Susan L. Taylor
Former Editor-in-Chief of Essence
When her line of cosmetics for women of color caught the eye of editors at Essence magazine, Susan Taylor had no idea that she would one day lead the publication as Editor-in-Chief. Having grown circulation to 1.5 million, she left the business after 37 years to create the National CARES Mentoring Movement, a nonprofit devoted to transforming the lives of underprivileged black children through mentorship and inspiration.
Who most influenced you growing up?
My grandmother. I am a grandmother now, and my granddaughter hopefully feels as much love for me as I did for my grand. As grandmothers, we have more time and greater patience. I am wiser and more balanced today than I was when raising my daughter. I grew up in a one-bedroom Harlem tenement; my father had a ladies’ boutique on the street level in a busy, commercial area. We lived on the second floor of a five-story building, walk-up with maybe 50 families. My grandmother would drive in every summer and take my brother and me to her home in Englewood, New Jersey, which I thought was a mansion. It was a beautiful home. I had my own room. When she asked what we wanted for dinner, we would get on our bikes and ride into town and choose what we wanted her to cook for us. Mother would take us to beaches, to lakes in Upstate New York and to the Hamptons. Not in the glorious Hamptons, where we now have a home, but to the Shinnecock Reservation where she’d rent rooms for the family. She exposed me to a world far beyond what my parents offered.
Your family originally came from the Caribbean. Your father was in mercantile. What about your grandmother?
Grandmother was a businesswoman. Long before I was born, she had a tailor shop and a bar. She also helped my uncle buy a building and open a liquor store. My great grandmother, who I’m named after, had a soda business in Trinidad and a hot pepper sauce business in Harlem. I come from an entrepreneurial family.
Editor-in-Chief of Essence magazine…how did you enter the world of publishing?
Publishing found me. Originally, my career was in cosmetics. I thought I wanted to be an actress. I looked up on a screen one day and saw Dorothy Dandridge playing Carmen Jones. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I said, “Oh, I want to do that.” But I’d never even been in a play, and I wasn’t a good actor but still won roles. I was understudying the lead actress in a three-character play at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. I could not get the inane part in my head, and the lead was on stage the entire play. I said, “Lord, if you let me out of this one, I promise I’ll find my métier, because surely this is not it.” I was the only person who was happy that the play closed on opening night. Twenty years later, I looked down at that Broadway theatre from my office at Essence.
From acting to cosmetology school and eventually Editor-in- Chief of Essence magazine. What an interesting journey?
Well, in 1970 when Essence was created, black women who had journalism degrees were not interested in writing about anything as mundane as beauty. I was a cosmetologist at the time and had created a line of custom blended cosmetics for women of color which came to the attention of the Essence editors. When I heard about an opportunity at Essence, I applied for the position with a lot of confidence. Confidence as a 24-year old was easily mustered. At times, I have to work hard at it. At the time, I was married to a man who had two beauty salons, so I didn’t need the job. I came in looking like a beauty editor, even though I didn’t know exactly what that post entailed. I knew the fundamentals of the makeup of our skin and hair and what they needed to be healthy and to thrive, and that impressed the Editor-in-Chief. I had found my passion and did a good job as beauty editor, so they expanded my role to include the fashion editor position. We were building a brand new publication, and I built a high-performance team—so needed because magazine- making is a collaborative effort. I served as fashion and beauty editor for 10 years. Then for one year, we were under the leadership of a chief editor who was super smart but didn’t understood what our readers were looking for. Respectfully, I never mention a name. She missed the boat, and the magazine lost a tremendous amount of circulation. Because I was in charge of images, the covers and fashion and beauty pages, the style aesthetic of the magazine, our publisher believed I could guide the publication from cover to cover. Not just with style, but with all the content. He gave me the chance to be the Editor-in-Chief.
At the onset of your tenure with Essence, did you envision that you would one day be the Editor-in-Chief for Essence magazine?
What kind of pressure did you experience serving in that post?
You know, I enjoyed it…life, work and everything. But I always tell young people to not be fooled, that there is no work that’s not difficult. Managing people, deadlines, making decisions every moment of the day is challenging. And leadership is lonely. We have to pursue our passion. I love editing. I loved trying to understand what our audience needed and asking the questions that would keep me informed and the magazine relevant. Like you’re asking me. You seek out people who care deeply about your mission and vision, remain nimble, share the light with the team. You don’t always need to be right and apologize when it’s called for. And primarily you’ve got to find people who write brilliantly. I enjoyed every moment as Editor-in-Chief of the magazine.
What is the most potent life challenge you have had to date?
It was the breakup of my first marriage. I was a young mother. I was married three years before my daughter was born. The breakup happened when my baby was six weeks old. It was devastating. I had no man. No money. I had a cosmetics business that was gone. He had a girlfriend. He asked me to “not talk about him” publicly, because he was a hairdresser and it would hurt his business. He wasn’t a great hair designer at all, but the women lined up because he was so handsome.
How long did it take you to rebound from that?
