When Vanessa K. De Luca shares her memories of making magazines with her mom as a little girl, you might think she always knew she wanted to work in media. But it wasn’t until after working in a completely unrelated industry for seven years that she decided to take her passion for storytelling seriously.
De Luca was 30 years old by the time she finished grad school and landed a job as an editorial assistant at Glamour. Fast forward to today, with 20+ years of experience in publishing under her belt, and over a decade of collective experience at Essence (because yes, for a time she left but ultimately returned), she’s now the magazine’s editor-in-chief.
Nothing is permanent. You’re never really done, and it’s okay to start over. De Luca’s career clearly demonstrates this message. We don’t hear this enough and rarely see examples. In our twenties, we’re all trying to figure out our paths, and yet somehow we’re all stuck on this idea we have to make it by 30. De Luca was starting over at 30, and look at where she is today!
De Luca is now known as an award-winning journalist. She coauthored the bestselling beauty and empowerment book, Tyra Banks Beauty Inside & Out, has been a featured guest on several national television networks, including NBC’s TODAY Show; MSNBC’s Jansing & Co. and Melissa Harris Perry; CNN; HLN; and HuffPost Live. Her recent honors include recognition among The Grio 100 2014 honorees, a distinguished Alumni Award from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and an American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) Award nomination for General Excellence in the Service and Lifestyle category. She also made Fortune Magazine’s 2014 List of the 55 Most Powerful Women on Twitter.
And since taking the helm as Editor-in-Chief at Essence, readers have praised the refreshing content and fresh faces gracing the covers.
So how did she connect the dots and ultimately hit reset on her career to put her on the path to her dream job? Well, read on to find out and get a peek inside the agenda of Vanessa K. De Luca.
Her Agenda: What’s your personal motto?
Vanessa De Luca: Well I have two. One came from an Archie comics book from when I was a kid, it says “a winner never quits, a quitter never wins.” It just reminds me that you have to keep on going, even when you want to quit. And the other one is, a bible verse ‘I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me.’ Whenever, I’m feeling like I’m coming up against something that is really difficult, I think about that and it just reminds me that I can do this. I can do this as long as I have the one above to support me.
Her Agenda: Did you ever reach a point where you wanted to quit?
Vanessa De Luca: Yeah, sure, I mean I think that the period of time I spent away from Essence, I left in 2008 and then came back again in 2011, that was a really transformational time for me.
I used it as an opportunity, not necessarily to totally get away from publishing but to pursue another passion of mine, which is food. I took classes part-time and at night I worked on my culinary degree. I also took the opportunity to learn about the digital space by blogging, and writing for websites and doing food photography and a bunch of other stuff.
What I think that made me realize is that I still had a huge love for being a writer, and being an editor however that would show up.
Her Agenda: Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist?
Vanessa: No, not necessarily. I didn’t. When I was a kid, my mom was a big advocate for reading and English was her favorite subject. When [I was] little, we would make magazines together. We would make little books, and create our own stories, and throughout the years as I think back, whenever I would have a project in school where I had an opportunity to write or create my own story I would choose that project.
I think I was always organically linked to it, but I didn’t really start thinking about it seriously until I decided to change careers. I had been working for about seven years, in a totally different career. The company I worked for decided to relocate to St. Louis and I went and I visited and I thought about, ‘do I really want to make this move?’ I decided that I really didn’t, and the thing I always wanted to do or the thing I always wanted to try was to work in magazines. I thought I’m still young enough, I’m not married, I don’t have kids, I’m still young enough to make a switch.
So, I literally moved back in with my parents, went back to school, NYU has a summer publishing institute, went there, learned about books and magazine publishing. I ended up getting a job as an editorial assistant at Glamour. I think by then I was 30. I remember I must have had four different interviews at Conde Nast and with people at Glamour, because they just could not believe that I was willing to start over, and start from scratch.
Her Agenda: What industry were you in previously?
