#TakeBackEssence? As Essence Celebrates 50 Years, Explosive Allegations Against Its Leadership Spark Controversy

Former Essence CEO Michelle Ebanks, left, Essence Ventures Founder & Chairman Richelieu Dennis, and Essence Chief Content & Creative Officer Moana Luu pose onstage during the 2020 13th Annual ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon on February 06, 2020, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Former Essence CEO Michelle Ebanks, left, Essence Ventures Founder & Chairman Richelieu Dennis, and Essence Chief Content & Creative Officer Moana Luu pose onstage during the 2020 13th Annual ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon on February 06, 2020, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Photo: Rich Polk (Getty Images)

This past weekend was intended to be a landmark one for Essence. The beloved Black legacy publication celebrated its 50th anniversary amid a pandemic, pivoting its 26th annual Essence Festival of Music and Culture to a virtual format spanning over not one, but two weekends, culminating in its traditional Fourth of July weekend festivities.

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Instead, explosive allegations made by an anonymous coalition of former and current staffers have threatened to overshadow the extended event and potentially unseat its leadership. In a moment where the media industry at large is reckoning with longstanding inequities and bias in its ranks, an open letter titled “The Truth About Essence” published Sunday on Medium proved that Black-run media organizations like Essence, acquired by Sundial Brands founder Richelieu Dennis from Time, Inc. in 2018, are not immune from similar criticism.

“[W]hat happens when your workplace bully is the same race and gender as you?” the letter asked, adding. “The demand for a new America calls for the complete accountability of all Americans, even those of us in Black America and our cultural institutions. Black women deserve to feel safe both in white America and Black America.”

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The testimonial, penned under the name #BlackFemaleAnonymous, not only levels multiple indictments about an allegedly toxic culture at Essence Ventures but demands the resignation of several key members of leadership by the end of this business week, also calling for the brand’s key sponsors—which include AT&T, Coca Cola, Chase Bank, Ford, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Walmart and Warner Media—to divest until there is new leadership in place.

Specifically, the letter’s writers call out Essence Ventures founder and owner Richelieu Dennis, Essence Ventures board member and former Essence Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks, Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content and Creative Officer Moana Luu, claiming the quartet “collaboratively immortalize an extremely unhealthy work culture” and that “the Essence brand promise is fraudulent,” writing, in part:

The once exalted media brand dedicated to Black women has been hijacked by cultural and corporate greed and an unhinged abuse of power...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. 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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Among the complaints were wrongful layoffs and the forced resignation and silencing of Black female talent, much of which purportedly quietly took place within the past two years since Dennis acquired the company. However, the complainants assert that the “poisonous culture” actually began under the leadership of Michelle Ebanks, who became president in 2005 and stepped down from the role of CEO earlier this year, retaining a spot on the Essence Ventures board. The letter not only outlines “malignant and histrionic leadership” on the part of Ebanks but accuses her of bypassing qualified Black female candidates to install a white woman in an executive role (who subsequently did the same). Additionally, it blames the former CEO for the “quiet firing” of the longtime face and Editor-in-Chief of Essence, Susan L. Taylor, who has been Editor-in-Chief Emerita of the publication since 2008, after being affiliated with the brand since its founding in 1970 and becoming editor-in-chief in 1981.

“The company’s culture hasn’t been the same since,” #BlackFemaleAnonymous claims, adding. “Although Michelle recently ‘resigned’ as CEO, she continues her history of tactically bullying and gaslighting staff as a board member. At a company town hall during the second half of 2019, some employees asked Michelle about pay raises at market and industry rate in New York City, Michelle, then CEO, casually pointed to the door and told staff they could leave if they could find better compensation elsewhere.”

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A former staffer who spoke to The Glow Up on the condition of anonymity confirmed the events of the meeting in question. “She said in the meeting that ‘there’s the door,’” said the staffer, who worked at Essence for nearly four years without a raise or promotion at a salary slightly below the average market rate for her role and well beneath the responsibilities assigned to her. The staffer recounted that she was not offered a salary increase and promotion until she was offered a position elsewhere—an offer she accepted, telling us, “I just felt like if it took me saying I’m gonna leave for my work to be recognized then it’s probably best for me to just leave.”

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This experience echoes those of #BlackFemaleAnonymous, who contend that the publication billed as an incubator and safe haven for Black female talent is in fact rife with bullying, gaslighting, inequities and unwritten policies. This includes allegations that Ebanks “mommy-tracked” Black female staffers on parental leave or newly returned to work, who were reportedly “dismissed from their roles or at minimum threatened with dismissal.”

