A Ranking Of Beyoncé’s ‘Dangerously In Love’ Tracklist

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Credit: Genius

Going it alone takes guts, especially when you’ve spent over half of your life as the frontwoman of a wildly successful group, selling millions of records and establishing a mountain of platinum hits. Riding solo means that the public’s criticism grows harsher and the expectations become preposterously higher, but Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter pulled off the transition seamlessly.

At the time, R&B trio Destiny’s Child, who started their musical career in 1990 as Girl’s Tyme, were on a hiatus. Michelle Williams’ Heart to Yours and Kelly Rowland’s Simply Deep were both released within six months of each other respectively. Beyoncé was riding high off the success of Austin Powers in Goldmember, The Fighting Temptations, as well as the smash hit “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” with future hubby JAY-Z.

Meanwhile, the young starlet’s first solo project was quietly bubbling beneath the surface.

Behind the scenes, Beyoncé was patiently waiting for her turn to dazzle critics. The long-awaited Dangerously In Love had been postponed, which allowed the then 21-year-old more time to record additional tracks, including “Crazy In Love.” Determined to carve out her own destiny (pun intended), Beyoncé enlisted several well-known hitmakers, including Rich Harrison, Scott Storch, Missy Elliot and Bryce Wilson, to create the most anticipated album of 2003.

Read my latest piece for VIBE [here].

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10 Years Later: Mariah Carey’s ‘E=MC²’ Tracklist, Ranked

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Credit: Apple Music

Following a massively successful album would be a daunting task for most artists. But in 2008, musical icon Mariah Carey eagerly accepted the challenge when she released the long-awaited E=MC².

The 14-track LP felt like a continuation of The Emancipation of Mimi, which was dubbed as Carey’s comeback album. Earning a whopping 10 Grammy Award nominations, TEOMwas a pivotal career moment, and it went on to produce the smash hits, “We Belong Together” and “Don’t Forget About Us.” Selling an upwards of 10 million copies worldwide, MC silenced naysayers and proved that she was capable of achieving commercial success after experiencing a mini career slump in the early 2000s.

As acts like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift started to hit their prime respectively, critics foolishly pondered Carey’s lasting power when E=MC² arrived on this day in 2008, claiming that it offered no new feels from its predecessor. During that time, R&B became stagnant and was experiencing somewhat of an identity crisis, but Carey working with people like The-Dream helped keep the genre fresh. The album was also another step in her journey to creative freedom.

“Basically, I’m freer on this album than I’ve ever been. Some of the songs on the last album were cool but maybe not quite as neat as this album,” Carey told The Sun’s “Something for the Weekend,” explaining the album’s physics-inspired title, which can also be seen as a not-so-subtle nod to the singer-songwriter’s musical genius. In a separate interview, she said, “This album is so much about fun and freedom and just the continuation of me feeling emancipated … people ask me all the time, ‘How do you stay relevant? How do you stay current? How do you make music that people continue to respond to?’ You just keep being real, keep being you, stay true to who you were from the beginning.”

Read my latest piece for VIBE [here].

Adorned Beauty – Ebony April/May 2017 Issue

For the April/June issue of EBONY magazine, I dove into the history of hair ornaments and how the look came back strong, from what beaded braids signify in South Africa to the role celebrities such as Miriam Makeba and Solange played in modernizing beaded braids in popular culture. In this particular piece, I spoke with Tanisha C. Ford, author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul.

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Dreams really do come true!

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Jurnee Smollettt-Bell

After years of grinding (and plenty of daydreaming), I finally landed my very first byline in EBONY magazine, and I have to say there’s nothing like seeing your name and words in a publication as legendary as EBONY.

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On page 43, I dive into the rich yet unknown history of headwraps and why Black women continue to wear them today. Going back to the summer of 2012, I can recall those afternoons when all I did was study the magazine from front to back, dreaming of the day when I would see my words grace its pages. Major shout out to Marielle Bobo, the magazine’s fashion and beauty director, for asking me to take on this piece after noticing some of my online work with EBONY.com’s “Detangling Our Roots” series.

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The March issue with the gorgeous Jurnee Smollett-Bell slaying the cover is on newsstands now. And yep, that’s my face there on the Contributors page.