It threw me out on my own. I am the person I am today because of that shake-up. I have come to see that everything in our lives— even the most painful or shameful things—are all in divine order. The truth, I was living with the pain of poverty, more than the pain of a marriage gone. During that first marriage was the only time in my life that I didn’t have to work. But I am a worker. I love it! And in hindsight, I never would have advanced my life if I hadn’t been thrown onto myself.
Have you ever wanted to quit publishing work?
Did you ever worry about your work not being successful?
Never. You worry less when you are younger. I worry now more than I did then. In our twenties and thirties, we are often naïve, fearless, confident that we can do anything. I got the job by walking into the Editor-in-Chief’s office and saying, “If you give me an opportunity to do your beauty pages, I’ll be the best beauty editor you could possibly find.” She believed me because I believed me. Today, I would never have such confidence.
Was your strength in the publication’s aesthetics content or finance?
Not finance. I absolutely gravitated to the aesthetics because it was my interest from the time I founded a cosmetics company and then at Essence, where I had the responsibility for working with style teams and art directors for my pages, which as fashion and beauty editor, was the majority of the magazine. When I became Editor-in-Chief, I was more representative of the reader than any of the editors because they had all graduated from college. I had not gone to college at that point. Right after high school, I went to acting school. From there, I built my cosmetics company. I went to college after I became the chief editor of Essence magazine. Many of the readers’ lives were very much like my own. Many were single moms, juggling the personal and the professional, trying to hold it all together, balance it all.
How did “In the Spirit” come about?
I stepped into the Editor-in-Chief position not wanting to write a monthly editorial. The person I was succeeding (not the one who lost the job) who really created the foundation that I built upon, Marcie Ann Gillespie, was brilliant, as were her editorials. She wrote about politics and women’s issues. I said there’s no way, as a fashion and beauty editor (who at the time only had a commercial high school diploma), I could step in and write as brilliantly as she did. I tried to excuse myself from that task, but our publisher said, “Oh, no, you have to write a monthly editorial.” I paused and thought about what was most important to me. Even though I was worried, I decided to write about what I was really pursuing: spiritual knowledge and growth. It was the path that I was on, and the one that I’m still on. My editorial was called “In the Spirit,” and it became, surprisingly, the most popular feature in the magazine.
What was Essence’s circulation when you left?
Our readership was 8 million. Circulation was about 1.5 million. It was just print at that time. We weren’t counting digital. Now, they’re counting everything.
Was there one person during your tenure at Essence that made more of a difference than anyone else? Who and why?
Marcia Ann Gillespie, who was the Editor-in-Chief for nine years. She wasn’t the chief editor when I was hired but the managing editor then. Later, when I became fashion and beauty editor, I didn’t feel confident in my writing, though I spoke well. I am from a Caribbean family that was part of the British system in Trinidad and St. Kitts, where my dad was from. You are taught to write well and speak well, but I felt I couldn’t write. Marcia Ann Gillespie said, “If you can speak, you can write.” That pushed me when I was writing the fashion and beauty pages. It really encouraged me. So, Marcia Ann Gillespie was my greatest encouragement.
You are now in the not-for-profit space. Tell me about the National CARES Mentoring Movement.
You asked me about choices. I think life takes us where we need to be. New Orleans is the site of the Essence Festival. Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city and devastated many of the lives of people and families of those who worked with us. I let the Essence family know that we had to do more, “We cannot go back into New Orleans and have the kind of party we have done in the past. It has to be a party with a deeper purpose.” I was on vacation in Zanzibar on the East Coast of Africa. In meditation, I asked myself, “What should we request of the hundreds of thousands of people who come to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival? What might we ask of them?” I just knew it was to take care of vulnerable children, and that is what we did that next year. Although the movement was founded as Essence Cares, it is now called the National CARES Mentoring Movement because I couldn’t allow people use the Essence name. Very simply, we’re asking able African- Americans to help mentor our vulnerable children. We recruit, train and then deploy mentors to youth-serving organizations. We are hoping to bring this effort to Spartanburg. When the call goes out for mentors, it is white women who are typically the first responders, followed by white men and then black women and then black men. White women lead because many more are stay-at-home moms, and many have more support and therefore more free time. We need more black mentors. We don’t turn away any child in need. We don’t turn away any qualified mentor. However, we are devoted to filling that pipeline with desperately needed African-American mentors, so the multitudes of black children struggling in poverty will know there is a community of able African Americans who care about them and will not let them fall.
How difficult was the transition from serving as Editor in Chief of a hugely successful private publication/brand to leading a significant not-for-profit?
We launched Essence Cares in Atlanta, and it was moving along brilliantly. I really didn’t know much about the nonprofit world. At the time, I was still working at Essence, and it wasn’t just the magazine. Essence was also the music festival, eyewear and hosiery. The brand became ubiquitous. When I learned that 80 percent of black fourth graders were reading below grade level, I was incredulous. I called Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund. I said, “This cannot be true.” She said “African-Americans are losing ground in literacy. In fact, the whole nation is.” I was outraged. And I thought, I’ve been at Essence 37 years. They don’t need me anymore. My community does. With a high-performance team, we took what was a single magazine and built a brand that exploded and is the most respected in Black America. With a high-performance and support of foundations and donors who realize that poverty is “the shame of the nation,” and want to change that, we are breaking the intergenerational cycle of impoverishment. It wasn’t a difficult choice at all, but it is hard work.
