Gillian B. White: Vanessa is Essence’s editor in chief and thus your boss. How did the boss-employee relationship become a mentorship relationship?
Lauren Williams: It was organic. I had never been so close to an editor in chief before; they were just kind of in this ivory tower. But Vanessa, from the jump, was so accessible. She always returned emails, in our ideas meetings she would always support anything that I was really passionate about, and so it just really developed into a situation where I would always lean on her and depend on her.
White: What were the ways Vanessa offered you unique career support?
Williams: She would always put me in spaces that would hopefully elevate my profile. Anytime she was invited to an executive board meeting with our chief marketing officer, our CEO even, if she couldn’t make it she would send me. She would just be like, “You know your stuff—sit in on this.” She really put me at the table. Which was invaluable.
White: Yeah, offering someone a seat at the table, no pun intended, is pretty big.
Williams: She’s done that a couple times. I remember we were planning an event with the first lady. I came to Vanessa to talk to have her interview Mrs. Obama, and she was like, “No, no, no, this is a thing you should do.” And that really just took me by surprise. I had been at places where other bosses would have totally taken that opportunity for themselves. It’s just always been a hallmark of our relationship for her to look out for me, and sort of try to put me in front of people and give me experiences that I wouldn’t get ordinarily.
White: How did you wind up at Essence?
Williams: One of my other mentors actually sent the job posting to me. So I interviewed with Vanessa, and I started as news editor, and maybe within a year, my role expanded to features editor. I’ve been here now, at Essence, for three and a half years.
I knew I wanted to be in magazines, but I wasn’t really seeing myself in the content, and that became a frustration for me. So I took some time off, like four months off, to just regroup and figure out what I wanted to do. And then the Essence position came up.
White: After not seeing yourself in the content, as you say, at previous magazines, did it feel different to start working with and being mentored by a black woman in media?
Williams: It was so powerful. It changed my life. I had never been any place, even in school, where black women were running things. She has shown me what the possibilities are.
I remember at one magazine there was a period of time where none of my ideas were getting approved. They were more about women of color, and they were hard-hitting topics, not shiny, fun things. But they were important to me. When I got to Essence, I would wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, and when I would share it, Vanessa would say, “Oh my God, love it, great.” So that has just completely reinforced my confidence, and instilled in me this passion to continue to tell those stories. Because for a certain time, it’s not that I didn’t think they were important—it’s just that when you get met with “no” so many times, it’s really kind of demeaning. And coming here and having Vanessa be such a champion—she completely trusts us. That has been really empowering, and not always the experience I’ve had in publishing.