5 ways to get those coins as a freelancer

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Last summer, I landed my first job out of college. The pay is good, but I continue to freelance. Why? Because I believe in hustling hard. However, in the past few months, I faced some difficult decisions. I let go a client because 1) I wasn’t getting paid enough and 2) The work was no longer fulfilling or challenging. I felt stifled. My decision to leave paid off because I can now focus my attention on stories I’m most passionate about.

When 2016 rolled around, I set some clear guidelines for myself: 1) Pitch better-paying publications, 2) Do not write for anything less than three digits, and 3) Do not write for free—period. I’m at a place in my career where I want to write smarter. Why write 20 stories a month for $30 each when you can write a fraction of stories for more money?

Since I started writing professionally, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve provided my services for free. Luckily, most of those writing gigs turned into paid ones, but it’s not a chance I’d take today. My time and words are too valuable.

Today I’m spilling all the secrets (and some tea) when it comes to getting that fetti as a freelancer. Get comfy and grab a notepad because like Bey said, “Best revenge is yo paper.”

  1. Don’t beat around the bush.

An editor with good intentions will tell you the moment after accepting your pitch whether you will be paid, but don’t count on it. Don’t make the mistake of letting too many emails go by without asking. After reaching an agreement about the story’s details, you can say something along the lines of, “I look forward to writing a great story that you and your readers will enjoy. What is your budget for this story?” Tasteful, but you still get your point across. A legitimate publication will throw out an exact amount. Can’t get a straight answer? Take that as a sign and move on to the next.

  1. Do your research. 

One of my favorite websites is Who Pays Writers? because freelance writers can anonymously post what publications pay writers and if so, how much. Type in the publication you want to write for and watch the results pour in. Not only can you see how much that publication pays its writers, but you can also find out how long it took to receive payment, the length of the piece, platform (online, print, etc.), the extent of reporting involved, etc.

The publication you pitch pays $250 per article, but you’re offered $125? Instead of accepting the first number thrown your way, you can bargain. Who Pays Writers is great because it levels out the playing field between editors and the writers who pitch them.

  1. Always renegotiate. 

Whenever the New Year rolls around, I renegotiate my rates. Lots of folks shy away from asking for a raise. Just do it! The worst your editor can say is no. Not sure how to ask for one? Here’s an example that worked for me:

Dear XXX,

As a contributor for XXX, I’ve taken on the in-depth features that tackle the tough topics, including A, B, C, D, and my most-recent story that focused on E. There is more reporting and investigative work required to complete these types of pieces from researching the topic to conducting and transcribing multiple interviews. As you know, I am currently being paid XXX per article, but I’m asking for an increase that XXX’s budget will allow. I’d like to earn XXX per story. Is this possible? Thank you so much for your consideration. I’ve enjoyed writing for XXX and working with you these past few years and look forward to contributing to XXX in the coming years.

  1. Establish a contract.

Many publications prefer to make verbal agreements rather than writing up an actual contract. Why are contracts important? They protect you and the publication you’re writing for. If months go by and you haven’t been paid, you can feel secure knowing you’ve got a contract. Emails are nice, but how well do they hold up in court? I don’t know.

If your editor doesn’t mention a contract, ask for one. It doesn’t have to be long. Most of the contracts I’ve signed tend to be around two pages. Or, draw up your own for a publication you don’t already have a formal contract with using Contractually.

  1. Look at the bigger picture.

Getting checks in the mail doesn’t mean you’re getting ahead. Hear me out: I once wrote for a publication that provided a monthly $50 stipend. I produced around eight pieces per month and each post was anywhere from 800 to 1,500 words. When you break it down, I was being taken advantage of, but you live and learn, right? Always ask yourself: “Is the amount of time I spent writing and researching this story reflective in my paycheck?” If the answer is no, rethink your situation.

5 Questions with Cosmopolitan’s Special Projects Director Laura Brounstein

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Cosmo’s Special Projects Director Laura Brounstein

With headlines like “5 Sex Positions to Maximize His Size” and “4 Women Get Real About How They Orgasm,” it’s not surprising that people have come to associate Cosmopolitan with mind-blowing sex tips and tricks.

