Foot Locker recently named Melody Ehsani the Creative Director of its women’s business, but what exactly does that mean?
According to Ehasni, she will be designing capsule collections for the sneaker retailer and curating a selection of Nike and Jordan products—since she’s partnered with Nike, she’s not able to work with competing brands. But for Ehsani, who started her eponymous women’s streetwear and accessories brand Melody Ehsani in 2007, her main goal is to make cool product more accessible to everyone.
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for COACH
“It’s really important for me to democratize cool product,” says Ehsani over the phone. “Just because right now, as it stands, when I work with brands, we’ll do a release, and especially in the sneaker world, it’ll be a limited release, and most of the shoes end up being resold at crazy prices. And it never really gets into the hands of my customer, or my girls. I’ve always priced my things in a way, because there’s a certain community that I like to serve and that I would serve for free if I could. And so I feel like Foot Locker will help me provide that level of product, but to a wider audience where I can actually reach a lot of different girls.”
Ehsani, who says she’s been in talks with Foot Locker about this position for a year, says there will be Melody Ehsani x Foot Locker pop-up shops and their locations will be determined by a digital crowd-sourcing program that will take consumer feedback into consideration. Foot Locker says these pop-ups will open a week in advance of the capsule being available, so the city can shop the experience before it’s dropped globally.
Ehsani has built up the credentials needed to take on this role, which is a completely new position for Foot Locker. She’s worked on sneaker collaborations with Reebok and Nike, and maintained a store on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles—one of the few, if not only, stores catering to women on the streetwear strip—over the past 10 years.
Here, Ehsani speaks about what’s missing in the women’s sneaker market, what it’s been like working with a new investor for her own line, and if she will ever get back to making heels.
The Victoria’s Secret Angels, those avatars of Barbie bodies and playboy reverie, are gone. Their wings, fluttery confections of rhinestones and feathers that could weigh almost 30 pounds, are gathering dust in storage. The “Fantasy Bra,” dangling real diamonds and other gems, is no more.
In their place are seven women famous for their achievements and not their proportions. They include Megan Rapinoe, the 35-year-old pink-haired soccer star and gender equity campaigner; Eileen Gu, a 17-year-old Chinese American freestyle skier and soon-to-be Olympian; the 29-year-old biracial model and inclusivity advocate Paloma Elsesser, who was the rare size 14 woman on the cover of Vogue; and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, a 38-year-old Indian actor and tech investor.
They will be spearheading what may be the most extreme and unabashed attempt at a brand turnaround in recent memory: an effort to redefine the version of “sexy” that Victoria’s Secret represents (and sells) to the masses. For decades, Victoria’s Secret’s scantily clad supermodels with Jessica Rabbit curves epitomized a certain widely accepted stereotype of femininity. Now, with that kind of imagery out of step with the broader culture and Victoria’s Secret facing increased competition and internal turmoil, the company wants to become, its chief executive said, a leading global “advocate” for female empowerment.
Will women buy it? An upcoming spinoff, more than $5 billion in annual sales, and 32,000 jobs in a global retail network that includes roughly 1,400 stores are riding on the answer.
It is a stark change for a brand that not only long sold lingerie in the guise of male fantasy, but has also been scrutinized heavily in recent years for its owner’s relationship with the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and revelations about a misogynistic corporate culture that trafficked in sexism, sizeism and ageism.
“When the world was changing, we were too slow to respond,” said Martin Waters, the former head of Victoria’s Secret’s international business who was appointed chief executive of the brand in February. “We needed to stop being about what men want and to be about what women want.”
The seven women, who form a group called the VS Collective, will alternately advise the brand, appear in ads and promote Victoria’s Secret on Instagram. They are joining a company that has an entirely new executive team and is forming a board of directors in which all but one seat will be occupied by women.
Rarely has a company so dominant in its sector been exposed as trailing so far behind the culture as Victoria’s Secret was in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
It was, Ms. Rapinoe said bluntly, “patriarchal, sexist, viewing not just what it meant to be sexy but what the clothes were trying to accomplish through a male lens and through what men desired. And it was very much marketed toward younger women.” That message, she said, was “really harmful.”
Click here to read the full article on the New York Times.
Not to be outdone by their U.S. relatives, “The Bachelorette Australia” cast Brooke Blurton, the first openly LGBTQ and Indigenous lead in franchise history, for the upcoming season of the reality dating show. Blurton, who is bisexual, will be the franchise’s first openly LGBTQ lead, with the caveat that former bachelor Colton Underwood, who first appeared in season 14 of “The Bachelorette” in 2018 before going on to star in his own season, came out as gay after the season ended. She won’t be the franchise’s first LGBTQ couple — that honor goes to Demi Burnett, who appeared in Underwood’s season and “Bachelor in Paradise,” and Kristian Haggerty — but her historic casting is notable in a series not known for its diversity. As a Noongar-Yamatji woman, Blurton also represents her country’s aboriginal peoples, another first on the show.
