Edwards
In his new memoir The Man from Essence – Creating a Magazine for Black Women, Essence magazine cofounder Edward Lewis offers a candid and enlightening story of how Essence magazine came to be. Likening the experience to "a seismic social movement that was subject to boardroom fights, firings and mass defections, hostile takeover attempts and petty shakedowns,” Lewis literally, and fascinatingly so, tells all in this veritable, account of the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to running a business. Released in June, The Man from Essence not only celebrates the ambitious feat of funding and launching a magazine for Black women in 1968, but it also serves as an exceptional textbook lesson on Black entrepreneurship that, in this case, unfolded on the heels of the Civil Rights movement, took root and blossomed into the next four decades...and counting.
Here, in our exclusive Q&A interview, the Bronx-born Lewis sheds light on his motivation behind selling the magazine to media giant Time Inc., the meaning behind “the black tax” and the current state of Essence.
TNJ.com: What prompted you to write a “tell-all” book and did you struggle with how much to reveal and what details to include?
Edward Lewis: No, I didn’t struggle with what to reveal. One of my good friends in Chicago, Mr. Tom Burrell, told me if you’re not prepared to deal with all the things that happened during the course of the journey of Essence, then don’t do it. I’d been wanting to do this since 2005 after the [Time] deal had been completed, but I was too close…being involved since 1968 and completing the sale in 2005…I needed some distance to look at all that had happened. So, finally in the last two and a half years, in working with Audrey Edwards, who had been very helpful in pulling it together and telling this story, I did it. I thought it was important. I wanted to let Black women know that there were four Black men who came together to celebrate their beauty, their intelligence and their history. Because of all the issues that had taken place between Black men and Black women, I thought they should know this. And certainly from the standpoint of memorializing the saga of how Essence came into being…there’s a wealth of information that I think can be useful in helping us understand who we are as a people and just how far we’ve come, particularly, since the late 60’s and early 70’s and, certainly, how Black women are now perceived in this country.
TNJ.com: Speaking of the early 70’s, I was born in 1970 - the year the first issue of Essence was printed. Little did I know at the time that you and your partners were hard at work creating a magazine that would help change the perception of Black women by the time I would come of age. I thank you for that. Back then, what was the societal perception of Black women?
E.L.: Thank you very much. In terms of how Black women were perceived in 1970, the perception is that they were uncouth, loud-mouthed, poor, unfeminine, on welfare, illiterate and not beautiful. And so what Essence had to do was change this perception to let the world know and say to Black women that you are beautiful, that you do have a friend who cares about your needs and issues and we want to try to address all those needs in a publication that you can call your own on a consistent basis month-in and month-out. You’re going to have features there that you will want to read about you and how you can make your life better for you, your family and the community that you reside in.
TNJ.com: What was your experience like in trying to sell the idea of 'Black women as a market' to Madison Avenue? It had to be a huge undertaking.
E.L.: It was absolutely a huge undertaking. I give big kudos to my former business partner, Clarence Smith, who was in charge of advertising and shaped the strategy with regard to selling to Madison Avenue that this [Black] woman is important, she’s a major decision-maker, she’s a striver and an up and coming individual who cares. And so, in the first issue we had 13 pages of ads and then in the next two issues we had five pages each so it was always a struggle to sell this story. Every time we had a presentation on Madison Avenue, we had to re-tell the story and we had to re-educate all those individuals in the ad agencies. In fact, our strategy was to make sure that the corporations knew about us and then we also went to the agency to tell our story, too, because we found that if the corporation accepted what we were saying about this woman, they would put pressure on the ad agency and say, “Listen, this is a market that we may need to address.” And over time, people began to realize that this was a market that was underserved and with great potential in terms of economic growth and economic opportunity. What you saw, for example, in Detroit with the auto industry...they already knew that women were decision-makers and they knew that Black women, in particular, were decision-makers within the Black community, and Detroit early on was very supportive of advertising in Essence because the auto industry knew who made the decisions in our community.
