In her role at the helm of a media empire, Michelle Ebanks rubs elbows with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Queen Latifah. But this daughter of activists says true leadership means giving a voice to all.
As a girl visiting her grandmother’s beauty salon, Michelle Ebanks (BSBA ’83) loved flipping through the pages of Essence magazine, admiring the photos of stylish, confident women. Little did she know that she would grow up to be the magazine’s president and CEO – the leader of not just a multi-platform media firm but “a brand and a movement” to empower women of color.
“This experience has truly come full circle for me,” said Ebanks, speaking by phone from her office in Brooklyn. “When I became president of Essence in 2001, I had a special sense of responsibility to reflect and improve the lives of black women.
“And that mission is just as important to me now.”
Today the newsworthy Gator alum grabs headlines for the inspiring developments in her career and the Essence brand. In October 2018, Ebanks was promoted from president to CEO of Essence Communications, after the venerable company was acquired from Time Inc. in January 2018 and returned to its roots as a 100-percent black-owned, independent company.
I would not be where I am today if it were not for the lessons I learned at UF. However, if I had to pick one lesson, it would be perseverance.
— Michelle Ebanks —
In July 2018, Ebanks took the mic at the New Orleans Superdome to welcome more than half a million visitors to the 24th Essence Festival, a four-day musical and cultural event that’s been dubbed the “Super Bowl for black women.” Onstage and backstage, she celebrated with Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah and other music legends.
Ebanks also has received a raft of recognition awards in the last 12 months, with the Congressional Black Caucus, AT&T and the National Action Network honoring her leadership.
So how does she account for her success?
It all comes down to valuable lessons instilled by family, friends and mentors, including those at the University of Florida, says Ebanks.
“I would not be where I am today if it were not for the lessons I learned at UF,” she says. “However, if I had to pick one lesson, it would be perseverance.
“This has carried me throughout my career, and it helps me when it’s time to make tough decisions.”
Lessons at the beauty parlor
Some people display a favorite inspirational saying on a poster or a screensaver. Michelle Ebanks keeps her “words to live by” literally at hand, on a ring she wore for most of her life.
Tilt Ebanks’ heirloom gold ring under the light, and the motto “Persevere and conquer” glints on its surface.
A present from her late father, Thomas K. Washington Sr., the ring is a replica of one his father passed down to him. The motto sums up everything you need to know about this resilient, community-oriented family.
One of three children, Ebanks was born Michelle Marie Washington in Dayton, Ohio, in the early ’60s. During her father’s years of service in the U.S. Army, the family frequently transferred to bases around the country and in Germany. She was young when her parents divorced, and she grew up alternating between her mother’s and father’s homes, an experience that actually benefitted her, she says.
“Being able to watch them in action was a privilege and greatly influenced my own work ethic in later years,” says Ebanks.
While in elementary school, Ebanks lived in Dayton with her mother, Charlotte Smith, who worked as a city manager, helping connect poor residents with affordable housing.
Another strong woman in Ebanks’ life was her grandmother, an entrepreneur and “the family matriarch.” Visiting her grandma’s beauty shop on the weekends, young Ebanks took a lesson from her elders:
“I’d listen to the conversations among my mother, my aunts, my grandmother and the other women and hear how they supported one another,” Ebanks told The New York Times in 2010. Years later, that intimate girlfriend-to-girlfriend tone would become the voice and brand of Essence under Ebanks’ stewardship.
Ringing doorbells with Dad
During the summers, Ebanks lived in Miami with her father, a community leader, civil rights activist and successful business owner. She would attend high school there as well. Washington had a chain of eponymous dry-cleaning businesses, which were painted bright purple and adorned with the message, “say it loud.”
This was in the heyday of the civil rights movement, and Washington was determined to help his people succeed. On his radio show Voice of the Community, he interviewed notables such as Muhammed Ali and drove home the message, “we must produce.” Determined that his daughter should work for change, Washington took Ebanks with him as he rang doorbells for Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to run for president.
Ebanks herself became a force for change when she and her two brothers became the first African-American students to attend Gulliver Academy, a private school in Coral Gables. Although shy at first, Ebanks soon stepped into leadership roles in student government and captained the volleyball and tennis teams. But getting good grades was her top priority.
“I always took my education very seriously,” she says. “I even took a heavier course load during my sophomore and junior years just so I could graduate a year early and leave high school when my brother graduated.”
Her eye was firmly fixed on the Orange and Blue:
“I knew UF had the perfect blend of everything I needed in a school – including a stellar reputation and a dynamic finance program,” says Ebanks.
No holding back
In 1979, just 17 years after the first African-American student graduated from UF, Ebanks entered the College of Business with a major in business administration, specializing in finance. Not surprisingly, she gave her all to her studies but found plenty of enjoyment in extracurricular activities such as volleyball. (In 1984, the year after she graduated, UF reinstated volleyball as a varsity sport, after having eliminated the program in 1978.)
Ebanks describes her years at UF as “fantastic.”
“I have treasured memories of the whole experience – from my professors to long-lasting friendships that we formed,” says Ebanks. “Graduating from UF also gives its alumni a network that is truly incredible.”
When Ebanks graduated from UF in 1983, Ronald Reagan was president, and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was No. 1 on the radio. A job at dad’s dry-cleaning dynasty beckoned, but Ebanks wanted to set out on her own and moved to California. After a year, she secured a position as financial analyst for magazine publisher Knapp.