LGBTQ relationships are becoming more common on reality dating shows, starting with MTV’s eighth season of “Are You The One?” but representation remains limited. Blurton, who was openly bisexual during her first appearance in the 2017 season of “The Bachelor,” has used her online platform to raise awareness and educate followers on LGBTQ issues.
“I don’t take this representation lightly,” she said on an Instagram story. “I am taking it with Pride and absolute integrity, but also be kind to me. At the end of the day I am also just Brooke. I represent a lot, but I am just a Carnarvon girl who came from nothing who desires and wants the love and connection she deserves.”
Since last February, over 2.3 million women have dropped out of the workforce, compared to just 1.8 million men who left the labor force between February 2020 and 2021, according to data compiled by the National Women’s Law Center. And many of those women are still unemployed because they are caring for children who are not in school or daycare.
New research from Columbia University and the National Women’s Law Center finds that a universal child-care system — one that provides affordable, reliable child care from birth to age 13 — would not only help many of those out-of-work employees get back into the workforce, but would also dramatically increase the lifetime earnings and security of women across the country.
An average woman with two children could see a $97,000 increase in her lifetime earnings under universal child care, according to the report. Collectively, about 1.3 million women in the U.S. could experience about a $130 billion boost in income over their lifetimes.
Overall, the number of women working full-time would increase by 17% if the U.S. expanded access to stable and consistent child care. The number of women working without a college degree would jump by about 31%.
“When there’s an increased investment in child care, there’s a measured increase in women’s labor force participation,” says Melissa Boteach, vice president of income security and child care/early learning at the National Women’s Law Center. The highest gains can be seen for women in their 30s and 40s, since those are the decades when women are most likely to raise children, she adds.
This increase in workforce participation and lifetime earnings could also lead to a significant impact on women’s retirement situations, the report finds. Women would have an additional $20,000 in private savings on average and about $10,000 more in Social Security benefits. That adds up to about $160 per month in additional funding in retirement, the report finds.
Those extra earnings could especially help improve the financial situations of older women, who are more likely to experience poverty later in life than men. “Senior women have significantly higher poverty rates than senior men because of all the discrimination and all of the financial challenges that compound over their lives [and] stick with them in retirement,” Boteach adds.
In March 1944, shortly before Joye Hummel graduated from the Katharine Gibbs secretarial school in Manhattan, she was invited to meet with one of her instructors, a charismatic psychologist who had been impressed by her essays on a take-home test.
Over tea at the Harvard Club, professor William Moulton Marston offered her a job — not in the classroom or psych lab, but in the office of his 43rd Street art studio. He wanted Ms. Hummel to help him write scripts for Wonder Woman, the Amazonian superhero he had created three years earlier and endowed with a magic lasso, indestructible bracelets, an eye-catching red bustier and a feminist sensibility.
Ms. Hummel, then 19, had never read Wonder Woman; she had never even read a comic book. But Marston needed an assistant. His character, brought to life on the page by artist H.G. Peter, was appearing in four comic books and was about to star in a syndicated newspaper strip. He was looking for someone young who could write slang and who, perhaps most importantly, shared his philosophy and vision for the character.
“You understand that I want women to feel they have the right to go out, to study, to find something they love to do and get out in the world and do it,” Ms. Hummel recalled his saying. She was “astonished and delighted” by the job offer, according to historian Jill Lepore’s book, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” and soon began writing for the comic. “I always did have a big imagination,” she said.
Ms. Hummel worked as a Wonder Woman ghostwriter for the next three years, long before any woman was publicly credited as a writer for the series. As invisible to readers as Wonder Woman’s transparent jet plane, she was increasingly recognized after Lepore interviewed her in 2014. Four years later, she received the Bill Finger Award, given to overlooked or underappreciated comic book writers at the Eisner Awards.
Ms. Hummel, who was known in recent years by her married name, Joye Murchison Kelly, died April 5 at her home in Winter Haven, Fla., a day after turning 97. Her son Robb Murchison confirmed the death but did not know the precise cause.
“Joye was absolutely a pioneer in bringing her own voice into these stories,” Lepore said in a phone interview. “She was then pretty much entirely forgotten. … I sort of think that people hadn’t bothered to find her. I called her up and said, ‘Are you the Joye Hummel who wrote Wonder Woman in the 1940s?’ She nearly dropped the receiver — she was delighted but surprised. It was a story she had told her grandchildren, but they didn’t believe her.”