Your focus is a much broader vision than just the National Cares Mentoring Movement?
It is “America the Beautiful.” I want it to be so. We sing it, we say it. I want it to come from the heart because we’re living it. We can’t live and be America the Beautiful when we have a third of black children living in poverty, and one in seven of all children living in poverty. We never see white poverty. If you haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy, it would be worth reading. It’s the story about what poverty does to white people. It is the same story told always but only about black poverty. Poverty hurts, no matter our race. When a person doesn’t have access to education, in today’s economy, they are denied a way to take care of themselves and their families well. Education is the barrier. And we can change that! This has been a debate in our nation since Plessy v. Ferguson, which was supposed to foster separate but equal access to all things. But access has never been equal. It would break your heart to see the young people and children in the schools where we work, who come to school having slept in shelters. They can only stay in some shelters for three months, and then their families must move out and move on. Consequently, they must change schools. These young people live in poverty and are surrounded by violence. They are homeless and hungry. Yet, they are measured by the same yardstick that our children are measured by. It’s unjust, terribly unfair. This is not about politics or parties. It’s about children, people’s lives. We are building bipartisan support and caring political leaders will help to fix it. Everybody has a heart, and nobody in this nation, no matter what our politics, wants to see innocent children suffering and living with hunger. So, that’s what I’m working on. National CARES is in 58 cities where our programmatic work is devoted to this effort. We are helping our young ones to override the disparities in education.
What are you creating to help make change?
I’m trying to create a “Marshall Plan” for Black America that will help lift black children out of poverty. We need to access hundreds of millions of dollars over time through the federal government, foundations and caring super-wealthy Americans. In the Senate and in the House, our representatives will come to open their hearts and not feel that people sinking in intergenerational poverty and receiving government support do not deserve it because they “should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” The U.S. Census Bureau defines extreme poverty as an annual income of $12,195 for a family of four with two related children. Not even a single individual can live anywhere in this country with so little. The disparity in education is what keeps black and white people in poverty. It leads to depression and the slow death of addiction that comes from trying to ease the pain. Property taxes fuel public education, and if you’re living in a poor community, where no one owns a home, there is no property tax. As a result, schools are gravely under-resourced, teachers are overwhelmed and the children are hopeless and sad to the bone. They know they’ve been abandoned by the larger society, written off. We’ve must work together as caring Americans, who believe in democracy, and write them in! We will create America the Beautiful.
What is the first step and goal of America the Beautiful?
We don’t talk about poverty. We don’t talk about race. We don’t talk about what African Americans did to create the wealth of the Western Hemisphere. We don’t talk about the disparity in education. We’re not talking about it. What we do is we blame, and we shame. To me, the most important word in our language is understanding. Understanding! If we understand what African Americans have suffered through. What we lost is indescribable. We were taken by force from our homeland in chains. We suffered brutality beyond the telling, enslavement over 250 years, our free labor that built the wealth of the Western Hemisphere. If we understand what white Americans were fleeing from in Europe, we can understand the propensity to take and to build. But to justify the brutality rendered against the Indigenous people and African people the idea that we were “less than,” that we were inhuman, was adopted to ease the conscious. That belief persists today. Without blaming and shaming, these are the discussions that must be had so America can heal and thrive—which we cannot with so much greed and marginalization. Understanding moves the spirit to wisdom and love, the possibility for healing. Do you know what this is, Karen? It’s the 400th year this August of the first Africans’ arrival at Jamestown or Hampton, Virginia. The place of arrival is debated. It is time we look the history, own it and heal it. No more anger. Let us work toward becoming what we all want in our hearts: peace, joy, a way forward for ourselves and our families. America the Beautiful—it’s the example that the rest of the world needs. Let’s link arms and aims and step toward it!
What have you learned in your life’s journey you might share with young women?
Know that you are enough! You are more than you seem and you see. More than your looks, your education and stuff we believe makes us desirable. You were born on purpose with a purpose that may change over time and that you should strive to fulfill. Self-awareness is the key to our growth and happiness. Don’t be a people pleaser. Women come out of the womb and believe we are here to serve all others but not ourselves. So take charge of your life. Learn to love you, what God made. What others feel about you is none of your business. It’s what you feel about you, that you affirm yourself, have a vision for your future and what you want for your life, that as you strive in that direction leads to fulfillment. And when it comes to seeking and settling with a partner, remember that their gifts—as is true for you—are on the inside. The shell, the exterior. It fades. At 73, I don’t look like I did at 33, but I am wiser, happier and more aware of the truth. Pain is information. It’s not to knock us down. The most profound question I believe we must ask when walking through a storm, which we all do, whether we are president or a street sweeper, is: “What have you come to teach me? What is this situation pushing me to change in my life?” Pause around that, take that information, be with it in the silence. The answer will come—that’s the promise. Draw closer to the Holy Spirit that is alive in you. Be with It, stay open to change, change, change. It’s a natural and important part of life, and keep stepping forward.