TNJ.com: In your book, you refer several times to a phrase you call, “the black tax.” Can you explain its meaning?
E.L.: What I was trying to get us to have an appreciation for was that not only were we out there trying to start our own business, to survive and to make sure we allocated all our resources properly, but we also had to overcome the perception that we, as Black business owners, were not producing a quality product and one of the things we wanted to make sure of was that our community, particularly Black women, felt that the quality of the editorial, the writing and the photographs depicted how we wanted to display Black women in all of her different hues, facets and physiological makeup, etc. and overcome the perception that even though we’re Black, we can also produce a quality product. That’s what I mean by having a black tax that we have to overcome.
TNJ.com: In one chapter, you write that your idea was to, “Buy Vibe magazine, not sell Essence.” How did you decide to go in a different direction?
E.L.: When Vibe came up for sale in 1999, I thought it would be a real complement to Essence…Vibe was a hot, editorial magazine geared towards a younger, music-oriented, hip audience that was doing quite well that I thought it would be a nice complement to what Essence was about in serving the needs of Black women. When we approached Vibe’s investment banking firm, who invited us to listen to their presentation, I had engaged the services of Goldman Sachs to assist me with the effort of trying to buy Vibe. I had learned that Time Inc. was rebidding on Vibe. What people may not know is that it was Time Inc. that brought Vibe into the world. And then they sold it. Now, they were going to rebid on the magazine again. When I found that out, I said to myself that anyone in an auction with Time Inc. is not going to win. But then a light bulb went off in my head and I said, “Well, wait a minute…if they’re interested in buying Vibe and I’m interested in buying Vibe, maybe we can work together.” That’s the genesis of how we came together. So in January of 2000, I approached Time Inc. about wanting to buy Vibe and that’s when they said to me, “Before we talk about that, why don’t we talk about investing in you?” And that’s how that took place. It took me by surprise. It took my counterpart from Goldman Sachs by surprise, too, but then we talked about what it would look like for them to invest in Essence and that culminated into their owning 49 percent and Essence owning 51 percent. And I give big kudos to the then-president of Time Warner who was Dick Parsons who also became the CEO of Time Warner and certainly the CEO of Time Inc., a legendary man named Don Logan who had the foresight to understand the importance of our market and shepherded Time Warner’s involvement in making the deal happen.
TNJ.com: How do you think Essence’s editors felt about the sale to Time Inc.?
E.L.: I don’t know if I can characterize their feelings, but certainly Susan Taylor’s opinion was important. She was also a board member and she agreed with the decision to sell because she understood, as we all did over the next four years, that Time Inc. had enormous resources that could be helpful to the continuous sustainability of Essence. We were in a very competitive environment and we knew, too, that other magazines wanted our current audience. And we knew that we always had to be on the cutting edge and keep refreshing Essence and be able to make sure that we’re able to pay our expenses with regard to paper, printing and postage. And with these headwinds that were out there, life would be even more difficult, especially because we were a one-magazine company. So my decision to sell was to make sure that Essence could continue to empower Black women for years to come and here we are…Essence is now in its 45th year.
TNJ.com: Do you have any criticism of the way in which Time is running the magazine?
E.L.: No, I do not. Michelle Ebanks, who I helped select to run Essence, is doing an outstanding job in an unforgiving environment. I’ve always said that whomever succeeded me should do the job a thousand times better than I did. And she’s doing that in spades. So I’m very appreciative of her commitment to the mission, to Black women and to expanding the enterprise to even greater potential and opportunities. I wanted Black women to be able to serve Black women from the cradle to the grave. In the early days, when I saw how Essence was being developed against the landscape of other media companies, I looked at what Time Warner was doing. They owned magazines, books, music, television, movie studios, etc. (Laughs) So I felt Essence could be a miniature Time Warner in terms of serving the needs of our community, more specifically, Black women because they were the engine that had all the potential to doing these things. And so what Michelle and her team are trying to do is just that. They are growing the enterprise, continuing to make all of us feel good about Essence being a good corporate citizen that is supportive of issues going on in our community. Essence has been at the forefront of making sure that we vote and talking about how we vote… we’ve dealt with health and issues like AIDS…and even Apartheid. In the early days when no one was talking about Apartheid, but Essence was talking about what was going on in South Africa…So I feel very good about how we’ve moved ahead and what’s going on.
