Essence Magazine was meant to be a place for ‘Black girl magic.’ Internally, some employees say it was more like ‘Black girl tragic.’
On June 28, 2020, an anonymous letter was published by authors who claimed to be employees of Essence magazine, accusing the publication of fostering an unhealthy work environment.
The company launched two independent investigations, which could not substantiate the claims made in the letter. Some employees felt like their concerns were not taken seriously.
Twenty former and current employees spoke to Insider about their experiences working at the magazine. Despite changes, some remain unsatisfied with the company.
On June 28, 2020, an anonymous group of women under the name of Black Females Anonymous published a damning public letter that shook the core of Essence Magazine, the leading publication for Black women in America.
“The Essence brand promise is fraudulent,” the essay, published on Medium, claimed. “The once exalted media brand dedicated to Black women has been hijacked by cultural and corporate greed and an unhinged abuse of power.”
The letter alleged an “extremely unhealthy work culture” rife with “pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism and classism” — one that began when Richelieu Dennis, the beauty mogul behind SheaMoisture, bought the publication in 2018.
After the letter hit the internet, Dennis and the rest of Essence’s leadership scrambled to deal with the implosion. In a public statement, Essence denied the allegations, calling them “mischaracterizations” and “unfounded attempts to discredit our brand and assassinate personal character.” It also hired two law firms to investigate; their independent reviews could not substantiate claims made in the letter, including those of bullying, harassment, or discrimination.
Still, some employees say they witnessed management become increasingly defensive. The company held town hall meetings over Zoom where they encouraged people to speak up about their concerns. Only by airing out these concerns, they said, could they make the workplace better.
But some former employees who attended the meetings said the sentiment didn’t feel sincere. Instead, they believed leadership became obsessed with sniffing out who wrote the letter.
“It was a critical turning point in establishing trust with employees again, and assuring us that our work matters here,” a former employee present at the meeting told Insider. “But in the moment we were made to feel replaceable. It was a turning point where a lot of folks checked out.”
Rather than listen and take accountability, ex-employees said they felt like leadership tried to undermine their voices and their experiences, just as had been expressed in the open letter.
“Essence is the most deceptive Black media company in America. Why? Essence aggressively monetizes #BlackGirlMagic but the company does not internally practice #BlackGirlMagic,” the letter read. “The company’s longstanding pattern of gross mistreatment and abuse of its Black female employees is the biggest open secret in the media business.”
Insider spoke with 20 former and current employees, ranging across titles and departments, about their experiences working at Essence. Five former employees were still at the magazine in 2022 or 2023; an additional nine worked at Essence during the time the letter was published in 2020.
Many employees who were at Essence in 2020 say they experienced or witnessed a “hellish” and “dehumanizing” culture with a rigidly top-down hierarchy, compensation they were not happy with, and mismanagement — issues that current and recent employees say haven’t entirely gone away in the three years since the letter was published. Most of the sources requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation and to protect their careers.
“Essence is a dream place — ‘Black girl magic’ — but it’s a known thing inside, and it’s leaking outside, that it’s more like ‘Black girl tragic,'” one former employee said.
Essence and Group Black did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Insider.
Essence under Time Inc.
Essence Magazine was first published in 1970 at a time when Black business and civil rights leaders called for greater self-determination and empowerment. The magazine was the brainchild of a group of four Black businessmen who identified a lack of publications for Black women in America. It was meant to be a “lifestyle magazine directed at upscale African American women.”
Their vision was soon realized. With an initial circulation of only around 50,000 copies per month, the publication’s readership grew by a staggering 17-fold within two decades.
Under the helm of Susan Taylor, the publication’s long beloved editor-in-chief from 1981 to 2000, Essence’s monthly readership surpassed 5 million people, making the magazine a household name in Black communities across America. Taylor was also responsible for launching Essence Festival, an annual event that would become the company’s biggest revenue generator, eventually even overshadowing what the magazine itself brought in, and turning the Essence brand into a cultural behemoth.