By the time Ms. Hummel started writing for Wonder Woman, the comics had an audience of 10 million readers. The character debuted in a 1941 issue of All-Star Comics, three years after Superman first lifted a car on the cover of Action Comics and two years after Batman leaped across the pages of Detective Comics.
Together, the three superheroes became linchpins of DC Comics, with Wonder Woman emerging as arguably the world’s most famous female superhero. She appeared on the cover of Ms. Magazine’s first issue (“Wonder Woman for President”), inspired a hit 1970s TV show starring Lynda Carter and was revitalized for the big screen beginning in 2016, played by Gal Gadot
The character was “created by a whole series of women” who were never publicly credited, Lepore said. Marston — whose psychological research contributed to the development of the lie-detector test — received help from his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, as well as their partner, Olive Byrne, the daughter of radical feminist Ethel Byrne and niece of birth-control activist Margaret Sanger. Both women worked behind the scenes, forming a fruitful creative triad and secret domestic arrangement: one husband, two wives.
After Ms. Hummel became the first woman hired to write for Wonder Woman, Byrne gave her a copy of Sanger’s book “Woman and the New Race,” which advocated for legalized birth control, and told her it contained everything she needed to know about the character.
Ms. Hummel at first typed Marston’s scripts before writing more than 70 scripts of her own, with detailed instructions for the artists. She developed stories that were often more innocent than her boss’s, which showed Wonder Woman fighting fascism while also being bound, tied, lassoed or gagged. Years later, she recalled that when she brought her scripts to editor Sheldon Mayer, “He always OK’d mine faster because I didn’t make mine as sexy.”
All of the early comics were published under a pseudonym, Charles Moulton, invented by Marston. Individual writers were credited in later anthologies by DC, which revealed that Ms. Hummel was behind some of the series’ more fantastical stories, involving beautiful mermaids and winged maidens. “They’re like fairy tales,” said cartoonist and historian Trina Robbins, who later worked on Wonder Woman.
Ms. Hummel stopped writing the comics in late 1947, shortly after she married, deciding to stay home and raise her stepdaughter. Marston had died earlier that year, and the series passed to writers who did away with much of the comic’s feminist messaging, including a regular centerfold feature chronicling the lives of influential women.
The changes infuriated Ms. Hummel, who remained loyal to Marston’s original vision of Wonder Woman as an emblem of free and courageous womanhood. Decades later, she wrote in an email to Lepore: “Even if I had not left because of my new daughter, I would have resigned if I was told I had to make [Wonder Woman] a masculine thinking and acting superwoman.”
Joye Evelyn Hummel was born April 4, 1924, and grew up on Long Island. Her son said that she rarely spoke of her upbringing; at various times, both of her parents apparently managed a grocery store chain.
Jill Johnson is the CEO at the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL) and Women of Color Connecting. Both organizations champion small business growth and development, with Women of Color Connecting targeting inclusion.
Professional WOMAN’s Magazine (PWM) spoke with Johnson about her goals and career journey.
PWM: Can you tell us about your career journey?
Johnson: My career journey started as a child working with my parents at their Amway business, and later when they started their newspaper publishing company. I saw what owning a small business was like and learned about the impact of access to capital and cash flow early. Working with them was the only job I had until getting an internship at Goldman Sachs during my junior summer in college. Upon graduation, I entered the Goldman Sachs financial analyst program in mergers and acquisitions. During the three years in that program, I saw an entirely different approach to and outcome of building a business. I saw clients who built sizable businesses that they were able to sell for nearly $100 million. These clients used business ownership to build wealth; this was a different approach from my parents and their business owner peer group, who were focused on earning a living. Not seeing a viable career path for myself at Goldman, I returned to work with my parents for several years. During the dot com boom, I stumbled into writing business plans after a friend asked for help for a dot com she had started. There I got a first-hand look at the different experiences that people had raising capital based on any of a number of factors, with race and gender seeming to be a key determinant. That experience led me to question where business owners like my parents or tech founders who were not highly networked white men would go to get help raising equity capital or figure out how to successfully exit their business. The answer to that question eventually led to the launch of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership, which my father and I co-founded together.
PWM: How can people/organizations champion small businesses inclusion and empower women of color?
Johnson: This is a lot simpler than people think. The answer is to be a champion and work to become an ally. This means that you take every opportunity you can make to buy from a small business, you go out of your way to purchase from black-owned businesses, and if you are in the position to hire vendors, make sure women of color are included in your vendor pool. This all starts with making the effort to identify entrepreneurs of color and then doing whatever you can to open doors for them. I believe that empowerment comes from within. To believe that we can empower others is to assume a level of power or control over others, an attitude which is actually part of the problem. The way to help women of color feel empowered is to see them, to acknowledge them, buy from them, and open doors to opportunity for them.