TNJ.com: Do you miss being involved in the day-to-day operations of Essence?
E.L.: No, I do not. I had been asked to be CEO of a company recently, but said I had no desire to be CEO of any company, anymore. I’ve done that. I do want to be an advisor to assist Time Inc. or Michelle Ebanks if she calls me for advice. I want to be supportive and make sure our voices in our community continue to be heard. It’s important for us to have some control of our own voices in our community. I want to be in the forefront of assisting us with our educational needs in our community. In fact, I’m very much involved with a charter school here in N.Y. because I believe that education is our single, biggest way out of poverty in helping us to be able to compete. It is about competition. We’re competing internationally with what’s going on in China and India, Brazil…We need to make sure that all of our citizens, particularly Black & Latino kids, have the opportunity to compete and learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic because if we don’t get involved in education no matter who we are or how rich we are, we’re going to pay a price. And so if we believe in what this country is about, we need to make sure we help educate our kids so we can continue to enjoy the incredible benefits and rewards this country provides for all its citizens. And I say ALL of its citizens because I want people to know that we’re American. Yes, we’re Black, but we are Americans and we need to be very proud of that and to extract all the goodies that all Americans are entitled to.
TNJ.com: When you think back on some of the attempts made to take over the magazine by people who were close to you and people not so close, were you surprised and disappointed?
E.L.: No, it was not a surprise. Hindsight suggests to me and validates why they wanted to take over Essence. It was a value – a value proposition. So when my former partners tried to take control, they were rebuffed in that effort. When John H. Johnson made an effort in 1985, I was able to rebuff him in that effort as well. But it’s a testament to how they saw the importance of the magazine…how it was growing and had even more potential for growth and opportunity. In going through it however, at the time, it was very dramatic having to deal with my former partners on that level. And when Essence started making a profit in 1977, and for the next several years with the exception of ‘77-’79 because we were dealing with the takeover, we were able to overcome all of it and move on. The only time Essence has not been profitable, did not make bottom line profits was in 1984 when we, and when I say we I mean the Board of Directors, made a collective decision to start a TV division and launched the Essence Television Show, a catalog division – the Essence By Mail catalog and a licensing division. We were also heavily involved in litigation with people who were trying to use our name. People were trying to put our name on products geared towards our market and we were certainly not going to let that happen. But that’s the only year since 1979 when we were not profitable. And I feel very good about that because when you start a business, it is about making money, providing resources, providing a return for shareholders and we have over the years changed many lives for writers, photographers and vendors who’ve benefited because of Essence being in the marketplace.
TNJ.com: What do you think readers will be surprised to learn about the evolution of Essence magazine that perhaps they didn’t know before reading your book. What do you think will stand out most for readers? What will shock them?
E.L.: I think they may be surprised to learn that Black men came together to bring this magazine out into the marketplace. When I elevated Susan Taylor to editor-in-chief in 1981, she came to me and said, “Ed, we need to do some research on our market.” I told her that the best research she could do was to travel the country, listen to what Black women were saying and bring that information back to N.Y. and see if we can translate that into the pages of Essence. As a result, Susan became iconic, well known and the face of Essence. So, many people thought that Susan started the magazine and ran the magazine. They didn’t know there were Black men back in N.Y. who took care of the business side and the daily responsibilities of running Essence. So I want Black women to have an appreciation for, notwithstanding the issues between Black men and women, the fact that some of us did come together to celebrate them.
