Amid a Firestorm, Essence Appoints an Interim CEO, Promising an Independent Review and 'Transparency' [Updated]

Illustration for article titled Amid a Firestorm, Essence Appoints an Interim CEO, Promising an Independent Review and Transparency [Updated]
Photo: Rich Polk (Getty Images)

The pioneering and still most prominent media brand for Black women will once again have one at the helm—at least, for the immediate future. This is just one of the announcements Essence Communications made in a statement emailed to The Glow Up on Tuesday night, just two days after a now-viral open letter was published by a group of current and former staffers identifying themselves only as #BlackFemaleAnonymous. The letter, titled “The Truth About Essence,” alleged mistreatment, misconduct and mismanagement at the magazine under its current C-suite leadership, calling its much-revered image—which notably includes the highly popular Essence Festival, currently in progress—“fraudulent.” Threatening to release damning information if said leadership did not resign within five business days, the letter-writers launched a social media campaign to #TakeBackEssence.

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“For past and present Black female talent once lucky enough to walk its prestigious halls, Essence is the most deceptive Black media company in America,” the writers claimed. “Why? Essence aggressively monetizes #BlackGirlMagic but the company does not internally practice #BlackGirlMagic. The company’s longstanding pattern of gross mistreatment and abuse of its Black female employees is the biggest open secret in the media business.”

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As noted in our previous coverage, at least one former Essence staffer immediately corroborated several claims made in the #BlackFemaleAnonymous letter to The Glow Up, specifically citing pay inequity, mismanagement and nepotism as concerning issues. Subsequently, we were contacted by two former staffers at Afropunk, another Essence Ventures acquisition, both of whom confirmed the existence of questionably worded NDAs and expressed similar concerns about the potential conflict of interest posed by the positions held by members of Essence Ventures founder and owner Richelieu Dennis’ family, including wife Martha as the director of Human Resources and cousin Cyrus Dennis, a senior vice president at the Dennis-founded Sundial Brands, in an unidentified role. (It should be noted that the two-year-old Essence Ventures created upon Dennis’ acquisition of the media entity openly states that it is “a 100% Black family-owned company.”) All of our sources asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, echoing a claim made in the #BlackFemaleAnonymous letter.

On Monday, Essence issued a statement flatly refuting the allegations made by #BlackFemaleAnonymous and maintaining its commitment to elevating Black women and talents. Furthermore, the company clarified that on June 2, it had, in fact, hired as its new Chief Growth Officer Caroline Wanga, the former top diversity and inclusion executive at Target. Wanga was due to assume oversight of HR when she entered the role on June 29—instead, if reports are accurate, she was likely part of “an emergency Zoom meeting” Page Six reports took place on Sunday afternoon, a day before she began what will undoubtedly be a challenging new job.

“The editor was concerned about this going on into Essence Festival and was worried about it upsetting Festival sponsors,” a source told Page Six. “She never addressed the accusations or offered people to reach out with concerns. It made it even worse.”

Expressing a wish to “further foster the transparency,” it was announced on Tuesday that Wanga will now be stepping in as interim CEO of Essence Communications, Inc., duties previously assumed by Dennis himself after longtime President and CEO Michelle Ebanks left the role in March, retaining a seat on the Essence board. In that aforementioned interim, the company promises to subject itself to a “fair and independent” review which will “assess and review the company’s policies and practices and conduct comprehensive employee interviews, as well as independently review any harassment, discrimination, retaliation or other behaviors or issues that may adversely impact workplace culture.” We are reprinting their statement in full below.

ESSENCE reiterates its commitment to Black women, our communities and our employees. That commitment has been continually evidenced not just by our words, but by our actions fighting for, celebrating and investing in our community and each other over decades.

ESSENCE is grateful and proud that efforts we have supported and amplified to protect Black women and promote women’s rights have opened up more opportunities for more of our voices to be heard and for more changes to be made. We take our role in advancing these efforts internally and externally very seriously.

It is of critical importance to us that there is no doubt or question about who we are, what we represent and what we believe in.

Monday, in step one, we addressed and refuted the accusations made in an anonymous blog post, as well as discussed our ongoing transition in rebuilding the business. Yesterday, in step two, we addressed more of the action we are taking to further ensure that ESSENCE is the safe haven that we all expect. Out of an abundance of caution and an unwavering commitment to transparency, ESSENCE is in the process of hiring law firms and other independent external experts to assess and review the company’s policies and practices and conduct comprehensive employee interviews, as well as independently review any harassment, discrimination, retaliation or other behaviors or issues that may adversely impact workplace culture.