Cosmo‘s Special Projects Director Laura Brounstein was well aware of that when she accepted the position nearly three years ago. Long before her days at Cosmo, Laura spent the first five years of her 21-year-long career (Seventeen, Ladies’ Home Journal, Self, etc.) producing segments for some of America’s favorite television shows. Think The View and Extra. And because everything in life comes full circle, Laura’s television background proved to be helpful when it came time for Cosmo‘s first-ever Fun Fearless Life weekend, a new live event series jam-packed with distinguished panelists aimed to inspire women to live fearlessly.

In case you’re wondering, part of Cosmo‘s revitalization a couple years ago – a significant increase in the amount of substantial, in-depth, well-reported stories – was made possible largely through Laura’s efforts. So yes, while Cosmo may always be associated with its sexier content, Laura and her colleagues are working nonstop to make sure their readers don’t sleep on everything else the 50-year-old publication has to offer.

While Laura has what many consider to be a dream job in an industry that can be incredibly tough to crack, she sees her latest gig as a way to help women everywhere (Cosmo prints in 35 languages and is available in more than 100 countries) realize and accomplish their dreams and take control of their lives while having a blast, which is Cosmo‘s mission in a nutshell.

Here, we pick the brain of the woman who Folio magazine named as one of its “Thirty under 30” back in 2000. Nearly 16 years later, Laura’s still making waves in the media world. In a nearly 40-minute conversation with Laura, the self-proclaimed pop culture and political junkie dishes on why she traded in television for magazines and what it’s like reporting to Cosmo‘s Editor-in-Chief Joanna Coles.

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Carrie Underwood gracing the cover of Cosmo’s current issue.

A Royal Point of View: You worked as a producer for many well-known television shows, such as Good Morning America, Extra and The View. What made you switch from producing segments for television to writing and editing stories for magazines?

Laura Brounstein: My last job in television was for a magazine show that had gotten really tabloidy. I spent two years there and learned how to produce and track down any stories and get comfortable with interviewing anybody. It was amazing, but again, it had gotten really tabloidly. More and more, I found myself spending my days standing outside places that somebody might walk out of because we had to grab them for an interview. I was just like, “I don’t want to be doing this. These are not the kind of stories I want to tell and this is not how I want to be engaging with people. This is the not the kind of journalism I want to be doing.” It didn’t feel like a good thing. For people who do that kind of journalism successfully and find a way to tell good stories and find it satisfying, that is great and I respect that, but it wasn’t what felt comfortable for me at that time.

So, I kind of stepped back and asked myself, “What kind of change do I want to make?” and I thought there was something attractive in that moment about going from a nightly show to a monthly publication, where you had a little more time to tell a story. I started looking at media that I thought had a positive voice. Right at that time, I heard that Seventeen Magazine was looking for a new entertainment editor and I thought, “I can’t think of anything that feels more positive and that I have more memories and connections to than Seventeen Magazine.”

A Royal Point of View: You’ve been at Cosmo for nearly three years now. How do most people react when you tell them you work at Cosmo?

Laura Brounstein: I think it depends on who it is. Those who haven’t picked up the magazine in a while associate Cosmo with its sexier content, so I get some fun responses regarding that. A lot of people do know about the legacy and how Helen Gurley Brown changed the media world and the possibilities for modern women’s magazines. It was one of the first magazines to talk about all the avenues of possibilities for women in an unapologetic way and in a way that nobody else was really doing it.

Today, I think people, especially in the media world, know that in addition to our sexy content, Cosmo has some really strong work in terms of women empowerment, career, money and health and we are unapologetically feminist. It’s the first magazine I’ve ever worked at that takes a strong stance on things and I love that. Most magazines are very set on, “Well, let’s look at both sides of the argument,” whereas Cosmo is like, “Of course, we’re pro-choice. Of course, we need access to affordable birth control and medicine and of course, women need to be paid the same as men.” That’s exciting and I think people in the media world know that.

A Royal Point of View: You are Cosmo’s special project director – how is that different than being an editor?

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Laura Brounstein at Cosmo’s 2014 Fun Fearless Life Conference at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

Laura Brounstein: One of the great things about working at Cosmo and working with Joanna Coles is that you can be really entrepreneurial in your job and find lots of different places to contribute. One of the central parts of my job as special projects director is creating the programming and concepts for our editorial events. The biggest one is, of course, Cosmo‘s Fun Fearless Life and that is a live-reader event. We just announced that this year’s Fun Fearless Life event will be on Nov. 20 and it will be at the Hearst Tower. So, I get to come up with the programming and that means finding speakers that I think will be most interesting, inspiring and helpful to women in their 20s, who want to spend their weekend with us and walk away feeling better equipped and inspired to achieve what they are dreaming of. I love that I get to draw on my past as a producer and think about what’s going to make a great show and what’s going to have the most impact. That’s a big part of what I do. Additionally, I edit and write stories for the magazine that are like projects in and of themselves.