Today, the magazine has a monthly circulation of over 1 million copies, competing with the likes of Vogue and Elle.
But things shifted in 2000, when Time Inc. — which also owned publications like Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and People — purchased 49% of Essence Communications, then later bought the remaining 51% in 2005. Essence went from one of the few Black-owned magazines in the country to another publication under widespread ownership.
The shift to a white- and male-dominated parent company left some employees feeling like Essence operated under “stepchild status” under Time Inc.
One employee at the time said that it felt like Time Inc. “wasn’t invested in Essence at all.” People struggled with budgets, creating a “bootstrapping” environment. The move to a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate had made some employees hope Essence would be given ample resources; instead, they seemed to operate from a scarcity mentality.
“All of the teams always moved as if there was extreme limitation, like, ‘we can’t do this photoshoot; we don’t have enough money,'” a former employee said.
In 2013, then-president of Essence Communications Michelle Ebanks told The New York Times she understood why some readers were concerned about Time Inc.’s influence on the magazine, but insisted that Essence enjoys “journalistic independence” under their parent company.
Rich Dennis enters the scene
In 2017, the Meredith Corporation announced it would purchase Time Inc. for $2.8 billion, acquiring all the publication’s assets, including Essence Magazine. The company had struggled with plummeting print advertising revenue, like much of the publishing industry.
Around that time, Richelieu Dennis came across a Wall Street Journal article about how Time Inc. was looking to sell its majority stake in Essence. Dennis had made his name and fortune as the founder of Sundial Brands, a beauty company that focuses on products for Black women, including SheaMoisture and Nubian Heritage. He had no prior experience in the media industry, but felt strongly about serving the Black community.
By January 2018, Dennis bought Essence from Time Inc. for an undisclosed amount.
“The stars aligned,” Dennis told NNPA Newswire soon after the purchase. “We started to think about the implications of what this would mean if Essence were truly brought back into the community.”
Readers celebrated that the magazine was Black-owned again. “This is so so so so so important,” one reader tweeted. “We need room for this celebration,” said another.
Then-president of Essence Communications Michelle Ebanks, who stayed through the acquisition, said this was a chance for the publication to grow: “This means we can realize our extraordinary potential.”
Dennis had brought back hope.
Born in Liberia in 1969 to a family of entrepreneurs, Dennis came to America to attend Babson College, a business school whose gilded roster of alumni includes execs from The Home Depot, PepsiCo, and Accenture. Unable to return home because of a civil war, Dennis started Sundial Brands in his tiny Queens apartment, making soaps and lotions from shea butter and essential oils in his bathtub.
From its modest beginnings, Sundial raked in around $300 million in revenue in 2017, and ultimately sold to Unilever for an estimated $1.6 billion later that year.
“This founder escaped war, created a top skin care brand, and launched a $100 million fund for Black women entrepreneurs,” Inc. Magazine wrote of Dennis’ accomplishments in 2019.
Some of Sundial’s loyal customers lambasted the Unilever sale as a betrayal of its founding mission to support Black women. But Dennis said that these decisions were ways to reinvest in the Black community — a sentiment he echoed when he bought Essence in 2018.
“What we’re doing with Essence is not very different from what we’ve done with Sundial,” Dennis told Forbes in 2018 when he bought the magazine. “And that is to serve Black women deeply, to serve women of color in a way that no one else has thought about.”
Essence Magazine was Dennis’ first foray into the media world, and was just the first in a string of acquisitions that catapulted him to the peak of a Black business empire. His “family-run” private-equity company, Essence Ventures, “endeavors to empower, connect and give ownership to Black communities,” according to the company’s LinkedIn page. Essence Ventures, too, has invested in brands founded by and for Black women, including Afropunk Festival, hair care company Naturally Curly, and BeautyCon.
