We are #BlackFemaleAnonymous. We present ourselves under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, intimidation and the maligning of our media careers. We demand the immediate resignation of Essence Ventures owner and Chief Executive Officer Richelieu Dennis, Essence Ventures board member and former Essence Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks, Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content Officer Moana Luu. We are calling for Coca Cola, Ford, Walmart, McDonalds, AT&T, Procter & Gamble and Warner Media to immediately eliminate all active or future sponsorships and media buys at Essence Ventures until the company is under new leadership.
The Essence brand promise is fraudulent. The once exalted media brand dedicated to Black women has been hijacked by cultural and corporate greed and an unhinged abuse of power. Essence celebrated its 50th anniversary last month with supermodel Naomi Campbell on its cover, and this very weekend, the company’s massive Essence Festival goes virtual in the age of Covid-19 with a performance by Bruno Mars, and appearances by Queen Latifah, Don Lemon and activist Tamika Mallory.
Historically a haven for Black female media professionals who couldn’t get roles at major publishers like Hearst and Condé Nast due to racial bias, the magazine’s very first cover in May 1970 boldly presented a Black woman in a natural afro with a tantalizing cover line asking Black men, do you love me? Today, the company’s predominately Black female workforce is asking Essence itself, do you love us like we love you?
For past and present Black female talent once lucky enough to walk its prestigious halls, Essence is the most deceptive Black media company in America. Why? Essence aggressively monetizes #BlackGirlMagic but the company does not internally practice #BlackGirlMagic. The company’s longstanding pattern of gross mistreatment and abuse of its Black female employees is the biggest open secret in the media business.
New owner and CEO Richelieu Dennis, Michelle Ebanks, Joy Collins Profet and Moana Luu collaboratively immortalize an extremely unhealthy work culture. Scores of talented Black women have been either wrongfully laid off or forced to resign from the company in the past two years. Essence’s C-suite leadership team strategically tells the market it “serves Black women deeply” under the safe seal of 100% Black ownership, but for the Black women who makeup over 80% of the company’s workforce, they are systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism and classism.
The Truth About Richelieu Dennis, Essence Ventures owner and CEO of Essence Communications
Richelieu Dennis acquired Essence in 2018 from Time Inc. to advance his personal power and influence despite his carefully crafted, public messaging. His surface-level commitment to Black women is driven by greed and a debaucherous sexual appetite. He has a history of sleeping with women on the Sundial staff, (the parent company of Shea Moisture he sold to Unilever in 2017) and for the women who don’t seemingly consent, he openly sexually harasses them at private company events. In the later half of 2019, Richelieu tried to force Essence employees and contractors to sign non-disclosure agreements that exclusively protects his family from liability or disparagement after a string of wrongful layoffs and other potentially libelous business activity. When staff raised questions about the NDA, the executive leadership team launched a series of intimidation tactics on its staff. Richelieu’s wife Martha Dennis is the company’s Head of Human Resources, a blatant conflict of interest. Martha is complicit in her husband’s abuse of power. For Essence employees under Dennis family leadership, there is no possible way to share your grievances or frustrations when the family matriarch is the head of HR.
Altogether Richelieu and the Dennis family directly and indirectly buy the silence of current and former Essence Black female employees who fear backlash of Richelieu’s massive financial and social capital. The poisonous culture at the company however, began with one Michelle Ebanks.
The Truth About Michelle Ebanks, Essence Ventures Board Member and Former CEO of Essence Communications
Michelle Ebanks is nearly singlehandedly responsible for establishing an extreme toxic culture at the company since her hire as president in 2005 when the company was 100% acquired by Time Inc. Michelle’s quest for total power and her corporate influence on the executive leadership at Time Inc. signaled the quiet firing of the iconic Susan L. Taylor in 2008. The company’s culture hasn’t been the same since. Although Michelle recently “resigned” as CEO, she continues her history of tactically bullying and gaslighting staff as a board member. At a company town hall during the second half of 2019, some employees asked Michelle about pay raises at market and industry rate in New York City, Michelle, then CEO, casually pointed to the door and told staff they could leave if they could find better compensation elsewhere.
Michelle’s malignant and histrionic leadership led to the public and private firings, forced layoffs and resignations of some of the most talented and sought-after Black women in the media industry. It is also sadly, under Michelle’s management that Black female staff on maternal leave or recently returned from work after giving birth, were dismissed from their roles or at minimum threatened with dismissal. It is for this reason many Black women fear for their jobs at Essence when they become pregnant and for some, they experience repeated miscarriages due to intense stress and anxiety from Michelle’s leadership practices — if they can become pregnant at all. It is also a wide and common occurrence for employees under Michelle’s leadership at Essence to suffer from intense anxiety, depression, evidenced by signs of extreme weight gain or loss, workforce isolation or surrendered resignations.
