We’ve been on a roll with getting insight from some of the most powerful trendsetters, influencers, and tastemakers in the industry!
For our Latest ‘Breaking Into’ feature, we chatted with Essence Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Vanessa De Luca, to learn about how she achieved her esteemed position and find out tips on what aspiring editors should do, should they want a career in journalism.
Though De Luca now stands at the helm of the most influential African American magazine in the nation, the English major and Harvard Graduate got her start in retail as part of Macy’s training program. She says, “[I was a] sales manager and eventually, an assistant buyer.” When the company decided to relocate their headquarters from New York to St. Louis, De Luca had to make a choice. She said, ” I had the option of moving to St. Louis or not staying with the company, and I considered [moving] for a minute. [But] I thought about it really hard and thought, this is not what I really want to do. I saw it as an opportunity to go back to what I truly cared about, being an English major in college, and I said, ‘let me see how I can potentially go back to writing and publishing.'” So De Luca took a leap of faith, left her job, and attended a summer publishing course through NYU, hopeful that hard work and networking would help get her foot into the door.
Her leap of faith paid off. At the end of the course, she secured a job with Glamour Magazine as an Editorial Assistant. She said, “I took a significant pay cut, moved back in with my parents (I couldn’t afford to keep my apartment with my salary) but I felt it was worth it if I could do something that was the best for me…and it all worked out.”
We had to ask: Does one necessarily need internship experience to get their foot in the door? De Luca answered, “I didn’t intern a lot in college, I worked a lot, however. I worked every summer because I could not, not work. I never spent a lot of time strategically planning what I needed to do (I need that internship or this experience) , because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew that I loved magazines. Something was pulling me to do something here and I had to follow that. I did not want to have it on my conscious that I had this idea of something I wanted to try and I didn’t see it through, especially when I knew I didn’t have all these obligations that would prevent me from making this kind of shift.”
So what did her parents think at the time? “I’m sure my parents thought I was crazy, building up my career in one lane, and then I throw it all away and start over. But it wasn’t throwing it away because everything I knew, I was able to bring all of that to the table when I shifted into magazines. Nothing that you do is lost, or a waste of time. You just have to know how to apply [what you learned] to what your current pursuit is, and there’s always a way to do that.”
Within her pursuits, I had to ask how long it seemed before she caught her ‘break’. She responded, “It didn’t take long. I was promoted twice at Glamour within three years. Once I got there and started working, everything started coming together. That continued throughout my career when I decided to shift course and leave Glamour and go to Grad school at Columbia and get my Masters. And again when I went to work at Life Magazine. I went so I could feel comfortable writing on any subject.”
Her break, she claimed, came from an Editor-in-Chief who left a significant impression on her, telling her, “‘Writing is one thing, but if you really want to be a true decision maker, you need to shift maybe into editing,’ and I was like ‘noooo’… I was kind of annoyed by it, but I took the time to think about what she was saying to me. What she was saying was that writing is one thing, but being able to think about the message and the context and the packaging of what you’re doing is quite another thing and not everyone can do that. I realized I could be more impactful if I were in a position where I really did have the opportunity to dictate ‘these are the stories we’re going to tell’ and ‘here’s how we will tell them’.”
So what happened once she shifted into becoming an Editor? ” I truly realized what the ‘What’ is. I realized there is a power to being in an Editor position, so when I left Life and then went to Essence, it was with that intention that I would be editing, and then I stayed in that lane. It didn’t prevent me from writing… but I got a lot of satisfaction from working with other writers to help them tell their stories, help them understand the overall voice and mission is of Essence, and make sure each story was told well. And I continue to get a lot of satisfaction out of that.” She started at Essence as a Beauty and Fashion Features Editor. In 2003, she was named Essence’s Lifestyle Editor, and in 2005, she was named the magazine’s Executive Editor. All of her positions prepared her for the role as Editor-in-Chief, where she serves as the arbiter of the Essence’s vision.
What’s a regular day in the life of an Editor-in-Chief? De Luca offered, “Every day is different because the business is so different. Our jobs are so much bigger; it requires an understanding of lots of different things and a lot of business knowledge as well, such as what drives revenue, what are you doing to support that the business side is trying to achieve, how are you supporting all your brand extensions through your work in editorial and how is that overall pushing revenue (magazine, online, social media, brand extensions, etc.). You have to be very adaptable. The business changes every 90 days and you have to be ready to pivot at any given moment to what people want at that particular moment. What they wanted a year ago is not what they want now. You have to be willing to accept that and act accordingly. If you’re not able to do that, you won’t be able to survive in this current environment.“
We had to ask for everyone out there wanting to break into fashion or journalism, what steps are needed to get to Editor-in-Chief. “You should really understand the many different facets of the business, be comfortable with budgets and math, be adaptable because the business is constantly changing, understand how to build a brand, and your personal brand. Our Editors are amazing ambassadors for the brand, so any success that you have in terms of attracting a following automatically overflows into the overall brand. Of course, understand how to use social media and digital tools to make sure our stories, your story, gets told. I don’t believe it’s possible to be an Editor, writer, journalist today, without having an understanding of all the things, whether you’re a person of color or not. Remember you’re at the brand for a reason, so don’t be afraid to express the things that showcase your point of view.”
Lastly, I had to ask her did she have any key moments in her life and what that has meant to her/taught her about herself. “The most memorable moment was when I finally did get the position as Editor in Chief of Essence,” she said, also adding in, “mainly because I had applied for the position twice and I didn’t get it but I still kept going. So, to me, just the fact I didn’t get discouraged, I kept going and pushing forward, knowing that in my own mind this was the right thing for me, that has a lot of meaning to me. Sometimes you don’t get things because there may be something you still have to learn to be ready. I am definitely a woman of faith and I believe things come in their own time. So you don’t get it when you think you should have it, but that doesn’t’ mean it’s not for you, just not the right time.” Amen!
As you can see, this interview was chalk full of relatable material and encouraging words of wisdom. Remember, if at first you don’t succeed, you can try again. Things will come in their proper timing and that hard work pays off.
What were some of your takeaways?