Vanessa: When I graduated from college, I had so many interests. But I really wanted to see what it would be like to be a fashion buyer, so I worked in retail for a number of years and I did become a buyer but it wasn’t a fashion buyer. My department was leather furniture. I realized that it wasn’t the glamorous life that I imagined. I was crunching numbers everyday and monitoring spreadsheets and it just didn’t move me. But, I gave it a good long try, I mean I really tried, it just never really clicked. So once I made the switch over to magazine and editorial, literally I want to say five days in, I knew I had made the right decision. I just knew. Everything clicked. It felt right and I was able to use all of my retail background in the position that I had, because I was working for the lifestyle editor, who covered fashion and beauty.
I got a byline immediately and it was just very satisfying. I also think that because I had already worked for so long, I had a discipline, and approach and clarity of mind as to what I wanted to get out of this position and where I wanted it to take me. I made sure that my manager knew that and she was very supportive. She said ‘I know you don’t want to be the editorial assistant for forever, but while you are here I want you to do a very good job for me, and in return I will be very supportive of you,’ which is exactly what happened.
Her Agenda: I think that is so important and incredibly brave, that you started over. 30 is young, but for young people today, they feel that at 30 you’re supposed to have made it already.
Vanessa: And that is so not true, it’s just so not true. As someone who has made themselves over at different times, it’s all about your attitude and your mindset and being clear about what you want. And knowing that not every position that you are in is going to be THE position, it could just be a pathway. Nothing is permanent. So, you can just take that opportunity for whatever it is and make the most of it. When it’s time to move on to something else that is okay. That is really okay. Because I have kept that mindset throughout my career, it’s really allowed me to make transitions a lot easier than if I was, like ‘okay, this is it, this is the end. This is the big goal, and I’m done.’ You are never really ever done.
Her Agenda: During your tenure, Essence Magazine’s covers and content have been noticeably different. But in a good way. I’ve been saying for years that Keke Palmer needed to be on the cover of Essence! (I actually had an idea for a teen spin off for Essence once upon a time) But with that said, how did you distinguish your vision as a refresh and not an aggressive re-launch? What was that process like? Did you experience a lot of pushback/obstacles to get the magazine to where it is now?
Vanessa: Well, I mean its a matter of having the right team members of course. Having a creative director who absolutely believed in the vision I was trying to execute, as well as other members on the team. But also getting buy in from my managers and explaining to them what it would do for the brand and how it would have people see us with fresh eyes. And making the magazine look more modern and feminine and having a philosophy around what is the right formula? And then coming up with the formula.
Essence is about the three E’s. We are about empowerment from beginning to end. Whether you are talking about the beauty pages, where women get to see themselves in every shade range, every hair type, whatever. Whether it is talking about fashion, where you want to see every size, shapes and body types or whether you are talking about financial empowerment or knowing the issues in your community. All of that is considered empowerment. Managing your mental and emotional health, all of that is empowerment.
What I call the bookends of those three E’s is edge and escape. Edge to me is like that, that thing you bring to the table as editors, that makes the magazine more than just a women’s lifestyle magazine, it shows that we have a point of view. We are ready to dive in on a particular issues, like our February #BlackLivesMatter cover. A lot of people were surprised that we would do something like that, but in our mind it was more, why wouldn’t we? That’s a conversation that people are having. We want to be the conversation drivers, conversation starters, we want to be right in the middle of it.
The third E, is escape. So you’ve got empowerment in the middle, and the edge and escape. Escape is that thing we all want to feel like we can find comfort, and relaxation and escape in the pages of a magazine. That is one of the things that is great about a magazine, you can really luxuriate in the experience of it.
Her Agenda: I want to take a moment to talk about social media. You are very active on social, and I love it. So could you tell me a little bit about your experiences with social media, how you like to use it and what you like most about engaging on those platforms?
Vanessa: I like that social media allows you instant access to [the] audience. I can let people know we have a really good story coming up, I can just say hello, I can thank people for following, I can have a relationship with our audience. Its not one-sided, it goes both ways. People can send me ideas and thoughts, people can tell me when they like something and when they don’t. Trust me, when I go through our Essence Mag twitter feed and I see ‘why did you do that,’ or if something is really bothering them or doesn’t seem consistent with what they want from the brand, we can be responsive. That’s what technology allows us to do.
