“Learning that I was the first Black beauty director in Conde Nast history was the first time that I actually saw myself as an agent for change. I saw myself in a position to represent people who had never had a quote on quote, a seat at that table before.” – Elaine Welteroth
Elaine Welteroth has had a meteoric ten year career in the magazine industry. She is the former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, a New York Times best-selling author, and one of the founders of 15 Percent Pledge with Aurora James and Selby Drummond, a non-profit organization urging major retailers to commit 15% of their shelf-space to Black-owned businesses. Elaine broke new grounds to hold the title as the youngest person and second Black editor-in-chief in Conde Nast’s 107 year history.
Elaine recently started a new project as the host of the vodcast, Built to Last, in partnership with Amex. This vodcast spotlights valuable insights and lessons from influential Black founders, past and present.
Listen in and learn how Elaine broke into the magazine business with tenacity, talent, and a desire to shake things up. Through her leadership, she has brought social consciousness into Conde Nast and helped turn Teen Vogue become the voice of a generation.
If you’ve ever wondered how to find a mentor, give yourself a seat at the table, and foster authentic representation that can change an organization, you’re in luck. Tune in and learn how to turn adversity into purpose, pursue multiple dreams, and break into the magazine business.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your first job?
My first job was being the dancing bee at a hometown buffet which is this restaurant that all my best friends worked at. We call ourselves the solid six and to this day, we’re still best friends since seventh grade. We all got jobs there as servers and I was the only one who got to wear the mascot outfit. As soon as I put on the bee costume, I would transform into the best dancer in the world and I’d just moonwalk for five hours. It was so much fun and the kids were like magnets to me. I also had another job at a mall called Cunningham Research. I was basically one of those annoying people at the mall who holds a clipboard and comes up to ask you to take a survey. It was actually a cool first job for someone who was going to be a journalist one day but didn’t know it.
Did you learn much from being a bee?
I learned how to lose all self-consciousness, just be in the moment and do whatever it takes to make the people around you happy. It wasn’t about being cool. I feel like outside of the costume in high school, It’s about being cool; It’s about saying and doing the right thing.
What did you study in college?
Elaine: Public relations and a minor in journalism.
And then you decided to go into journalism, is this what you wanted to do right after college?
It was a journey to identify what I wanted to do. It was something that I think I was destined to do but it took time to soul search, excavate, and identify that these were my gifts, and that I could actually get paid for them. Looking back, I was always the girl at the party who would corner somebody and just get their whole life story. We’d be holding hands, crying, and going so deep. I just thought I was nosy and that people liked to tell me stuff but I didn’t realize those were interview skills that I was honing. I wrote for the college newspaper, I did a couple of internships that felt like they were in the stable lanes in advertising/PR. I thought these are jobs that you can definitely get employed in and get paid good money, but they definitely did not ignite me. It forced me to confront myself and dig deeper to find out what my real passion and purpose is.
I did the one thing that I tell every young girl not to do: I followed my high school sweetheart to college. I didn’t even apply to the colleges that I dreamed of going to when I was younger. I grew up thinking I was going to go to Stanford, USC, or UCLA. I was a 4.0 student and I was in all these extracurricular activities. But then I fell in love, got distracted and I followed him to a state college that was two and a half hours away from me. When I got there, I realized that this fool wasn’t even going to school. So then here I was in Sacramento, chasing this boy into college and getting stuck there by myself.
I went through a serious existential college crisis, which I think a lot of people do at different points in their life. People don’t talk about that and I don’t know why because it’s something that recurs throughout life. It’s something that even if you figured it out, you eventually might need to change course — most people do a few different times in their lives. I think this idea that you’re supposed to know what to do from a young age is a falsehood. It’s a journey to figure out who you are, why you’re here, what you’re good at — and you get to change your mind. I always say life is a series of dreams realized. You do not have to be defined by one dream, by one title, and by one career path — you can change it up as you go. Every step leads to the next great opportunity. I did eventually come out of my dark hole of depression and anxiety. I did a lot of prayer and meditation. Eventually I had my “aha” moment which led me to magazine journalism. Looking back, it was obvious I should be a magazine journalist and editor, I just didn’t know that job even existed.