PWM: Tell us about your organizations, what you’ve accomplished, and what you hope to accomplish.
Johnson: The Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL) is an independent, not‐for‐profit organization that supports economic development through entrepreneurship. We are experts in creating and implementing small business programming in support of larger economic development objectives. Our mission is to eradicate the systemic barriers that prevent people of color from creating wealth through entrepreneurship. We focus a lot on leveraging the power of relationship capital. We have developed three brands around our core programmatic focus areas: Women of Color Connecting, The Making of Black Angels, and Small Businesses Need Us. We have helped thousands of entrepreneurs navigate the pitfalls of business ownership, giving them the runway they need to get to a successful outcome. The longer your runway, the more time you have to figure things out. Helping undercapitalized entrepreneurs figure out how to extend their runway is one of our core strengths. Our focus now is on helping more entrepreneurs create and execute a plan to get to an exit and build wealth. People of color and women who are able to do this often recycle capital and other resources back into people of color and women. Expanding this cycle is what will lead to greater inclusion in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We hope to significantly increase our volunteer community so that we have the capacity to help more entrepreneurs.
PWM: What are your Top 7 Predictions and Pitfalls to Look out for in 2021 on Capital Inclusion?
Johnson: I can’t say that I have any predictions for capital inclusion in 2021. I don’t really think that the situation will improve dramatically. I think there will be more companies that engage in activity for which they seek publicity and recognition, but at a fundamental level, they will still not be buying from a more diverse pool of vendors, they will not be parking their dollars with a more diverse pool of fund managers, nor will they be hiring a more diverse pool of talent into positions with P&L responsibility. It is likely that companies will announce big programs to dole out small dollar amounts to small business owners as grants.
I think we will continue to see an acceleration in the market for black and Latinx-led VC funds. I hope that the limited partner community will entrust these fund managers with larger amounts of capital. Getting more money into the hands of black and brown people and women of color especially is going to require more people who look like them being in control of the capital. This is the path to clearing the blind spots that currently exist in the capital markets.
If you are a high growth potential Women of Color entrepreneur or an ally who supports Women of Color entrepreneurs, we invite you to join our community. Inclusion must be intentional and change starts with you. Visit www.woccon.org to join the Women of Color Connecting community today. Follow us on Facebook or Instagram at W O C Connecting.
Photo Credit: Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership
During Black History Month, the Atlanta Hawks highlighted two Black-owned businesses who played a pivotal role in the launch of the MLK Nike City Edition uniforms. With March being Women’s History Month and wanting to continue to celebrate Black-owned businesses in Atlanta, the Hawks partnered with Chase to tell Kelly Beaty English’s story and how she created SelfE Box.
What started as an idea that came from English’s own experiences growing up as young Black teen turned into helping Black girls feel loved and validated through each month’s curated subscription box. Cassidy Allen Chubb spoke with English about her journey and how she created a self-esteem box that’s delivered to girl’s doorsteps each month.
Tell me about how you got the idea to create SelfE Box.
The idea for SelfE Box was planted in my mind as a tween girl. My parents used to subscribe to tween and teen magazines for me and I remember reading them and thinking “none of these girls in here really look like me, their experiences don’t reflect mine.” They were just talking about things that culturally, I couldn’t relate to. The beauty and grooming advice didn’t necessarily work for me, for my hair texture and things as fundamental as washing your hair every day.
Black girls don’t wash their hair every day and so through things like that, I just felt very othered.
And so, there was that part of me that kind of wished that I could see more Black girls get hair and beauty advice that actually applied to our own lives.
I remember thinking about it like “gosh, if I could just go door to door and just give girls self-esteem.” And then at the time when I first had the idea, subscription boxes had kind of just come onto the scene. I paired the two ideas together and it was like, “Oh, we need a self-esteem box!”
What can girls and parents expect to receive in each box?
very month we pick a theme. Overall, we try to gear the boxes towards health, wellness and growing because that’s such an important topic for girls in that age group. For many of them, it’s the first time they’re starting to have to use products, their grooming habits are changing. We wanted to create a safe space to talk about what’s happening and coach them through that period. The overall theme is about health, wellness and grooming, but we pick a different topic every month. One month we did the move out of your comfort zone issue and we talked about the importance of physical movement and how it’s important to get up and going.
It could also be a theme related to mental health. In one issue we talked about anxiety and being at home and how that has that changed our world. We also have a career profile from a Black woman in every issue. We just try to find a woman who speaks to the topic for that month. We don’t want any particular type of career. We feature everything from women in sports, to women in business, to women in the arts.
Where did you grow up and were you exposed to Black entrepreneurs at a young age?