“Essence’s C-suite leadership team strategically tells the market it ‘serves Black women deeply’ under the safe seal of 100% Black ownership,” reads the letter. “But for the Black women who [make up] over 80% of the company’s workforce, they are systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism and classism...The abusive work culture activated by Michelle passes on like a viral disease to every C-suite leader who manages a staff at the company,” it later added.

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But perhaps most concerning were allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct on the part of Dennis, who is accused of “greed and a debaucherous sexual appetite,” as the writers allege that the Essence Ventures owner, who sold Sundial Brands (parent company of Shea Moisture) to Unilever in 2017, had a history of sexual relationships with women on that staff, behavior that purportedly has continued at Essence. “[F]or the women who don’t seemingly consent, he openly sexually harasses them at private company events,” the letter contends.

The Glow Up’s source could not confirm any sexual relationships or misconduct at Essence, though she did admit to hearing rumors to that effect. What she did corroborate, however, was the installation of Dennis’ wife Martha Dennis as the head of Human Relations at Essence Ventures, a role informally held by current COO Joy Collins Profet prior. Our source maintained that the appointment of Dennis “was a conflict of interest that we brought up multiple times,” while #BlackFemaleAnonymous contends Mrs. Dennis is “complicit in her husband’s abuse of power,” writing: “For Essence employees under Dennis family leadership, there is no possible way to share your grievances or frustrations when the family matriarch is the head of HR,”

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The letter also alleges:

In the later half of 2019, Richelieu tried to force Essence employees and contractors to sign non-disclosure agreements that exclusively protects his family from liability or disparagement after a string of wrongful layoffs and other potentially libelous business activity. When staff raised questions about the NDA, the executive leadership team launched a series of intimidation tactics on its staff.

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The Glow Up has confirmed that there are NDAs in place for several current and former employees, though we have not reviewed the contents of said documents. Nor could our source confirm that the appointment of Essence Chief Content and Creative Officer Moana Luu was also due to nepotism, as the letter contends.

However, she echoed the letter’s assertion that Luu, previously editor-in-chief of Trace magazine from (and still mentioned on the company’s website) seemed unqualified for the position, regularly overspending and mismanaging the already meager resources and production budget. Additionally, the former staffer said Luu, which the letter alleged has “minimal business experience,” had a pattern of “overpromising” to sponsors or partners, which led to an additional burden on her staff and frequently missed publication deadlines, which the letter also claims.

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The letter further contends that when another staffer dared anonymously email concerns about Luu’s competence to both Dennis and Ebanks, “Instead of investigating Moana’s performance, they initiated interrogation tactics with support from IT leadership to ‘find the mole’ among the company’s staffers. The incident strengthened the toxicity of the company culture and led to the resignation of even more highly experienced Black women.”

Further adding to the fuel of the #BlackFemaleAnonymous allegations, our source expressed concerns about what she considered a culture of ageism at the organization, stating: “There was a lot of ageism under the guise of us being reinvented and being refreshed—that women of a certain age, it was preferred that we not put them on the cover. When [Luu] started, there were a few people on our team who were laid off, which I personally believe was a decision made based on their age.”

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Overall, our source felt that, with the noted exception of the harassment claims, the letter published by #BlackFemaleAnonymous was consistent with her experience as an employee. “I read this and everything in it is true—outside of I don’t know anything about the harassment, everything else is accurate,” she said.

Mostly, she expresses a similar disappointment in what she and the letter writers consider the demise of a once incredible entity. “I was just genuinely excited to work with so many black women,” she says of her initial hiring at Essence. “I knew that we were going to have to kind of work really hard, but the team I worked with was amazing and brilliant.” While The Glow Up reached out to other current and former staffers, as of press time, they had yet to comment, some expressing fears of legal retaliation. Nevertheless, other former staffers and contributors have posted commentary—both explicit and cryptic—on social media since the publication of the letter, indicating that there may be at least some truth to the allegations made.

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As expected, Essence has issued a statement of its own and sent to The Glow Up, wholly refuting the claims made by #BlackFemaleAnonymous as an attempt to “discredit our brand and assassinate personal character” and largely dismissing the accusations and demands as a facet of “cancel culture” to which it will not submit, maintaining that it is a “business in transition” that maintains as its mission the uplift of Black women. We are reprinting their statement in full below.

