Birth of a Legacy: Spotlight on Edward Lewis, Father of ESSENCE magazine

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(Last Updated On: May 14, 2016)

* Article originally published in the Summer 2015 print issue of Empower Magazine

The seed was planted in a young boy growing up in the projects to “have something of his own”; now 45 years and millions of readers later, he succeeded in creating something for women of color worldwide. Edward Lewis is the co-founder not only of Essence magazine but also Essence Festival and Latina magazine.

Lewis was raised with humble beginnings in the Bronx, N.Y. His mother, one of 14 children, held down three jobs, and his father was a janitor. Although he was lured in by the mean city streets and joined a gang, his family provided balance and support that gave him a higher vision. From the age of 5 to 15, he was sent by bus to spend summers with his grandmother who believed that “hard work killed nobody.” The value of education and entrepreneurship was instilled in him from a young age.

In 1994, Lewis was having drinks with George Wein, creator of the Newport Jazz Fest. He told him about the 20th anniversary of Essence magazine coming up in 1995 and how he wanted to do something different. Wein planted the idea of doing a festival in New Orleans on the Fourth of July at the Superdome. Lewis said his key people were lukewarm about the prospect, but as a self-proclaimed “big-idea guy,” he made the executive decision to proceed. About 50,000 people attended that first Essence Festival, and it has grown every year since. Although he sold Essence magazine to Time, Inc. in 2005 for a record amount, Lewis hasn’t missed a festival.

We chatted with him about the seeds, struggles and success of Essence magazine to gain an up-close look at the making of one of the most enduring brands in existence. Following are highlights of the candid conversation:

On Having Something of Your Own
I had an uncle in Virginia who had his own business. I would work for him, and he used to talk to me about having control over one’s life, having control over one’s destiny, and the only way to have that is to have something of your own. So, I followed that little seed that was put in my head, that dream, and when the opportunity presented itself, I got involved with starting a magazine for black women. The women of my family were strong black women. They were not appreciated. They worked very hard, so getting involved with a magazine that would celebrate the beauty and intelligence of black women was
something that appealed to me. Knowing too the importance media plays on society, it was important to have our own and make sure that our story and our images were coming from us as it relates to who we are and the role we play in society.

On the Death of the Print Magazine
There have been tremendous changes in the industry since I sold Essence in 2005, but I’m also a believer in print. I believe those magazines with powerful content will continue to do well. They may not do as well financially as they did in the past, but they will continue do well because they still provide a voice for individuals who want to see themselves and their stories being told.

Essence readership is roughly 8 million, but when you add social media, Essence reaches over 13 million eyeballs on a monthly basis. The festival for the first time was streamed live. I’m cautiously optimistic that those magazines that touch a real need will continue to be around.

On the Staying Power of Essence
It has everything to do with content. It has everything to do with the kind of issues that are covered on a monthly basis. The magazine has become a lifestyle. There were no magazines in the 60s and 70s that spoke to the beauty of black women. Women know when they pick up Essence they will see themselves, issues that relate to them. Black women read all magazines, but if you want to reach black women effectively, you need to go to a medium where they can see themselves every month.

On His Private Talk with the Secretary of State
In 2005, I was having a private dinner with the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She asked me, ‘Ed, why did you get involved in starting a magazine for black women?’ I said, ‘Madam Secretary, you and I are on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, but having said that, you are a black woman, the secretary of state. That is mind boggling to me because in 1970 Black women were thought of as not beautiful, uncouth, loud-mouthed, on welfare, poor and couldn’t read. That’s the perception we had to
overcome.’ Essence changed the perception of how black women are viewed. We have Beyonce who is considered one of the most influential people in the world. We have Lupita who is considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, and of course, you have Michelle Obama.

On Writing His Book
I wanted to write this book because I wanted black women to know that four bodacious black men came together in 1968 to bring something into the world to celebrate black women — their beauty, intelligence, experience and history. I wanted black women to know some black men stepped forward to celebrate them, and here we are 45 years later and the magazine is still going strong. As you witnessed yourself at the festival, half a million people showed … it was like a homecoming.

On Struggle
When I started Essence we didn’t have enough money to sustain ourselves in the beginning, but we were able to do that. My partners and I didn’t have publishing experience, so we had to learn that. There were lots of things we had to overcome. We had to constantly tell our story to get advertisers to advertise in the magazine. That was a constant educational strategy of just being vigilant and out there every day to get people to buy the product. There were lots of struggles against the backdrop of being black in society.

We were five partners when we came together in 1968. In fact my book was going to be called “The Last Man Standing” instead of “The Man from Essence.” I’m the last man standing of the original partners. We didn’t know each other and were equal partners trying to make a decision of how to run a company, and that’s a prescription for disaster. Ego, power, struggle and that all had to be figured out, but that’s the learning curve you go through. … I’m still surviving and still going on.

On the Secret to Success
Take risks. I developed confidence within in myself to take risks and to know that even if it doesn’t work, I will pull myself up and keep on going. The desire for me to have something of my own motivated me to work as hard as I can. When you begin to make a decision to step out and have something on your own, you have to be a little bit crazy, because it’s not easy and it’s 24/7.It’s about not thinking about whether you’re going to fail; it’s about making the decision to go forward. If it does fail, you’ll learn it’s not a detriment to you. You have to find the right people, the best people. You have to give them the tools to do their jobs. Cash is king, queen, jack and everything else in terms of running a business. If you want to succeed that’s what it takes. It doesn’t happen overnight either; it takes a long time.

On Travel for Growth
I was born in New York, went to college in New Mexico and traveled all over. You realize how big this country is, how people are different. That helped me grow, have an appreciation and view life in a way that helps me be a better businessperson. I’m keenly aware of how black people have been treated, and how we’ve had to overcome. … We as men have to be responsible too. If we bring something to the world, we have to be responsible for taking care of it. In life we have to keep on going because so many people
depend on us and lost their lives for us to be where we are today. I have to give my best.

On His Enduring Legacy
I would hope that I have made a difference in the lives of many, many people in helping them feel good about themselves, helping them to grow economically, helping them to expand their life experiences and to know that I was instrumental because of my mother who had such a powerful impact on me. My mother had four commandments: she wanted me to be a proud black man, she wanted me to take care of my family, to get a good education and to always try to do the right thing. Hopefully I lived a life that was to the good of our society, good for us as black people, and hopefully people feel very good about what I was able to do on behalf of so many of us, on behalf of our ancestors … to tell black women that someone really cared for them, loved them and wished them all the best.

Edward Lewis has won multiple awards, including the Henry Johnson Fisher Award (considered the Oscar in publishing), the Henry Luce Award from Time, Inc., and was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame. His book, “The Man From Essence: Creating a Magazine for Black Women,” is available for purchase online and in stores nationwide.

Birth of a Legacy: Spotlight on Edward Lewis