I’m from Atlanta. I lived in Southwest Atlanta for the first half of my childhood. And then we moved out to the suburbs for the other half of my childhood. My father was an entrepreneur. So it was right here in my household. One great thing about the city of Atlanta and growing up as a Black child here, you have the benefit of seeing Black professionals in all walks of life. My pediatrician was a Black woman who ran her own practice. My dentist was a Black woman who ran her own practice. My parents were very intentional about putting me around Black people where I could see myself in their stories.
What would you say is the most challenging part of being a black business owner?
It takes a crazy amount of self-belief to be an entrepreneur and specifically to be a Black female. I remember going to business summits and business conferences for women and they would have panelists from all of these very well-known brands. The women would be talking about, “Oh, I started this in college” or “I just had this idea and I was able to reach out to my dad’s network and we were able to raise a million dollars” just to test the idea, and for most black people, that’s just not our experience.
I’m an HBCU graduate. I have an incredible network. I’m very blessed to have friends who are doing literally probably anything that you can think of, but we as a people moving through our American journey do not have, for the most part, generations of wealth. So, we don’t just pass down homes and portfolios to our children. When we as Black people go to college and get our first offer letter, we are at the starting point, right? We are just then getting started, but so many of our peers are already years ahead of us, even at the starting line.
How do you continue to overcome those challenges and what keeps you going?
When I get the reaction photos from our SelfE girls and when I get the messages from moms who say their daughters wait at the mailbox at the end of the month and when that package is not there, she’s like, “Where’s my box?” that keeps me going. The impact that it’s made on girls’ lives so early and already….we’re not even a year old at this point. When I get those messages it gives me the fuel to go on. I have to do a whole lot of talking and a whole lot of selling, unfortunately, to get brands to partner with us, but I believe it will come. Because the impact that we’re making in these girl’s individual lives is great and it’s real.
What is something you would tell your younger self knowing where you are today?
I would say, keep going, raise your hand. Don’t question yourself. Don’t doubt. Don’t mask. Don’t try to blend in because everybody that you want to blend in with, is also trying to blend in with you. One of the things that we do as, as girls, and I think, well, until we become young women, is we look to the left and we look to the right. Instead, we need to continue to look straight ahead and look into that mirror and look into our own eyes, looking back at us, in our reflection and concentrate on her. Love her, give to her because everything that is unique about you was created specifically for you. If your hair is big or it’s curly, or it won’t lay down like the other girls, or maybe your body type is different, or your clothes fit differently–
All of the things that you’re trying to hide from people are the very things that are going to make you unstoppable in this world. It’s the very thing that is going to make people seek you out. It’s the very thing that’s going to make you successful. Keep your hand up, keep asking questions, keep not being afraid to be seen, because when you do that, all you’re doing is slowing down your progress later. There’s going to come a moment you’ll go, “you know what? I am great, and I can do this.” And the faster you get to that moment, the faster you get to everything that the world has to offer for you. Be you, be you without apology. You were born here just the way that you were supposed to be, to do all the things that you’re going to do.
It’s 2021, it’s Spring, and don’t you feel like we can finally take a breath of fresh air? Although we still have a long road ahead of us in getting the pandemic under control and healing our nation, there’s more optimism; a renewed sense of spirit and hope. We are turning a corner for the better and changes are happening!
We have had our own share of changes here at Professional WOMAN’s Magazine (PWM). We have brought Tawanah Reeves-Ligon onboard as Editor of PWM. Ligon is a Southern gal from Atlanta, Georgia, currently residing in South Carolina — quite a way from our California base — and has over nine of years of experience in writing and editing, working with magazines, blogs as well as on poetry and novels.
We have also promoted Kat Castagnoli to Managing Editor. Castagnoli, who has been with PWM for almost two years now, will oversee all editorial for the publication. Her goal is to keep it fresh and modern; chock full of relevant content for today’s 21st century woman.
Take this issue’s cover story on Tracee Ellis Ross. Actor, director, producer, philanthropist, fashion icon, social activist and entrepreneur are just a few of the titles this female powerhouse holds. Ross urges others to own their power and to never to accept status-quo. “It takes a lot of courage to advocate for yourself,” she says. “As a woman, and as a Black woman, advocating for yourself is actually a form of resistance. It is how each of us push the world, to make sure that the real estate matches the reality of who we are and what we deserve.” Read more about Ross’ inspiring story here.
Looking for that ever-elusive thing we call “balance?” Find out more here. If you’re job searching right now, check out eight ways to boost your confidence just minutes before your interview (page 32), as well as how to stay optimistic while searching for a job here. If you’re looking to refresh your workforce, check out the unconventional ways some companies are finding superstar talent here.
We here at PWM are refreshed and ready to help you reach your goals in 2021 and beyond!
An Arizona woman, born and raised in Navajo Nation, has become a viral sensation, showcasing her skateboarding skills on the reservation. Naiomi Glass hopes, with her growing platform, that a new skate park can be built and will inspire others to pursue their passions.