A Royal Point of View: Is there a memorable experience that stands out during your time at Cosmo so far?

Laura Brounstein: Definitely. Last year, after all the work of creating Fun Fearless Life out of nothing, there was a moment when Joanna Coles first came out on the stage at Lincoln Center and I looked out and the audience was filled with about 2,000 people cheering and just so happy to be there. That was a huge thrill because it took months of work trying to figure out what this was supposed to be and how to make it valuable and how to make it something people wanted to attend. Seeing everyone enjoying it and getting out of it what we all hoped they would was an incredible moment.

Another one is being able to meet Hillary Clinton and work with her team at the No Ceilings initiative for a story last year. That was amazing.

A Royal Point of View: What advice do you have for up-and-coming journalists who still have the desire to write and work for print when the industry is constantly moving toward the digital side?

Laura Brounstein: People still love magazines. There is a moment in your day where sitting down with a magazine or a newspaper is fantastic and then there are times when you just want to look at Twitter and click through stories. I think a lot of people enjoy getting information and engaging with media both ways. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.

There are lot of ways to get to the job or career you’re dreaming of and for me, it was television and PR. More now than ever, especially because we’re so multi-platform, the more different experiences in different areas you have, the richer you’re experience will be and the more you’ll bring to the table. I think worrying too much about taking a straight path to your goals distracts from you great opportunities and moments.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Follow Laura Brounstein on Twitter and be sure to pick up Cosmo’s current issue on newsstands now! Subscribe here.

Taking A Leap Of Faith: Former ESSENCE.com Editor, Nicole Marie Cato, On How She Launched Her Own Company

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Anyone who really knows me knows that one of my favorite movies of all time is Selena, and one of the most memorable scenes is when Selena makes a trip to the amusement park and decides to go bungee jumping. Just before taking the big leap, Selena finds herself frozen by fear. The bungee jump attendant notices and says to her, “Come on, the hardest part is letting go.”

Selena jumps.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “This has nothing to do with Nicole Marie Cato quitting her job at ESSENCE.com and starting her own company,” but that’s where you’d be wrong because it has everything to do with it. When it comes to chasing our dreams, we’re often paralyzed by the fear to fail.

“What if it doesn’t work out?”

“What if I fall flat on my face?”

“What if I’m not good enough?”

These sort of questions bombard our brains but do nothing except hold us back from reaching our full potential. More often than not, it isn’t until months (or years) later that we look back at our accomplishments and realize that the hardest part was letting go.

When Nicole decided to launch her company, Melton Digital, earlier this year – March 1st to be exact – she had no idea just how quickly her business would take off. In fact, the same week that Nicole kicked off Melton Digital, 33 people emailed her, inquiring about the company’s services. For those who don’t know, Melton Digital works to build websites for beauty and health companies so they can grow and thrive.

Was Nicole’s decision to leave her job to start her own company a risky one? Sure. Is it paying off? Absolutely! But, if Nicole had never taken that leap eight months ago, she would’ve missed out so many amazing opportunities like the time she stayed at this breath-taking hotel while on a work trip. It goes without saying that Nicole is living out her dreams.

Here, Nicole reveals exactly what inspired her to launch her own company, as well as some of the biggest challenges she’s faced so far.

A Royal Point of View: Before you landed a job in editorial, you worked in corporate America for five years. What sorts of things did you learn there that ended up serving you well when you finally landed that magazine job?

Nicole's workspace, where she runs her company, Melton Digital.
Nicole’s workspace, where she runs her company, Melton Digital.

Nicole: I think I learned a lot about protocol and communication with people – I think that was very helpful, whether it was just following up with someone via email or making sure that emails are answered and phone calls are answered. That was very much something I learned in corporate America that I’m grateful for today. I would say the second thing I learned was analytical skills so I learned how to use Microsoft Excel, how to do analytics on my numbers, crunching data, and making sure that things like that were in order. That has been helpful for me still to this day, so those are skills I definitely don’t take for granted from my corporate experience. I actually encourage students who are able to go into a corporate environment, even if it’s just for the first year or so out of college to do so. You can always get some valuable lessons and also the contacts – I’m still close with some of my mentors from my first internship in college, so that’s always very helpful. You need those skills, you need to be able to present yourself professionally, and that’s something I definitely learned in that environment.