I certainly didn’t think that it was accessible for someone like me coming from a small town in California. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. People around me didn’t really aspire to move to New York to pursue these big dreams. It felt almost too big to say out loud to myself or to anyone else. Once I realized I wanted to do it, I didn’t want to be one of those dreamers who just says they want to do something, and end up failing to launch. I kept it to myself. It was a journey but eventually I made it happen. I’m grateful that I had the clarity to hear it, to follow it and had the courage to go after it.
There was a singular tipping point that changed my life: I reached out to a woman that I was really obsessed with and inspired by who was doing what I wanted to do. Eventually, that led to a job and then it led to the rest of my career.
My dream job at the time was Essence and that’s the one I was going super hard for. Essence represented everything good about Black womanhood. I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood with an incredibly inspiring, powerful, sensitive, glamorous, sophisticated, successful Black woman, my mom. She is the only role model that I had. It meant so much to me growing up that I could work for that magazine that represented the pinnacle of success. I felt a ton of pride just thinking about being a part of that mission. When I got the internship there, it felt like the clouds were parting for me. I was 30 days away from moving to New York from California to start my dream internship when I got a call back from the woman, Harriet Cole, who I had stopped six months prior. I found her when I was in a college existential crisis. Just at this moment, I was up really late in my mom’s study literally Googling what to do with my life. I was in the study for 12 hours, no joke. I looked down and I saw Ebony Magazine with Alicia Keys on the cover and it was stunning. I picked it up and went straight to the cover story, and my eyes were immediately drawn to Harriet’s name. It was almost visceral — something instructed me to Google and investigate her; I found her bio which literally read like a blueprint for the career I wanted to have. She created her own path for herself that spanned mediums, allowing her to be a writer and have a presence on television. She was a multi-hyphenate before that was a millennial thing. It inspired me and I decided I was going to be like her. I stalked her and I begged her for an informational interview. She gave me 45 minutes of her time and it changed my life. In that moment, she affirmed everything that I thought I could be. At the end of it, I said if there’s ever an opportunity to work with you, keep me in mind. I thought I’d never hear from her again. About four or five months later, right before I was getting ready to move to New York for Essence, she called me out of the blue and said there could be an opportunity waiting in New York to work with her on all things fashion and beauty. I recognized that the opportunity to work with this woman was going to be so rich in learning day to day that it superseded the sexiness of the title. I worked for her and it turned out to be a cover shoot with Serena Williams, which she did not tell me as an intern. She offered me the opportunity on the spot. I had to call Essence and say I got another opportunity. I was going to work for a woman who really inspired me; she gave me opportunities early on in my career that I never would have had anywhere else and I’m so grateful to her mentorship. Her job wasn’t easy, she was turning around a struggling magazine brand and she made it more relevant. She made it sexier and brought fashion into those pages. She taught me how to celebrate Black culture and to show the world the excellence of our people. I’ve carried that with me throughout my whole career.
In this noisy world, what would your advice be for someone who wants to chase down one of their idols, and maybe wants to work for them?
It’s such a different world today. I don’t even recommend going about it that way, or even chasing someone down. The way it happened for me was sort of a Cinderella career fairytale — I recognize that it’s kind of singular in nature. I actually think it’s more important to look to your right and your
left and find peer mentorship from the women around you. We overlook the gems that are all around us because we’re trying to reach someone who’s out of reach, and frankly, who has too much going on to be able to meaningfully impact your life. I don’t think it’s about chasing down mentors, it’s about accessing the mentors that are already in your life, whether they’re friends, family members, or bosses. For me, the best mentors I’ve ever had have traditionally been bosses and professors. Working for a woman like Harriet gave me opportunities to learn how to be a leader that’s gracious, compassionate, in control, and had a clear vision. Also, Amy Astley, who was the founding Editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue had a way of empowering young leaders like no other magazine editors were doing at the time. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am if she hadn’t empowered me the way she did when I became beauty director at 25. As this young Black girl, she gave me the space to find my voice. There’s Anna Wintour and Cindy Levy. Every female boss I’ve ever had has been a mentor in some way or another but that requires access and investment which you can’t really manufacture in the digital world. You certainly can’t manufacture it by chasing someone down and just asking, “can you be my mentor?”
Learning that I was the first Black beauty director in Conde Nast’s history was the first time that I actually saw myself as an agent for change. I saw myself in a position to represent people who had never had a seat at the table before. It’s interesting because as Black women in business, and in the arts, we often feel this pressure to conform and to assimilate in order to accumulate trust and credibility within organizations that are predominantly white. I had been certainly trying to assimilate and trying to fit in and follow the rules. It wasn’t until that moment in my career that I actually recognized what I was doing in my leadership role would be a disservice to marginalized communities who had never been represented in these seats before. It changed my perspective completely.