It’s part of my job to be accessible to people and hear what they have to say, and to me the most direct way to do that is social media. It also helps me to keep in touch with what people want. I can see if a story really resonates with people by how much they retweet it, how much they share it, how much they like it, and that just helps us make better decisions in terms of what else can we do, what else can we create.
Her Agenda: Which platform do you find yourself on the most?
Vanessa: Twitter. I like the challenge of having to say something in 140 characters. I also get a lot of news from twitter. It’s really the first thing that I check as soon as I wake up in the morning. I go on my twitter feed, just to see what’s been happening over night. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I check my feed to see what’s been going on, which is crazy, but I do.
My second favorite would be Facebook, although I’m starting to get more into Instagram. I really was not a big Instagram girl, and you can tell by the number of followers I have, because taking pictures is just not my thing. But, I understand that is a platform that is hugely popular and that it is a space I need to be in. I’m trying to do better. There are just so many. I was talking to my kids about Snapchat, like ‘do you guys do snapchat? Is it worth it?’ You know what I mean, but there’s always going to be something like that.
Her Agenda: But I love Snapchat, I feel like our social media experiences have become more curated and people try to showcase the highlight real. But Snapchat is more transparent and more real and in the moment, you can’t filter it, it’s just what is happening at that moment. And so that’s why I think a lot of people like Snapchat. Its instantaneous, it’s there and then it’s not. You have these stories that you can show for 24 hours, and people can look at your day and then it’s gone. So there are no screenshots, there’s none of that filtering like on a blog some place.
Vanessa: Thank you! That was helpful.
Her Agenda: [In February] you were personally invited to the White House to moderate a panel of intergenerational women who have played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement—both past and present—during their honoring Black History Month event entitled, Celebrating Women of the Movement. What was that experience like having that conversation in the White House?
Vanessa: Oh my gosh, first of all, to have the honor and privilege to be invited to co-host a program, at the White House with the First Lady giving opening remarks, like I almost can’t believe it happened. If I didn’t have pictures, it was very surreal, because you dream of having a moment when you get to showcase your brand as an Editor-in-Chief, in a forum where people can really appreciate what this brand brings to the table, and it was perfect. Everything that those women stood for on that stage, is everything Essence stands for as a brand. Empowering women, inspiring people, speaking up, standing up and letting your inner beauty shine through, showing how smart you are. All of the things that the women talked about on that panel, are the things that we try to espouse and push forward in the pages of the magazine and throughout the brand. To me it was the perfect combination of all the work we’ve been doing over the last two years, to bring the brand to a certain place. If I had to pick one moment out of the past two years, I would say that that moment was absolutely unforgettable. I will never forget that moment.
Her Agenda: I noticed a lot of the coverage with the new civil rights movement has showcased the work of young people which is really amazing, I’m really inspired by the two girls who launched Millions March NYC especially.
Vanessa: Yes! People need to know who these young women are. People need to know that there were three women of color behind the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. A lot of people didn’t even know that! We have to claim what we do so we don’t get pushed to the sidelines. So to me that is very important, our whole commitment to making sure that every generation, every bit of the magazine is cross generational, I think is key.
Her Agenda: Keeping that cross generational idea in mind, my final question would be what advice would you like to give to millennial women of today? There are a lot of issues we’re facing and dealing with, so what advice would you give to us in terms of how we approach our lives and our careers?
Vanessa: The millennial women I have encountered are so bold, smart, [and] really have a sense of self that I don’t know that my peers necessarily had coming up. I mean I think it was just a different feeling. I also notice a lot of disappointment and fear that you’re not accomplishing everything you need to accomplish right now. I just want to remind millennial women, that it is really okay. Don’t rush your life. You have so much time to shine, so much of it. Don’t worry about how it is going to happen, how you are going to get there. Your very determination is going to get you there. Spend more time enjoying the journey.
[This interview published on Mar 30, 2015. It has been edited for length and clarity.]