A Royal Point of View: What advice would you give to recent college grads, particularly journalism majors, who are really struggling to find their first job?

Nicole: Keep looking. Start a blog. You can absolutely get so far with having a really nice website and they don’t cost anything to set up, except for maybe $12 for a domain name through GoDaddy.com. Make it pretty and just write. You have to keep writing because we all have a story to tell, and your unique story and the way you present it and the time you take to build your blog – employers will notice that.

A Royal Point of View: After enrolling in graduate school, you were offered an internship at ESSENCE.com, which eventually lead to a permanent job. What made you decide to leave a position that took so long for you to land?

Nicole: I knew that I did not want to live in New York. This is such a strong word, but I just hated New York City. After a while, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I loved living in the D.C. area – that’s where I went to college. And so I just said, “Hey, I’m gonna do it,” so to be honest, it was just New York City. I didn’t like the hustle and bustle. I was having a really hard time dating. I just – I hated it. I didn’t have any family there – I was just over it.

A Royal Point of View: For those people who might not know, would you mind telling everyone what you’re up to now? 

Nicole: Sure! I love, love, love my work. It’s just the highlight of my – well it’s not the highlight. My family and God is the highlight, but my job is definitely something that’s so, so, so fun and real for me every single day. It’s hard, but I love it. I build websites, so there are two pieces to what I do – well, I would say three pieces to what I do. I have to break it down. The first part is I build websites. You need a website? You call me and I help you set it up. The second part is advising bloggers on how to grow their beauty blog or working with brands on how to connect with bloggers, and also, building editorial programs for brands and things like that. The third part is I’m a social media designer, and so what that means is that I design strategies for beauty brands who want to connect with bloggers on social media, whether that’s Instagram videos, whether that’s ID Digital Strategy, ID artwork design – we design the whole social media plan.

A Royal Point of View: What inspired you to launch Melton Digital?

Nicole at this year's ESSENCE Festival.
Nicole at this year’s Essence Festival.

Nicole: Well, Melton Digital was always the plan to be completely honest. I started my company in 2012, so when I left in 2013, I was doing that on the side all along. And the demand was just so great. I mean, when I launched my company, I had 33 people email the first week and so the demand is there. Even now, I’m turning clients away – I can’t take any more clients until February. I’m really trying to bring on team members – you know with that, you have to set legal perimeters in place, financial perimeters in place. I mean, running a business is just so much from taxes to accounting. It is a lot. And I understand why a lot of people are afraid to take that leap because the truth of the matter is that you don’t know what you’re doing when you first start – you just don’t! You have no idea – every day I’m presented with something new and I’m like, “Oh, OK, I guess I’ve got to do that,” so I just call my attorney, call my accountant – I just figure it out, but Melton Digital was always the plan. I wanted something flexible, where I could work from home and where I could travel because my family is in Michigan, and I got tired of staying in the office to be honest.

A Royal Point of View: What’s been the best part about taking that leap of faith so far?

Nicole: The best part is being able to help people. I felt like when I was at ESSENCE.com and actually all of my career, I did a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff, and I was working with huge beauty brands that wanted to be featured on ESSENCE.com. Most of them were large, established brands who could afford expensive publicists who could come to our office and push their products for them. But when you’re just starting your brand, or just starting your beauty blog, or just starting your hair salon – these are all clients of mine – you don’t have those resources, so it’s been really great to share what I learned when I was ESSENCE.com on how a brand gets to a level, where they land a placement in a major magazine.

Also, helping people connect on social media. I think a lot of people are intimidated by technology and intimidated by, “Oh my god, you mean I have to have an Instagram, I have to have a Facebook, I have to have a Twitter, I have to have a YouTube account, I have to have a Vine? I can’t do all this. I’m trying to get clients in my salon – I’m not trying to do all that.” And so I’m their virtual assistant – I take care of all that for them and help them present their business in the best light using social media and for me, it’s fun! It combines everything that I love. I love photography, I love social media, I love lighting, I love graphic design, I love making things pretty, I love beauty – and it’s been a dream come true.