As a young leader, there was a lot for me to learn, but I knew coming in that I had a responsibility that was greater than what the responsibility of the role was. I was representing for Black women and I had to bring our beauty into this mainstream magazine in a way that felt authentic because there wasn’t someone who intimately understood that culture before. I felt the responsibility to open the door for other people who might not have had that opportunity. I wanted to help change the culture of that magazine from the inside out, which I think is the only way to make any meaningful change in an organization. You can’t change the stories without changing the storytellers.
It’s too easy to just diversify your covers, sell more on the newsstand and think that you’ve done your job. To me, authentic representation is making sure that the folks who are behind the scenes creating those images, creating those stories are the ones from that culture that you’re celebrating. Otherwise, you are capitalizing on those cultures that you’re not promoting internally. That was a big part of what my mission was but it’s also something you grow into. I grew into finding my voice at Teen Vogue and I was there for six years. People think Teen Vogue became so woke and they think it happened overnight. It didn’t. There was a lot of learning behind-the-scenes and a lot of hard conversations. There were years invested in the changes that we were able to make together as a team so I’m really proud of that time.
How did you sell the changes you were making to the decision makers above you who may not understand completely what it is that you’re trying to change?
It’s done story by story, hire by hire, day by day, and battle by battle. Some battles you lose and some you forfeit. I was hired at such an interesting turning point in our country — the Obama era. There was this sense that we were approaching a post-racial reality in America, which we all know now was never true. As we inched towards the 2016 presidential election, a lot of truths were unearthed, and people had to confront realities that they weren’t as comfortable talking about before. On the other side of it, this conversation about diversity and inclusion can feel like jargon. We’re just throwing around buzzwords that we don’t really understand the meaning of, but the reality is that diversity and inclusion is a business imperative. It benefits the bottom line when you have a more diverse team that is more representative of the world. No one’s going to say no when the decisions you’re making are actually resulting in success overall. In fact, they’re going to try to learn from those decisions.
I think people assume that in a big company like Conde Nast, people were constantly telling us, no. It really wasn’t that way. I felt really lucky to be at a company that had leaders that really did empower me. Anna Wintour has a certain reputation for being really hard-nosed, but she’s also very open-minded. She loves to mentor and she loves to learn. I felt like she was always really receptive to the changes that we wanted to make at Teen Vogue. Ultimately, I think it was hard to ignore that we were galvanizing a new community of young people around this new mission. We weren’t afraid to talk about social justice, politics and to do it in the same conversation as beauty and fashion. The world was responding favorably. I think we had to prove that this was a mission that was going to resonate and that was going to matter to a new generation. I think once we did it, we really did have the space and freedom to create the kind of magazine that I wanted. You did it by doing it.
What was it like working on Project Runway and why did you want to join the cast?
It’s been so much fun. I literally was so deep in a writing hole when this opportunity came up. It took me a minute to agree to it because I was so focused on finishing this book that felt like my baby. When this came up, I was like,”where does this fit into my life? How does this serve my goals?” Eventually I said yes because of a few reasons. It was an opportunity to work with people I love, respect and admire like Karlie Kloss. She is quite literally the nicest person I’ve ever met. We have a lot in common in terms of values; we care about inspiring young women by creating more opportunities for them. Brandon is a riot. He’s such a good friend of mine now. Nina is someone I’ve always respected and the same with Christian. It was an opportunity to work with people I really love and that’s important to me at this stage in my career. I definitely have a no assholes policy for sure. Like Shonda Rhimes said, I am not about wasting my energy, creativity and environments that don’t feel supportive and this environment is extremely supportive. Ultimately, it’s about raising up the next generation of designers. I loved cultivating talent and helping them get a platform that can change their whole life and the trajectory of their business. Project Runway as a franchise means so much to so many people; people tell me their Project Runway stories from their teenage years. It means so much to people because it represents chasing your dreams and it inspires people to dream again. I wanted to be a part of building a new narrative around the show, and pushing it into its new era, which is similar to when I inherited Teen Vogue. That was the opportunity that was in front of all of us for Project Runway: to make it more closely aligned with what’s happening in the fashion world today. At that time for me, I was in such a deep writing hole. It was nice to have some structure that pulled me out of the world every three days.