“Essence is not a magazine. It’s a concept. It’s a movement,” Dennis told “The Breakfast Club” in 2019. “For us, it wasn’t just, ‘Hey, let’s go buy a magazine.’ For us, it was, let’s make sure we own the narrative that’s happening in our community. Whether or not it made business sense, we were going to do this because we deserve to own our culture.”
Regaining ownership of one’s culture would become Dennis’ refrain, including with a recent $400 million bid for Vice Media, and with news that his media company Group Black was in talks to buy stakes in Black Entertainment Television, Bustle Digital Group, and Arena, the publisher behind Sports Illustrated. (None of these deals have materialized; Vice Media was ultimately bought out by Fortress Investment Group).
At Essence back in 2018, employees were hopeful things would change for the better with Dennis at the helm.
“I was genuinely excited. Essence was and always has been a beacon of Black culture, but it was held by white people,” one former employee recalled of the transition. “So it was a moment of pride — for all of us.”
The reality of Essence under Dennis’ early leadership, however, did not meet some staffers’ high expectations.
“Essence was once again a Black-owned company and, as executives regularly liked to remind us, we were family. As we all know, however, a company is not your family. It is business,” a former editor at the magazine said in a tweet around the time of the anonymous letter.
Essence had suffered from a lack of resources under Time Inc., and Dennis and his leadership team were tasked with righting a sinking ship. But the new management faced immediate obstacles it struggled to overcome, leaving some employees questioning their ability to run a media company.
After the sale to Dennis in 2018, management failed to construct a stable infrastructure, eight current and former employees told Insider. There were no annual reviews or promotion outlines, leaving ambitious employees feeling stuck and frustrated. Even those with supportive managers who championed their work struggled to advance in the company, since the buck stopped at the C-suite, employees said.
Only one of the 11 sources Insider spoke with who were there at the time received raises in the first few years of Dennis’ ownership, they say. Many of those staff members said they had to juggle multiple responsibilities outside of their original job descriptions and felt it only exacerbated the pain of not receiving a raise — especially as Essence sought to ramp up its digital presence. Dennis had grand visions for Essence and wanted to run the magazine as a multi-faceted “startup,” insiders recalled him saying. The industry-wide shift from print to digital meant a demand for more stories, more quickly.
Reporters at Essence in the first few years under Dennis’ leadership said they had to write four to five stories per day for the website, while also working on stories for the print magazine. Some editorial staff also took on new podcasts and visual projects, but weren’t compensated for the extra work.
“I had basically taken a pay cut from them with the additional responsibilities,” a former employee who was there in 2018 to 2020 said. “I was told to take it or leave it. Others didn’t get extra for their additional contributions, either, so I felt like I couldn’t complain about it. But I did feel insulted.”
Some women said the stressful work culture started to affect their mental and physical health. They relied on their “sisterhood” to get through the days.
“The culture is very much a community — a team that translates and speaks well with each other,” Sandra Okerulu, a freelancer who worked with Essence in 2018, said of the magazine’s employees. “It’s clear they believe in the project. This is theirs.”
But when staff tried to voice their frustrations to higher-ups, some say they were met with apathy. At multiple town hall meetings from 2018 to 2020, Michelle Ebanks, then-CEO of Essence Communications, said if they didn’t like what they were being paid, they could leave out the door, several former employees told Insider.
By the end of 2018, less than a year into Dennis’ reign, morale began to crumble.
“You kind of hope that Essence is one of those places that won’t treat you like a cog in the wheel, but that wasn’t the case,” a former employee said.
The new regime
Some of the problems at Essence predated Dennis’ purchase, four former employees said, but the real root of the persisting issues lay in the upper echelons of the magazine.
“The cultural rot was from the top down,” one former employee said.
In October 2018, Dennis brought in Moana Luu, a self-described multihyphenate from Martinique, to shore up Essence as its chief content and creative officer. Statuesque with a cosmopolitan flair, Luu held a patchwork of jobs in beauty, media, and design before joining Essence. She was a TV producer and host for a local Marticinian pageant show, creative director for a French hair care company, and chief creative officer for a studio based in France called Trace Media, per her LinkedIn profile.