A Royal Point of View: And what challenges have you faced?

Nicole: Oh my God. My number one challenge has been biting off more than I chew. Because the demand has been so great and I love it so much, I’ve been wanting to do this and this and this and this, but there’s power in staying small and keeping track of what you can do good and what you can do great. Do you know what I mean? Because everyone will want to work with you, especially being a Black female, I’ve attracted a lot of other Black females who don’t know a web designer or don’t know someone in the technology field who can help them with their website or their blog, so I’ve definitely been saying yes since I have such a big heart and I want to do so much for everybody. But then, I’m working seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and that wasn’t healthy at all. You get behind and then you also don’t have any room for – you don’t have any margins in your schedule, where you can accommodate when something goes wrong.

I was just approached by a major beauty brand earlier this week, and I don’t want to say the name, but you would absolutely recognize it, and I said no. I said, “I’m at capacity right now.” The plan is to hire – to put together a freelance team to help me with some of those things. I also have to turn down clients who are not in the beauty industry. What happens is that I’ve done things for non-beauty brands, and I didn’t love it as much. So that just goes back to saying no and not biting off more than you can chew.

The logo for Melton Digital.
The logo for Melton Digital.

A Royal Point of View: How do you plan on expanding and growing Melton Digital in the upcoming years?

Nicole: Well, I definitely want to stay small. I don’t ever want to have some big agency where the office is downtown somewhere – no. I would rather have a home-based business, where I can manage things, help people, and build a community of women that I care about, who can also be resources for each other in the digital space. You know like, “Hey, Nicole worked on my website last year, and here’s what I’ve been able to do with my website. Let me help someone who may just have gotten their website up and running.” I want it to be a community, so I absolutely want to stay small. It will always be run out of my house.

Wherever me and my husband move, we have to make sure there is a room for me to have a home office. That’s something that we’ve bargained already and have agreed to because I want to have kids – I want to have a lot of kids, so it will always have to be something, where I don’t have to compromise my time to – I don’t want to have to say, “Oh, I can’t make it to the softball game or whatever.” I want to be able to do work when I need to because I’m sure that as time goes on, things will only get crazier with me being a busy wife and mom. So I want to stay small and like I said, hire a group of freelancers who I can delegate things to, and that’s how we’ll grow.

A Royal Point of View: What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about making a major career change?

Nicole: Pray and just do it. Don’t worry about not knowing enough, don’t worry about resources. When you take the leap, the resources, the people, the financial means will come. You have to make that step though because God won’t know – God won’t be able to provide those things and blessings for you until He can trust you to trust Him, so you have to take that step. So many things out of the blue just happened to me when I decided to start my company.

Melton Digital launched officially on March 1st and 33 people emailed me, but not only that – I had an opportunity to have an ongoing relationship with Cream of Nature, a huge haircare brand that’s sold in every CVS, Wal-Mart, and Rite Aid. That was very humbling for me because I was just a little, tiny person, and my first major client was this a national haircare brand. I’ve traveled with them, and I’m signed on to do another year with them. I feel that had I not set my mind to quitting my job and going for it, that opportunity would’ve been given to someone else. What will happen is going to happen, but you have to move forward, whether you have $5 or five minutes, you have to move forward. You have to just do what you can with what you have. That would be my first piece of advice.

My second piece of advice is a quote that I always say: “You can do it all, just not today.” Like I said, I wanted to do so much. I saw all this potential, and my clients were needing all these different things, and I said, “OK, Yes, I can do it!” And the reality was I could do it, whether it was taking photos of their beauty products, or whether it was designing graphic artwork for their Facebook pages. I can do all those things, but should I have been doing all those things? Probably not. That’s why delegating is so important and keeping your focus narrow when you start out is so important because you want to make sure you’re doing things great and not just doing them good.

You have trust to God and take that leap and once that happens, He’s like, “Oh, OK, now you’re ready my child. Here’s that client you always wanted to work with. Here’s that business grant that will help you pay your bills. Here’s that connection I’ve been waiting to introduce you to, but now you’re ready.” Just go for it.

Be sure to follow Melton Digital on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find Nicole on Twitter @NicoleMarieCato and on Instagram @nicolemariecato.