The 24-year-old, from Rock Point, Arizona, has gained tens of thousands of followers over the year on Instagram and TikTok who can’t get enough of her skateboarding.
Photo: Nexstar Media Wire
“I would see these sandstones and I was like ‘I wonder if I could skate that,’” Glasses said. “So then one day I was just like ‘you know what, let me just try it, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.’”
She learned how to skate when she was 5 years old from her older brother and hasn’t gotten off the board since.
“I’m not a professional at all, by any means, I just like to ride around,” Glasses said. “It’s very freeing for me.”
Glasses says skateboarding is very popular within the Navajo nation, despite the lack of pavement and only five skate parks throughout the area. Because of this, she said she is teaming up with a Navajo-inspired clothing company that plans to build a new skate park in “Two Grey Hills,” which is just two hours away from Glasses’ community.
“I love skateboarding so much and I would just love to bring that joy and love of it to other communities,” said Glasses.
That’s why she stepped away from roughly 15 years of hard work at Target in 2020 to tackle a new obstacle: helping a half-century-old Black media brand reinvent itself.
When Wanga joined Essence in June, the Black culture mainstay was a little under two years out from a buyout by African-American entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis, founder of Sundial Brands, a beauty company — now part of Unilever — that creates products for Black consumers. After nearly two decades under the ownership of Time Inc., it was back to being Black-owned for an Essence in the midst of an identity shift.
Photo : Richard Bord | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
For Wanga, who easily gets bored with the status quo and says she works at her best when things are “falling off the rails,” it was the perfect project.
“I like to go to the problem when the fires are there,” says Wanga. “Throw me in when things are impossible and it’s the end of the world.”
Over the course of her decades-long career, Wanga has defied boundaries, working her way up the corporate ladder at Target from an intern to positions including vice president of human resources and chief culture, diversity and inclusion officer. As a Black woman, single mother at 17 and Kenyan immigrant, Wanga hasn’t let stereotypes define her. Now, she’s running one of the largest media ventures in the world that caters to underrepresented communities, and she is leading with authenticity.
A self-described oversharer, Wanga prides herself on being unapologetically open with employees, so that they can feel welcome. She says her approach to leadership and life helped overcome negativity and succeed in corporate America, and she has several lessons to offer those just starting out.
1. Don’t let unexpected events derail success
Wanga started at Target in the “most non-strategic way possible.”
After getting pregnant at age 17, she dropped out of college to raise her daughter Cadence. It was the first major disruption in her life, especially troublesome for her parents, who both have doctorates, but it was far from a life-altering setback.
“That particular moment is actually the theme of my life in a very interesting way,” Wanga says. “After that happened, I became indignant that this wasn’t going to end my plan to success.”
Back at home in Minnesota, Wanga — who moved to the U.S. from Kenya as a tween — attempted several hybrid school programs before quitting to work a series of jobs in the nonprofit sector. In 2003, she enrolled in a business program at Texas College at the age of 25.
“The barrier to the degree was not the program,” Wanga says. “It was my life. I had this little girl and I was not going to ask for help because I’m going to prove I could do this on my own.”
2. Set a destination, be flexible on the path
When she joined Target in 2005 after attending a career fair, Wanga says she didn’t have a passion for improving supply chains, nor was she thinking about the end-goal. It paid well and she wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of her daughter. While at Target, Wanga hopped between roles and worked her way up the human resources chain from a distribution center intern. But human resources was a path Wanga admits she never thought she would take.
She eventually set her sights on director of diversity and inclusion, a position she jokes is the “closest you get to a soul in corporate America.”
Wanga planned on attaining that by 2018, but she leapfrogged her mission years ahead of schedule and worked her way up to chief diversity and inclusion officer by 2015. Her lesson: agree on the destination, negotiate the path to get there.
When Wanga joined Essence as chief growth officer in June 2020, she saw it as an opportunity to give back to an institution integral to her identity and that of many other Black women. At the time, Wanga had reached a crossroads at Target and was looking for the next project to add to her portfolio.
It was a new brand, a new workplace, and while difficult to walk away from Target, it’s what Wanga calls the “next role I didn’t know I wanted.”
Within a month, Wanga was promoted to interim chief executive officer at Essence, before taking on the CEO title full-time this February.
“You don’t have to have all the answers, the path can be different,” Wanga says. “If I had waited to define the job I wanted and waited for the perfect job, I’d still be an intern.”
3. Your story is as important as the business strategy
Over the years, Wanga says one of the biggest drivers of her success is authenticity. Often known to overshare her personal life experiences, Wanga told CNBC’s Inclusion in Action forum last September this is foundational to being a good leader. Telling the story of who you are is as important as explaining the strategy of the business you are running.