But multiple employees questioned her ability to run a magazine with a storied heritage like Essence.
In the letter, Luu was accused of “workplace bullying, flamboyant overspending, and lack of leadership on production budgets and deadlines.” Multiple sources told Insider they had similar experiences with Luu, with some sources feeling like she caused issues of the magazine to be late to press because of last-minute changes, or shifting deadlines.
Some sources felt that both Dennis and Luu lacked “deep knowledge” of the publishing industry, leading to a lot of “misunderstanding about the time and effort needed to publish a monthly magazine,” as one former employee put it.
Some employees who worked with Luu felt she also fostered a “mean girl” workplace.
“She pretty much came in trying to be the Black version of ‘Devil Wears Prada,'” a former editor said. Another former employee felt Luu held “very little respect” for the women who worked at Essence.
Luu commented on people’s weight and appearance, six sources said.
When an editor with a curvier body type pitched an idea for a video, Luu reportedly responded, “You on camera? No no no,” the editor told Insider.
“She told me that she needed someone beautiful with a lot of social media numbers, not me,” the editor said. “I just stopped after that.”
Another former employee who witnessed the interaction corroborated the incident.
“A big part of Essence’s platform has been showcasing the varied beauty of Black women: all shapes and sizes, all shades, all hair textures,” a former longtime editor at the magazine said.
“But when Moana came on board, she was only interested in a certain aesthetic, and she wanted that certain aesthetic to be the face of the brand,” the editor said.
During Luu’s tenure, Essence did promote on-screen personalities including Danielle Young, who used the platform to champion body positivity and speak out against texturism.
An investigation into the allegations made in the Medium post in 2020 “did not find that Ms. Luu treated anyone differently” according to a public statement by Essence.
The investigation also found that “several witnesses reported hearing her make insensitive comments” and that some employees felt her management style was “intimidating and brash.”
Luu said she was “adamant that [was] not her intent to bully anyone,” according to the investigation.
Around the same time, other employees followed suit. According to five former employees, some staffers did not feel aligned with Luu’s mission of globalizing a publication that was founded for Black American women and felt the new leadership was sidelining the demographic they were originally meant to uplift. (These sources could not speak specifically to why Wilson or Montgomery chose to leave).
Luu did not respond to requests for comment.
Allegations of nepotism
Dennis’ hope to foster a “family” at Essence played out in more ways than one. The new regime at Essence in 2018 and its sister companies included multiple members of Dennis’ own family, including his wife and two daughters.
In the company’s first several months under Dennis, there was no official human resources department, according to 11 former employees. Dennis’ wife, Martha, became the de facto interim head of HR, nine former employees said. A 401(k) document from November 2020, viewed by Insider, lists Martha Dennis as the contact person, alongside the address of Essence’s office in Industry City, Brooklyn.
Some Essence employees who spoke to Insider said they felt uncomfortable raising issues with the magazine owner’s wife.
“If I didn’t have any complaints, it was because I didn’t know who to go to,” one former employee said. “With the owner’s wife being in charge of HR, it didn’t feel like a safe space to go to.”
In their findings, the independent investigation claimed that there was “no evidence to suggest that Ms. Dennis was appointed to lead HR or that she ever led HR,” but rather that she “assisted” with HR matters.
Dennis’ daughters, Rechelle and Sophia, were given the reins to launch Essence Girls United, the Gen Z branch of the magazine. Rechelle was only a year out of college when she joined Essence, her LinkedIn shows. She also founded SheaGirl, a skincare company for teens under her father’s company SheaMoisture, when she was a sophomore in college.
Outside of Essence, Dennis’ sister Richelyna Hall was chief impact officer of New Voices, the organization Dennis founded to support women entrepreneurs of color, as recently as 2021. New Voices has hosted pitch competitions at EssenceFest, Essence magazine’s annual festival, according to its website, and its portfolio companies — which it refers to as its “family” — have been featured on the magazine’s cover and in write-ups.