Essence’s Editor-in-Chief, Vanessa K. De Luca, On What It Really Takes To Run A Magazine

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Imagine this: You’ve got 30 minutes – and not a second more – to have a one-on-one conversation with the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine that you grew up idolizing. What do you do? What do you say? You try to keep your cool the moment the assistant confirms the exact date and time of that which you’ll be speaking with Vanessa K. De Luca, the Editor-in-Chief of Essence Magazine – a publication that I vividly remember reading while waiting at the beauty salon as a teen and seeing on my aunt’s coffee table when visiting. To say, “It’s a dream come true” is a serious understatement.

As the co-author of supermodel Tyra Bank’s 1998 self-help book, Tyra’s Beauty Inside & Out, Vanessa, who is a Columbia School of Journalism graduate, has practically done it all. With a career spanning over two decades at several publications, including Life and Glamour magazines, this woman is a veteran, and after being a part of Essence‘s editorial team for more than a decade, Vanessa was named Editor-in-Chief last August.

Here, Vanessa discusses how she went from being an editorial assistant at Glamour to landing her dream job of being the Editor-in-Chief at Essence, as well as the daily challenges that come along with running a magazine.

A Royal Point of View: How does one work his or her way up to becoming an Editor-in-Chief of a magazine?

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Queen Latifah showing us exactly what royalty looks like on the cover of Essence Magazine’s current issue.

Vanessa: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know that there’s any one particular path to follow. It just so happens that in my case, I was already at Essence and I kind of worked my way up, which I think was extremely helpful being able to now run the magazine because I have an understanding of what every department does and what their needs are. You know, when I first started out, I was in fashion and beauty, so I got a real sense of how that department runs and the relationships that need to be built, in order to make those pages look amazing. Working with the beauty director and cover editor, I got a sense of what went into coming up with the concepts for a cover and the team you need to assemble – all that.

Working in almost every department of the magazine on the editorial side has really given me a sense of what some of the strongest content is in the various sections and what to look for in editors for those particular sections. And then I think it’s also been very important to work with the business side of the publication as well and understanding what their needs are. As an executive editor, which is the number two position, I got a chance to work with the sales team, marketing team, and PR and promotions team and really understand what it takes to make the magazine sell. And I think an Editor-in-Chief’s job now is not just putting together great content. It’s also being able to be a brand ambassador for a magazine. You may have to do a lot of public appearances and you have to comfortable and flexible with all of it.

A Royal of Point View: What makes a great Editor-in-Chief?

Vanessa: I think it’s being flexible. And I say flexible because the current climate of media – it changes daily, and you really have to be able to shift and move as the business changes and be comfortable with that. If you’re not comfortable with that, you’re really not going to survive in not only print media but digital media and any other extension, whether it’s eCommerce or doing more live events. Whatever the case, it’s not enough to just think of the magazine as your only footprint. You really have to understand there are a number of ways to reach people and then be decisive enough to know which are the right ones for you and your brand and which ones you can pass on because they’re just not a good fit.

A Royal Point of View: A lot of people fail to realize that once you become the Editor-in-Chief of a publication, the position becomes less creative and more managerial. What skills are required to succeed as EIC? I know you mentioned once that knowing how to balance a budget is a must.

Vanessa: For sure. There are so many skills you will need to have and be comfortable with, such as managing a budget and having a conversation with your finance team about how to manage your costs. I think one of the greatest skills is being able to evaluate talent and to understand what’s a good editor, what’s a good writer – you know, who’s going to be a good asset to your team and then evaluable how that person fits into that overall plan for your team. Some of the best people I’ve ever worked for have said that you want to surround yourself with people who are stronger than you are. You want to surround yourself with people who have strengths, talents, and abilities that maybe aren’t your strong suits. And then you also have to be comfortable allowing those people to do what they do best and not feel threatened by it or feel any less because everyone has different talents.

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The ladies of prime time: Alfre Woodard, Laverne Cox, Nicole Beharie, and Danai Gurira shine on the cover of Essence Magazine’s October 2014 issue.

Being able to recognize that talent and give them a chance to shine – I think that’s where everybody wins. I think that’s why we have such a strong magazine right now. The people who are on this team are really quite extraordinary. And I had a hand in either hiring or developing many of the people, and I understand what their strengths are and how to play up those strengths. I mean, that’s just two things you’ll need to know well beyond just being a good editor. You also have to be open to admitting your weaknesses and tap into some of the other members who live, sleep and breath those skills so that you can become up to speed. Having knowledge of the digital space, especially social media is critical to being an editor-in-chief in today’s world. You have to know what’s going on.