The other thing I want Black women to know in reading this book is how they are valued economically. When Time Inc. made the decision to not only buy 49 percent of the magazine in 2000, but the remaining 51 percent in 2005, they put a significant, high value on Essence - a high price that they were willing to pay to buy Essence. I think that speaks volumes with not just how Time Inc. views the brand, but how Black women have come such a long way in how they are perceived. When I think of Lupita N’yongo and how she is considered one of the most beautiful women in the world; Beyonce who is considered one of the most influential women in the world; and Michelle Obama in the White House with her two kids, it just speaks volumes and gives me quiet joy to know that Essence, I think, had something to do with changing the perception of how Black women are thought of.
TNJ.com: What advice do you have for aspiring magazine publishers?
E.L.: Paper, printing and postage can be expensive. Online is certainly less expensive, but in crafting the idea of a magazine, you really need to know your audience and differentiate yourself from what other magazines are doing. Ultimately, it's about ideas and content, but you can use the Internet much better than when we came along. But I also believe that there will always be a need for print.
TNJ.com: Do you think today’s Essence reader is different from the Essence reader of the ‘70’s? Is the new generation of readers as race-conscious as their mothers and grandmothers who faced many more challenges in the workplace and in society, in general?
E. L.: I think we can always be more knowledgeable and cognizant of who we are and what we stand for. Let me just say this. When I travel, and I come in touch with Black women and I ask them if there is still a need for a magazine called Essence. They look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. “How can you even ask that question?” they ask. I don’t take readers for granted, and I want to know if Essence is continuing to address their needs within the backdrop of what’s going on in our society. Notwithstanding, we have an African American president, which the majority of us feel very good about. We feel good about the fact that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are in the White House. The fact that there was overwhelming support in terms of how Blacks voted for him, close to 96 percent, particularly led by Black women, in terms of voting, I dare say that we are very conscious of who we are and what our needs are in dealing with what’s going on in our society. Very recently, we saw an extraordinary thing happen in Mississippi. Senator Cochran was re-elected because he reached out to the Black community in Mississippi. Fannie Lou Hamer, a legendary activist who was very important to our history in changing the Democratic Party in 1964, must be turning over in her grave to know that blacks went out and supported Thad Cochran to be the Senator of Mississippi because of how Mississippians had treated us. But we knew the opposition was the Tea Party candidate, we knew what they had said about us as a people and as a community and we knew the benefits they wanted to deny us. We understood who the devil was, and the fact of being supportive of one devil as opposed to the devil that really wants to harm our community. So I think that we are very conscious about what’s going on in our society. The same applies with the outburst that Don Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers, made with his remarks about not wanting his girlfriend to be involved with Blacks. To see how the Black community responded and, more importantly, how the Black athletes, especially Lebron James, who said that this individual [Sterling] is not wanted or needed to be an owner of the NBA, speaks volumes about who we are.
TNJ.com: Do you think Essence will be here 20 years from now?
E.L.: Indeed. I’m counting on it. I’ve always said that Black women are going to read Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and other magazines. But Black women are not going to see themselves in those magazines on a consistent basis. Essence provides editorials that deals with the totality of what it means not only to be a woman, but what it means to be a Black woman…how she navigates her way in trying to make her life better and more sustainable, how she puts herself together, how she manages her career, how she grows and how she takes care of her family and her relationships. She’s going to see that on a consistent basis in Essence more than she is going to see it in other magazines. As long as the editors of Essence understand what those needs are and make sure they continue to touch that nerve, I think Essence will continue to be around for years to come. That brings a quiet joy to me. And when I think about the Essence Music Festival, which had 550,000 visitors over the July 4th weekend, and its daytime seminars where we touch upon relationships, women, men, politics and economics, I see that Essence is in the forefront dealing with all of these issues. The festival alone is a powerful testament to how Essence is surviving and doing well. And so there’s just a rich vein of content that Essence is going to continue to be able to deal with, particularly, as it relates to Black women.
* Click here to see Lewis on camera discussing best practices in launching a business.