“Because at the end of the day … you have to model what you’re saying you want them to experience and you have to be willing to go first,” Wanga says. “You cannot on the one hand talk about authenticity and wanting to have inclusion and wanting to have representation in your group … and then people only know you to be the CEO that shows up at team meetings.”
When working with a new team, Wanga shares a list of 20 slides which she refers to as her “dimensions of difference.” They cover everything from who she is, to where she is from, to what her family looks like, to being a D+ Christian and having diabetes.
“She brings her authentic self to her work,” says Minda Harts, author of “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table.”
“From the outside looking in she has not adapted to the status quo, but has changed the norms of what leadership looks like,” Harts adds.
Tracee Ellis Ross is not new to titles or attention.
She is the second daughter of the legendary Diana Ross, a nine-time NAACP Image Award winner, a four-time Primetime Emmy nominee and a Golden-Globe recipient. She’s been recognized as a director, producer, philanthropist, social activist, fashion icon (for which she won the 2020 People’s Choice Award), founder of the haircare line, Pattern which caters to curly, coily, tight-textured hair, and, as of this past February, the Diversity and Inclusion advisor for Ulta Beauty. When it comes to owning her power, Ross has practiced what she preaches. “I am learning every day to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be to inspire me and not terrify me,” says Ross.
Diligent about Diversity in Workspaces
Due to her main career as an actress, many believed Ross would be limited in her desired business ventures. “When I told a member of my team some years ago that I wanted to start a haircare line, their idea was to start a line of wigs!” she told Fast Company this past January. She took many early rejections and was even told by another associate during her early planning stages that, since she is an actor, who would want to buy haircare products from her? Ross went on to offer some powerful advice for those encountering this type of criticism, doubt or rejection, “Be patient, and stay the course,” she counsels other entrepreneurs. “Take in the information. Take in the disappointments. They will come. They are important. They are part of the opportunity to clarify what you want to do.”
She continued to press forward despite roadblocks and inexperience. Last October, Ross talked more about this during the U.S. Bank’s Women and Wealth Summit, “I did not know how to negotiate on my behalf. I did not know how to talk about money,” which is still a common phenomenon, especially in American society. “Culturally, women are not taught to talk about money. It is thought to be gauche, to talk about money, to be ambitious,” she says. “Patriarchy, racism, sexism, all of these things, have given the very clear message that women are meant to not take up space and not rock the boat.”
Ross encourages fellow women entrepreneurs, especially BIPOC entrepreneurs, to not allow their lack of experience or outside pressures to deter them though. “No one wants to give you money; no one wants to give you all the things you should have,” Ross said during the summit. “I strongly believe in women and women of color fighting for equity, for having a stake in what they create, because historically we give up our names, we give up all these things, and we have no stake in what we make.” This sentiment is evident in how she brands her business. Pattern, available exclusively at Ulta Beauty, focuses on a celebration of Black beauty, which Ross believes is still uncommon, but necessary. “If our hair could talk, it would tell you of our legacies,” she says, “all those ways our identity pushed through spaces where it wasn’t meant to be, but is nonetheless.”
Since launching, Ross has put her naysayers to shame. On its first day, the site yielded nearly eight times the expected sales, and its Instagram following grew to 130,000 within a week. Ross saw how underpenetrated the Black haircare market still remains. According to a 2018 Nielsen report, the Black haircare industry made an estimated $2.5 billion, showcasing that there is considerable opportunity for Black-owned businesses like Pattern to enter the mainstream market. This is exactly what Ross hopes to see happen as the new Diversity and Inclusion advisor for Ulta Beauty. She told BusinessWire, “This work requires commitment and accountability from Ulta Beauty to ensure measurable goals are achieved. I am hopeful and optimistic our work together will create foundational change.” According to Ulta CEO Mary Dillon, the company is “deeply committed to leading purposefully with and for underrepresented voices across retail and beauty on our D&I journey.”
It’s Ross’s goal to support and uplift current and future brands, suppliers and companies created by and for people of color sold at Ulta as well as to assist the company in developing diverse and inclusive leadership as well as in their supply chain. They are committed to joining executive diversity and inclusion council summits quarterly. “For so many years, there had not been products for women who wanted to wear their hair naturally and didn’t want to put heat on it or hold themselves up to a white standard of beauty,” shared Ross with InStyle.
She also told them, “I walked into my relationship with Ulta as a person who always was looking to create a more equitable space for women, for Black people, for people of color across the board. It’s something that is my guiding force and mission in my acting career and my producing. That is how I move through the world, so it was no different in the beauty industry. And it’s one of the reasons I decided to go with Ulta. Mary Dillon has been focused on and fighting for inclusion and diversity at Ulta from when I started my relationship with them, and none of that has changed through all of this.”