To further foster the transparency we practice and value as well as to provide necessary confidence to our employees and community that the process will be conducted in a fair and independent fashion, we shared with our staff yesterday that Caroline Wanga, who joined ESSENCE on June 29 as its new Chief Growth Officer, will step in as interim CEO of Essence Communications, Inc. to work with team leads across the organization and run day-to-day operations, as well as oversee the independent review process. Following the departure of the company’s long-time former CEO in March, Richelieu Dennis assumed temporary leadership as the company launched a new CEO search, a process subsequently delayed by COVID-19. To reinforce the fairness of the review process, Dennis has appointed Wanga to formally serve in an interim CEO capacity during the independent review and until a permanent CEO is identified.

At ESSENCE, we remain committed to fostering a safe, transparent and respectful workspace for everyone. Our decision to commission an independent review is to ensure the ongoing trust of our communities and employees. The findings will help guide us as we continue to stand strong in our work to create the healthiest workplace possible. #BlackWomenRiseTogether

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But if another, decidedly ominous letter published on social media by #BlackFemaleAnonymous in response to Wanga’s hiring is any indication, the clock may not stop on their threat to produce evidence of the allegations they leveled against Essence. “EXPECT US. FIX IT OR FOLD, Essence,” another tweet read, while still another called on newly announced (and groundbreaking) cover star Billy Porter to disavow the brand or be deemed complicit.

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Wednesday marks Day 3 of the five business days #BlackFemaleAnonymous has given Essence leadership to resign. We will continue to report on this story as it develops.

Updated: Thursday, 7/2/20 at 10:17 p.m., ET: On Thursday evening, the New York Times’ reporting on this issue revealed additional details pertinent to the demands of #BlackFemaleAnonymous:

In a statement on Thursday, Latraviette Smith-Wilson, an Essence spokeswoman, described the essay’s “accusations and demands” as “unsupported and outdated.”

The statement also addressed Ms. Ebanks, saying she “has had no role in day-to-day operations since her departure,” and said that Ms. Collins Profet “had already accepted a new role with another company before the anonymous blog was posted.”

Ms. Luu, the head of content, “will step back from day-to-day operations during the course of the review,” the statement said.

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As of this update, #BlackFemaleAnonymous has yet to confirm whether these developments and clarifications meet their conditions.

Updated: Thursday, 7/2/20 at 3:27 p.m., ET: Further clarifying Dennis’ role at the organization, Essence has issued yet another statement, writing: “There was no interim CEO at ESSENCE Communications, Inc. (ECI), following the departure of Michelle Ebanks on March 31 until Richelieu Dennis appointed Caroline Wanga to this position on July 1. As owner, Dennis helped to lead the team along with the ECI senior leadership team, but never took on the roles or responsibilities of CEO. So he never stepped down from, resigned from or was replaced in any role.”

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We have made title changes in our coverage to reflect this clarification.

Additionally, interim CEO Caroline Wanga has seemingly, if indirectly, responded to #BlackFemaleAnonymous via social media, which the coalition republished on Instagram. Notably, her statement, which stated a goal of “flourishing while fixing,” did not outline an action plan or discuss any C-suite resignations.

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Updated: Thursday, 7/2/20 at 8:10 a.m., ET: Confirming receipt of Essence’s statement and Dennis’ resignation from the role of CEO, on Wednesday #BlackFemaleAnonymous issued a letter to interim CEO Caroline Wanga, shared via series of tweets.

“Congratulations on your ‘interim’ role as CEO, Caroline” it read. “We, the current and former employees as well as the consumers, are personally holding you accountable for the emotional safety and economic equity of your Black female employees.”

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Among the demands reiterated by the group was public confirmation that Dennis would no longer have any involvement in day-to-day operations at Essence. Additionally, the writers once again demanded the removal of former Essence Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks from the board, as well as the resignations of Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet and Chief Content and Creative Officer Moana Luu by end of day on July 3, stating: “They failed us all and must exit now.”

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#Black FemaleAnonymous also demanded the public identification of and transparency from the law firms conducting Essence’s independent review, stipulating that the firms must have no preexisting relationship with Dennis, his family, or any other C-suite exec employed at Essence. “You must assure these interviews do not advance the existing workforce intimidation and bullying that has occurred,” they wrote.

As a final ultimatum, by end of day Friday, Wanga is expected to deliver “a comprehensive action plan” detailing how she plans to make Essence safe and equitable for its Black female workforce—again, Wanga started her own tenure on Monday before being announced as interim CEO Wednesday, so clearly, she already has her work cut out for her.

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Updated: Wednesday, 7/1/20 at 1:10 p.m., ET: On Wednesday afternoon, Essence emailed an updated statement to The Glow Up which clarified that Dennis was only temporary CEO while the company sought a permanent replacement for Ebanks. We have accordingly replaced the previously reprinted statement with the updated version.

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, an avid eyeshadow enthusiast and always her own muse. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.

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DISCUSSION

Here’s hoping that Wanga doesn’t turn out to be a Yvette Miley