That early job proved her biggest challenge yet. During her first year of learning the ropes, she wondered at times if she shouldn’t just move on to something else. But the thought of giving up awakened her fighting spirit and made her determined to succeed at Knapp.
Thanks to her drive, Ebanks rose to become director of operations at Knapp’s Bon Appétit, the country’s leading food publication.
“Fierce, Fun, and Fabulous”
March 3, 1993, proved another turning point in Ebanks’ life. On that day, New York media giant Conde Nast (Vogue, GQ, New Yorker) snapped up Knapp in a $175 million cash deal. While most of Knapp’s staff was let go, Conde Nast held on to Ebanks and flew her to New York City, where she would serve as corporate business manager for 13 of the publisher’s magazines.
Two years later, she was lured away by Time Inc., then the largest U.S. magazine publisher, where she became financial director and then general manager of Money magazine. It was there in New York, in the late ’90s, that Michelle Ebanks’ talents and passions came together in two powerful alliances.
First was her relationship with entrepreneur Gordon Ebanks. Their whirlwind romance – the two met at a Chic reunion concert, he proposed six weeks later, soon after that they walked down the aisle – was no flash in the pan. Their 1999 marriage yielded two sons, Gordon James and Benjamin.
The other game changer was no less than the acquisition of Essence Communications by Time Inc. Founded in May 1968, Essence magazine had been expanding online and in live events, and spoke directly to the needs and aspirations of African-American women with its empowering slogan, “Fierce, Fun, and Fabulous.”
That fabulousness included Essence’s extensive advertising influence. The brand serves as a portal to the $1.2 trillion spending power of African-American consumers, much of it controlled by women, and corporate America was eager to tap into that market.
As someone uniquely positioned to understand both African-American culture and the business of publishing, Ebanks was brought on as the point person for initial negotiations between Time and Essence’s legendary cofounder, Edward Lewis.
With Ebanks overseeing what Lewis termed the “dating and engagement phase of the partnership,” Time acquired a 49 percent share in Essence Communications in 2000, a percentage that rose to 100 percent in 2005.
The deal would not have been possible without Ebanks, Lewis has said. He made her group publisher of the magazine when she came to work for Essence Communications in 2001, then president in 2005. Ebanks’ unique ability to straddle both the editorial and business worlds led in 2011 to her being named president of Time Inc.’s People en Español.
Serving 16 million
Under Ebanks’ bold leadership, Essence Communications has extended its reach to 16 million audience members, in print, online, with its leadership summit and book club, and through the Essence Festival.
Held in New Orleans’ French Quarter each Fourth of July, the four-day festival attracts throngs of women, ages 18 to 80, to live concerts, talks by Oprah and other African-American leaders, and workshops in entrepreneurship, beauty, health and spiritualty.
Evening performances at the Superdome were sold out in 2018 – due in part to the publicity generated by the movie Girls Trip, a 2017 comedy set in New Orleans during Essence Fest and costarring Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith.
The 2018 festival brought more than $280 million to the Big Easy.
Certainly, Essence has thrived in the 21st century by embracing new forms of connectivity – an online site, social media, star-studded live events – but Ebanks attributes its longterm success to something more basic.
“The source of Essence’s longevity is our audience knows our voice will always remain the same,” says Ebanks. “At the root of it all, we are here to serve black women in every way.”
“Be a leader for everyone”
If Ebanks has made her father’s “persist and conquer” motto the bedrock of her professional life, so has she embodied her parents’ belief that being on top entails lending a hand to those still climbing the mountain.
To help her fellow Gators “go greater,” she serves on the national board of the UF Foundation and appears at university events to share her insights. Last April she gave the keynote speech at Becoming a Woman of Influence, a workshop for students sponsored by UF’s College of Journalism and Communications.
“If you’re going to be a leader, you need to be a leader for everyone,” Ebanks advised her young audience, encouraging them to expand their networks and be inclusive.
Another philanthropic event that lures Ebanks from Manhattan to Florida is the Disney Dreamers Academy, a joint project between Walt Disney World and Essence Communications. Each spring, 100 promising high school students from around the country gather at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando and take masterclasses in how to persist in the face of hardship in order to achieve their dreams.
And in a move that would have made her grandmother proud, Ebanks’ employer has just launched a new initiative to fund and empower entrepreneurial women of color. Overseen by Richelieu Dennis, chairman of Essence Communications and founder of the SheaMoisture brand, the $100-million New Voices Fund will give women “access, expertise and capital” to help reach their potential.
Ebanks knows from experience how critical these elements are for turning a business idea into a viable source of income. She herself got a leg up at key moments in her professional life, including as a new graduate.
“The power of a supportive network – such as UF’s alumni base – can provide great inroads in one’s career,” says Ebanks.
Ebanks is very aware of her own good fortune: formative years rich in role models, opportunities and encouragement. However, she notes that “we need to provide substantive help and resources for those who may not have the same network or access.”
Just as importantly, those who are chasing a dream need inspirational roadmaps. That’s where the power of good storytelling comes in.
“Our minds are wired to tell stories,” Ebanks told an audience at a recent women’s entrepreneurial forum. “Essence needs to tell quality stories so we know we are beautiful, we are smart, we can launch more businesses and we can be the president.
“We have to tell ourselves those stories, and that’s what we do.”