Candidly, the last 24 hours have been heartbreaking. At ESSENCE, we uplift the voices of, provide platforms for, and generate opportunities that elevate Black women and communities and have done so for 50 years. It is the work we have committed ourselves to every single day since we were founded in 1970 and that has been accelerated over our past two years as a 100% Black family-owned company creating opportunities for Black creatives and leaders in an industry that has failed them.

When faced with challenging moments, we believe that truth and clarity are foremost, and after taking the time to connect with our teams and engage with each other, we want to be very clear about one thing. It is extremely important to us that we foster a safe, transparent and respectful workspace for everyone and that we expect that from everyone—not just those who work for us, but also those who work with us.

Still, anonymity does not negate accountability. Facts will always matter, and we are not afraid of the truth. The allegations and mischaracterizations throughout—whether of pay inequity, intimidation, and otherwise—are unfounded attempts to discredit our brand and assassinate personal character. Further, accusations of sexual harassment or misconduct are extremely serious matters, and we fully understand the gravity of the implications. As such, these are also not claims to be recklessly and untruthfully thrown about—particularly when there have been no claims to respond to or any evidence of such defamatory accusations. In fact, there have been multiple comprehensive reviews of the HR function, and no evidence has been found to substantiate these anonymous claims. We have and will continue to review any legitimate claims of any nature that come to our attention.

As a multi-platform media, technology and commerce company led predominately by Black women, we are committed to working with those who see and believe in our vision for ESSENCE. Our leaders and the business are committed to the economic elevation of our communities so that as we thrive, so do they and the Black people who invest in us with their time, talent, content, subscriptions and beyond. Every business decision we make is with that in mind—and we don’t always expect that everyone will agree with every decision. That would simply be unrealistic. However, we do make every effort to be transparent and open in what we are doing and why we are doing it as we work to transform this business to meet the potential it has always had. Some people will be open to the vision and the journey, and others will not. But in no way at any time does that give anyone the right to so grossly misrepresent the truth at best and make up lies at worst about who we are as an organization.

ESSENCE is a business in transition. It is never an easy or seamless process extracting a company from a conglomerate with shared services and establishing it as an independent with stand-alone functions. As part of the execution of our strategic growth plan, with our entire team, we have and will continue to create a culture that is our own and that reflects the values and vision for a Black-owned business.

This includes the June 2 announcement of the hiring of Caroline Wanga, a C-level executive who has a proven track record of building healthy teams and workplace cultures at a Fortune 50 company, as our new Chief Growth Officer. She is charged with HR/reshaping organizational culture, assessing and establishing operational strategies, new growth opportunities and market strategy. Prior, we built an HR function from the ground-up, supported by a family executive with over 25 years of HR experience who led the transition while we searched for a full-time HR lead; increased town halls from monthly to weekly to foster honest and transparent conversations across the organization; and instituted third-party services, including but not limited to the independent Employee Assistance Program to give employees additional external support and access to resources.

The fact is that this is an ongoing process given our two-year leadership of a 50-year-old company, but we’ve made significant strides in building this company back up and continue to accelerate the pace at which we evolve it for the benefit of our entire community. We are extremely proud of our teams and the work they continue to put into this transition, which is evident by the mounting of our first-ever streaming ESSENCE Festival last week, as well as a much-improved magazine and digital content, new world-class technology platforms, the expansion of experiences that elevate our culture and a deep commitment to enriching each other.

As we close, our message is simple – the accusations are false and we fully deny them. We are not succumbing to a cancel culture. We are not going to defame anyone. We are not meeting hurt with hurt. We know there is a lot of pain and a lot of healing that needs to happen in our communities, but we don’t have to destroy each other to heal. We will continue to do the work to be better every day and come together as an organization for each other and for Black women globally to build together, to change together, to rise together. #BlackWomenRiseTogether

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Corrected: Thursday, 7/2/20 at 3:28 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.”

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

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Updated: Monday, 6/29/20 at 1:05 p.m., ET: Since this article went to press, The Glow Up has been made aware of a Change.org petition launched by #BlackFemaleAnonymous calling for the resignation of Dennis, Ebanks, Profet and Luu. Additionally, we neglected to note that #BlackFemaleAnonymous has threatened to release additional testimonials of misconduct if their demands aren’t met within five business days.

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

“ESSENCE is a business in transition. It is never an easy or seamless process extracting a company from a conglomerate with shared services and establishing it as an independent with stand-alone functions.”

(Because now we’re gonna run this shit like a mom and pop! Into the ground!) I’m guessing those stand alone functions means “don’t question our shortsightedness and nepotism!”