The Truth About Joy Collins Profet, COO of Essence Communications
When Michelle hired Joy Collins Profet former Essence Festival General Manager as the company’s new COO, Joy became de facto head of Human Resources for over a year before Martha took over. Joy’s lack of experience as a HR leader deepened the operational vulnerability of the business and teams in all parts of the business — from marketing, sales, digital to editorial. One senior leader who directly reports to Joy was forced to take a stress leave in 2019 only to return to an even more volatile work culture driven by Joy’s leadership practices.
While most of Joy’s senior hires were sound decisions — mostly executives sold on the company’s new “100% Black owned” market messaging — she ultimately hired Darline Jean as Chief Digital Officer despite Darline having no proven experience running a lean digital operations. While Darline only stayed with Essence for a year, she like Michelle, led with a style of fear and intimidation. Both of her senior hires were men — one Black male and an Asian male. She severely compromised the stability of the digital business with a series of adverse business decisions. Darline alienated her staff, which led to the sweeping exodus of virtually every hire in Essence’s digital organization. Michelle could have easily hired an experienced HR and operations leader but she calculatedly put Joy in the position of COO to secure her micro-authority over the organization. For 15 years, Michelle’s reign over Essence was informed by what was best for Michelle not Essence.
The abusive work culture activated by Michelle passes on like a viral disease to every C-suite leader who manages a staff at the company. All employees in the Essence workforce are plagued, and not even the quarantine offered a reprieve. When Joy launched a search for a Senior Vice President of Revenue in 2018, Michelle stopped several highly experienced Black female sales leaders from advancing in interviews, and in 2019, she ultimately greenlit the hire of white woman Kristen Elliot formerly of Condé Nast. Kristen unsurprisingly hired a white female sales leader under her leadership despite the volume of experienced Black female sales leaders who expressed interest in the role or the internal sales staff who could have used the promotion. At a market appointment in 2019, one brave executive on the client side, openly shared their frustration with Essence’s white sales leadership when during a pitch, Kristen and her hire failed to articulate Black women’s culture and influence. This brave executive from the client side was also a white woman.
The Truth About Moana Luu, Chief Content Officer of Essence Communications
Moana Luu, hired by Richelieu due to a personal relationship despite having no proven experience in publishing, is also rampantly abusive and divisive to the editorial and creative staff at Essence. Moana initiated the firing of a Black female senior leader who recently returned from maternity leave. She has a record of intimidating, bullying, and publicly shaming her staff. After staff sustained nearly a year of Moana’s workplace bullying, flamboyant overspending, and lack of leadership on production budgets and deadlines — a direct reflection of her minimal business experience — a staffer anonymously emailed a complaint to both Richelieu and Michelle. Instead of investigating Moana’s performance, they initiated interrogation tactics with support from IT leadership to “find the mole” among the company’s staffers. The incident strengthened the toxicity of the company culture and led to the resignation of even more highly experienced Black women.
The Truth About Forced Black Female Anonymity
Essence magazine is failing Black America. When Black media companies become unstable, it triggers the instability of the entire culture. Black women and men have long depended on Black owned media outlets to service them with cultural identity, cultural memory, purpose and economic advancement.
There is no intersectionality on race and gender in the new movement for a more equitable corporate America. The testimonies on Twitter and Instagram by a mighty chorus of brave Black women uncovered the racial bias and discrimination in America’s white-owned mass media organizations. This led to resignations followed by recent corporate promises to do better. But Black women at Essence have been forced to remain silent. We fear cannibalizing the public narrative for Black Lives Matter and civil rights 2.0. We also fear losing our jobs or being banished from Black cultural spaces. We can only look to the organized intimidation aimed at the survivors of Russell Simmons. The startling accounts of Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, Sherri Hines, and Jenny Lumet, all Black women, who experienced sexual violence at the hands of Russell, have been culturally dismissed and disrespected.
But what happens when your workplace bully have the same race and gender as you? Publicly coming forward seems simply foolish. White women can openly take down their devil in Prada but Black women must protect her. The demand for a new America calls for the complete accountability of all Americans, even those of us in Black America and our cultural institutions. Black women deserve to feel safe both in white America and Black America.
We are #BlackFemaleAnonymous but not for long. Our hope is that this message assures the hearts and minds of every forcibly muted Essence employee past and present that the change we’ve secretly hoped for is on the way. More urgently, we hope this message moves Essence leadership, and the corporations who invest in Essence, to action within the next 5 business days.