Commitment to Personal & Professional Growth
The actress has had a stellar career from playing lawyer Joan Clayton in the critically-acclaimed show “Girlfriends” in the 2000s to Dr. Rainbow Johnson in the award-smashing “Black-ish” and most recently Grace Davis in her biggest film yet [that also showcased her singing debut], “The High Note.” However, it has not always been simple or easy. Ross had to find her own way in Hollywood without falling into the shadow of her famous mother. She’s also felt the challenges of being a woman (especially single and childless) in a ruthless, patriarchal industry still holding on to antiquated social ideals. As Ross explained in a past interview with Oprah, “My worth just gets diminished as I am reminded that I have ‘failed’ on the marriage and carriage counts,” adding she spent “many years waiting to be chosen” until it occurred to Ross that her power to be happy relied solely on her. “Well, here’s the thing – I’m the chooser,” she said.
Ross uses her platform and her projects to help other women feel comfortable with choosing their own power verses yielding it to others.
During her 2020 People’s Choice Award speech for Fashion Icon of the Year, she explained, “I spent years playing dress up in my closet as a way to find some freedom or some power, and the more that I discovered who I really was – the more I was able to hone my creative expression through clothing. I wear my insides on the outside, and if featuring Black designers at the American Music Awards helps someone see the power of Black artistry, or if joining the call to wear black at the Golden Globes led to solidarity with women saying time’s up on sexual harassment, then you heard me loud and clear…”
On an episode of the podcast, Can’t Stop Watching, she mentioned pushing back against outdated gender norms in her portrayal of Rainbow. “What I did speak up about from the beginning was, ‘Why am I carrying laundry?’ ‘Why am I the person in the kitchen cooking right now, when this has nothing to do with the scene?’…And I started coining them as ‘lady chores.’ ‘Why am I doing the lady chores?’ ‘Can’t Anthony [Anderson] do the lady chore?’” She was adamant that this role shouldn’t mimic the usual “sitcom wife” and that society can benefit from this kind intentionality in our programming.
“I don’t believe they’re ‘lady chores.’ I believe they’re house chores.
And I don’t believe that we should assume, because I believe every relationship is a negotiation between two people about what each of them feel comfortable doing, and I think the more that we portray that on television, the more that that becomes the reality out in the world, or matches the reality that the world actually is,” she said.
On Power, Politics & Progression
We connect to our personal power in so many ways and on varying levels. One issue that Tracee Ellis Ross advocates we should focus our power on is promoting positive social change in our government, specifically through activism and the vote. Ross was included in the 2020 Democratic National Convention lineup and spoke to Geoff Edgers, of the Washington Post, previously on what it was like when she was first asked to assist the DNC during the Obama administration as well as the relevance of her platform. “…I don’t think I knew at that time how personal politics were. They felt like something that was out of my reach. So for me, the  DNC felt like a sort of an evolution from where I already sit. The career I have is about storytelling, but I’m more than an actor. I’m a producer and a founder of a hair company and a CEO. I’m an American citizen. I’m a black woman,” shared Ross.
These different, but inclusive, identities drive her pleas to other black and women voters to harness their powers and use their voices to bring about necessary changes in this continuously discriminatory and marginalized society. “It takes a lot of courage to advocate for yourself. As a woman, and as a Black woman, advocating for yourself is actually a form of resistance. It is how each of us push the world, to make sure that the real estate matches the reality of who we are and what we deserve,” Ross said in a chat with fellow Golden Globe-winner Kerry Washington for Elle this past August.
“And every courageous act that a marginalized person takes opens up a space for somebody else,” she continued. “…The system is mirroring back a powerlessness. That’s not the truth, but we so often believe in the system—because how could you not?—and you think that’s the truth.” She went on to discuss the value of power in community. “That is one of the ways that the system keeps you powerless. The system says, you’re alone in this, it’s only you. The more that you link arms and realize the fellowship that occurs in the same feelings, the more power you have.”
As for her haircare line, Ross to InStyle she believes her company to be “inherently political, because the celebration of Blackness in the face of racism in and of itself is a political act of resistance.” Pattern supports multiple related initiatives such as the Crown Act, the African American Policy Forum and United Way Worldwide, specifically as it relates to their programs helping Black communities which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Ross told Yahoo Finance this past December, “Particularly during this pandemic, it was a little scary. And I think so much of what’s happened in this very unprecedented time has really reinvigorated my mission for the company, my intention and my promise of the brand.” Ross, with her tenacity and graceful perseverance, reminds us to be unapologetic with how we acknowledge and use our inner power. It is our own. Without our permission, our power cannot be taken; it cannot be shaken; it cannot be broken.