A non-disclosure agreement that management asked employees to sign before a company event at the Dennis’ Hamptons residence in the summer of 2019 included language that prevents them from speaking about “Dennis, Dennis’ family members and children, friends, companies, business ventures, business associates,” according to a copy Insider viewed.
These types of agreements are a way for companies to control what people say, labor and employment lawyer Alan Lescht said. He added that it’s not typical for NDAs to name specific people.
Some Essence staff bristled at the NDA.
“It felt like it was their family, but we weren’t part of it. It definitely didn’t feel like a family,” a former employee said.
‘The Truth About Essence’
By June 28, 2020, discontent within Essence had reached a fever pitch, culminating in the explosive Medium essay titled “The Truth About Essence.” In addition to allegations of corporate bullying and an unhealthy work culture, the letter called for the resignation of Dennis, Ebanks, Luu, and chief operating officer Joy Collins Profet.
Readers rallied behind the anonymous group of writers in a petition that accompanied the essay. Several of those who signed the petition wrote that the content had deteriorated in the past decade and “fails to speak to Black women.”
Another said they noticed that “the advertisements in the magazine contained fewer Black models of varying complexions and looked like something [they’d] see in Vogue or other similar magazines.”
Readers also decried the hypocrisy of a Black-owned business and claims of mistreating the Black women who make up the company. “A double slap in the face when it’s done by our own,” someone wrote.
Essence’s management went into damage-control mode. A spokeswoman for the magazine denied that Martha Dennis was the head of human resources, saying that she had “advised the company in its ongoing HR transition,” The New York Times reported. In an internal response to employees viewed by Insider, management described HR, which they said they built from the “ground-up,” as having been “supported by a family executive” with experience in HR while they searched for a full-time lead.
Dennis, Luu, and Ebanks stepped down from their positions or “had no role in day-to-day operations,” the spokeswoman told The New York Times. Collins Profet said she had previously notified Essence of her resignation in 2020 to pursue another opportunity. Essence hired an interim CEO, Caroline Wanga, to help shore up the company. (Ebanks, Wanga, and Martha Dennis did not respond to requests for comment from Insider.)
During the town hall meetings management held following the letter, some Essence employees felt leadership didn’t care to understand their employees’ grievances, but rather positioned themselves as victims who had been “attacked.”
Dennis said that it had been a “difficult day” with “our business being attacked in this way and our team members being attacked this way,” during a town hall meeting on June 28, 2020, the same day the Medium post was published, according to a recording of the meeting that Insider reviewed.
In successive town halls, employees said management continued to be “very dismissive” and “disheartening.”
“For centuries, Black women’s stories of oppression and mistreatment have been written off, and for Essence the brand to plainly state that fully denies accusations without any talk of investigation of the claims — it’s always been what’s done to us in history,” one employee said in a town hall meeting on June 30, a recording of which Insider heard.
Dennis, Wanga, and Martha Dennis defended leadership’s efforts. In the June 28 meeting, Dennis said he believed they “brought real change,” but to change “a culture that has evolved over 50 years” within two years was near impossible.
“What we really want to hear is an acknowledgement, an apology that says, ‘I’m sorry I let you down,'” an employee said in the June 30 town hall.
“It doesn’t take away from your greatness. It doesn’t take away from your purpose. It doesn’t take away from your position in this company and in this world. But it does signify to us you hear us and you see us, and that you see that we’re hurting,” the employee said.
Former employees say they never received that acknowledgement or apology. Instead, leadership continued to prod and investigate.
Essence hired two white-shoe law firms to look into the essay’s claims in July 2020. Employees said they received emails, sent to their work accounts, asking them for voluntary group or individual interviews. Some said they didn’t feel comfortable speaking to the lawyers because they were afraid of retaliation. Others said they didn’t receive any emails at all.