I was worried that people might not get that I had more to offer than just what I brought to Teen Vogue. I knew in my heart since I was nineteen years old when I found Harriet Cole and saw this multifaceted career she built for herself that I knew magazines were just the first step. I always knew that I was going to come to the end of this road, and that I was going to need to jump and take a leap of faith. I’ve always had this long term vision for my career. What was so scary is that I didn’t expect to get to that moment so soon. I didn’t expect to be thirty years old and have everything on my bucket list checked.
There was a part of me that was extremely exhilarated. I felt a real sense of completion and pride and was ready to do the next thing, but I didn’t know if the world could catch up. I thought that people would be confused, asking “why would you walk away from this? This brand is a big title.” When you feel called to move, it’s actually scarier to stay standing still, because the worst thing in life to me is to not grow, be stagnant, or to feel stuck in an identity that belongs to the world, or doesn’t make you feel alive. That’s what I was trapped between. There was so much more for me but taking that step was just really scary.
This is the hardest thing for me to figure out how to talk about concisely, because you spend many months long-form telling your story in a way we never get to do on social media where everything’s about pithy little captions. When I wrote my book, I struggled with the term “memoir”. I had my brother say to me, “Elaine, why would you write an autobiography, that’s what old people do. That’s so weird.” I was so sensitive about it I told my whole team that I didn’t want to call this a memoir. Ultimately, one of my really good friends said to me, “it’s your memoir so far. And that’s a whole new category.”
We’re living in the age of social media, where we are watching each other’s lives play out in real time every day. But we are not telling the whole story. I don’t want to be a part of telling lies about success and sometimes social media projects only highlight reels. I wish I had more role models who could peel back the layers, and talk about some of these things that are so universal like how to navigate promotions and the pay gap. Rarely do we actually talk about how it goes down in real time, how it happens to us, women who are held up as barrier breakers and trailblazers. More often than not, you’re underestimated, undervalued, underpaid, overworked, over criticized, and overwhelmed. I think that we carry this burden of keeping it all together to make it look good, because you are representing an entire race sometimes. There’s very little space that we hold to share the truths of those journeys so that we can make it easier and less confusing for the next person to navigate. I was first so that I could help change the culture and open doors for other people. I’m hoping as they walk through that they’re a little bit wiser than I am, that they have more tools than I had, that they have more stories to reference. To me, that’s my responsibility before I go on to do all the other things that I intend to do. This was an important inflection point in my life and I felt like it was an offering that I had to give to this next generation. Whether people got it or not, I had to push through the self-doubt that said, “why would you write a memoir at 32?” It’s not a memoir at all, this story matters. I spent ten years of my life as a journalist investing in untold stories from marginalized communities. I had to practice what I preach and be brave enough to tell my own story, and that’s what this is. I really hope that it reaches the people out there that needs it. I hope it is a source of inspiration and I do hope ultimately, it starts conversations that we’re not having.
What does success mean for you today?
Success is liberation. It’s feeling free and not feeling like you’re living a life that’s consumed with a sense of obligation. To me, it’s important that the work I do every day brings me joy. I feel like I’m in a position in my life now where I can choose joy. I can be selective with saying yes and intentional about how I invest my energy, where I invest it, and where I don’t. That’s been life changing for me. I also think that that clarity comes after thirty. I think you spend your twenties grinding and saying yes, and just doing whatever it takes. It’s not to say that I work any less hard. I talk about this in my book in a chapter called burning out. And I’d say this line that has become a mantra for me: there is hustle and there is flow, but you cannot sustain one without the other. I’m always hustling, but I’m also seeking out opportunities for flow to come in. I have to sleep enough. I have to meditate, I have to spend time with people who make me laugh, I have to be able to feel led to do the things that I’m saying yes to versus just doing it, and not being sure why, and just running as best I can and not coming up to breathe. That’s the difference between the way I approached chasing success in my 20s versus experiencing success in my 30s.
What was your most recent girlboss moment?
That time I interviewed Oprah and I couldn’t believe she knew my name. We had this really special exchange where she gave me some beautiful Oprah wisdom. Honestly, that’s enough for me. Did I need to chase her down for a selfie today? No. I really didn’t but I kind of wish I did. I’m sure I have other girlboss moments from this week that I just can’t think of right now, but I’ll just say my interview with Oprah was my biggest girlboss moment today.
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