The law firms ultimately concluded that the allegations lodged in the essay were unsubstantiated, including claims of bullying, nepotism, and discrimination. The results of the review, published in a statement on Essence’s website, also found that “various issues contributing to work culture existed under prior ownership,” when Essence was under Time Inc.’s purview.
Another report found allegations from the Medium post of sexual harassment to be unsubstantiated. The sources Insider spoke with said they had not witnessed or experienced inappropriate behavior of the kind alleged in the post.
Not all employees supported the Medium post and the #TakeBackEssence social media movement it catalyzed. Some felt the allegations could damage their livelihoods, and that the writers were disrespecting an institution they’d all worked so hard to uphold — illustrating the difficult position of being a Black woman in an industry where there are so few options available to them.
Other employees felt management’s response and the investigation’s findings to the essay dismissed their own lived experiences at Essence — even things they had seen with their own eyes, like Dennis’ wife performing HR functions or Luu stepping back from the company following the Medium post. (Though recent employees said Luu no longer appears to be involved in the day-to-day operations at the magazine, she switched her title to “global chief content and creative officer” at Essence Communications in September 2020, according to her LinkedIn and Instagram bio.)
“It’s a place that [made] you feel gaslit at times, a place that creates confusion,” one former employee said. “When I lost my job in 2020, I was relieved, like, I don’t have to feel like I’m in the ‘Twilight Zone’ every day.”
Leadership never discovered who wrote the letter. Black Females Anonymous did not respond to Insider’s requests for interviews.
An uncertain legacy
After the letter was published, nothing much changed, 10 sources who still worked at Essence in 2020 and onwards told Insider. In September 2020, mere months after the fallout around the letter, 80% of the company was furloughed, according to estimates from sources with knowledge of the matter. The company went from a staff of around 70 to around nine, according to source estimates.
The journalists who remained at the magazine were asked to cover beats outside the areas they’d been hired to report on. Some had to handle social media — outside their purview as reporters and editors — since the entire social media team had been furloughed, according to former employees. Essence staffers who survived the furloughs had to reach out to their ex-colleagues to ask for a crash course in social media distribution, a former employee said. The small staff was burdened with keeping the legacy publication afloat.
While the company has since restaffed a portion of its workforce, a current employee and four employees who left within the past year told Insider that issues with work culture still remain. Staff who left recently said reporters and editors are still asked to take on additional responsibilities outside their job descriptions. A current employee described an environment that felt siloed and drained of any sense of community, leaving some staff feeling “unappreciated and left out.”
Dennis’ ambitions in media, as illustrated through his recent bids to buy Vice Media and BET, make some former Essence employees uneasy.
“It’s a terrifying prospect,” a former employee said.
Through Group Black, a media collective he co-founded with entrepreneur Travis Montaque, Dennis aims to build an empire.
“I like building big businesses. I think that this is an opportunity to build what will become a top-five, if not bigger, media company,” Dennis said in an interview last year about Group Black’s vision. He added that engaging with Black and brown consumers and monetizing the culture they bring to the marketplace is a way to “invest deeper” into the culture.
Despite some employees reporting ongoing issues with the publication’s work culture, women and other members of the Black community have continued to come back to Essence.
“Those are the nuances of being Black in this industry. Not everybody has the luxury of staying away. These are the terrors of this empire,” another employee who recently quit the magazine said.
Essence is not an anomaly. Work environments across different companies and industries often have unhealthy elements. But, as Yesha Callahan, a former news and politics editor at Essence, put it, “it’s bad when it’s supposed to be ‘for the people, by the people,’ and you’re being screwed over by the people who are supposed to help.”
Others have tried to separate the magazine and its legacy from the people who run it. Some former employees said they’re hopeful changes at the magazine can be made to support the women it was meant to uplift from the beginning.
“90% of the people who have come through the doors have really been there for the love of Essence, no matter what people may feel about Rich [Dennis] and how he runs his business,” one longtime editor said. “That’s what’s helped maintain the legacy of the magazine, and allows it to remain a beacon for this audience.”