A Royal Point of View: Did you always know you wanted to become an Editor-in-Chief of a magazine?

Vanessa: Once I made it to the number two position, [which is the executive editor], yes, I thought it would be great to become an Editor-in-Chief at Essence, but truly, I have always wanted to work at magazines – my mom and I used to make our own when I was kid.

A Royal Point of View: What was your first big break?

Vanessa: I would say it was probably my first job in publishing as an editorial assistant at Glamour Magazine. That really was my first big break for two reasons not just because it’s Glamour magazine, and it’s a great publication, but also because the position that I had allowed me the opportunity to write, which is what I was looking for. As I was evaluating different jobs, I didn’t just want to be the editorial assistant who just gets the coffee or makes the Xerox copies and all of that. I also wanted to have the opportunity to write.

Once I found out that this was position allowed for that and that I would be responsible for writing a column every month, I thought, “This is great because I’ll get a byline, and I’ll get a chance to start building up my clips and have some examples of my work to show people.” The great thing about Glamour is that they didn’t care if I wrote for the other sections of the magazine. So once I had been there for a couple months, I started pitching other editors of different sections, so I got to write for other sections of the magazine as well. I would say that’s really what helped me the most just because it was a great way to get my feet wet.

A Royal Point of View: You were named Editor-in-Chief of Essence last August. Were you the least bit nervous? Or did you feel that you were ready by then?

Vanessa: I would say it was a little of both. Whenever you go into something new no matter how long you’ve been in the business or watched a number of people in that position – I had a been there for a while and seen a lot of different people in this position and saw how they approached it and how they handled the role – that doesn’t mean that you necessarily know how you’re going to do it yourself. You have a thought in your head of how you would like to run the magazine, but you don’t really know for sure. I felt confident that I had a good understanding of the audience and what kinds of stories we should be telling and what I wanted the magazine to represent, but I didn’t know for example, how often I would be asked to do speaking arrangements.

Once you step into this role, like I said, you really have to be more of a brand ambassador and be out meeting new people and helping people get to know who you are so that they gain a better understanding of what your vision for the magazine is, hat you bring to the table and what you’re trying to accomplish. It really becomes more about seducing if you will and really trying to help people connect with the brand.

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Jill Scott looking fierce and rocking it on the cover of Essence Magazine’s September 2014 issue.

A Royal Point of View: What’s been the most rewarding aspect so far?

Vanessa: Seeing your vision come to life. A few months into becoming editor-in-chief, I realized that it was time for the magazine to have a redesign. And we really had to rethink the look of the magazine from the order of the magazine to the layout. Every new editor wants to come in and put their personal spin on the magazine, but I truly felt that the magazine needed a refresh – not a total overhaul, but just a refresh, a different look and feel. So I’m very proud of the fact that we were able to do that. We worked on it for months. And I know for a fact from the feedback I’ve been getting – people have to been coming up to me in person or sending an email or tweet – that it’s made a difference. The book feels different. And it’s all been really positive.

A Royal Point of View: And the most challenging?

Vanessa: Bringing our print and digital efforts together so they would be seamless.

A Royal Point of View: I’ve noticed that since you’ve been in charge, Essence‘s covers have improved 100 percent. What were some of your goals for the magazine going in?

Vanessa: Improving our social media presence was another big goal of ours. We wanted to reach a million “likes” on Facebook and grow our engagement on Twitter and Instagram. We just wanted to have more of a presence. And I believe that over the past year, we’ve been able to do that. We definitely achieved our goal in terms of Facebook. We’ve made great strides on Twitter and Instagram and social media campaigns from beauty to natural hair to something much more serious like our #HeIsNotASuspect campaign. That came after the Trayvon Martin verdict. And I think more than 20,000 people posted across our social media platforms in support of that particular effort.

We’ve won awards for our work and those efforts, so there’s just so much to be proud of – even the fact that as my first year as editor-in-chief, we were nominated for the American Society of Magazine Editors’ General Excellence award for service and lifestyle magazines. We had never been nominated in that category before. I thought that was a major achievement because it goes back to your mission statement and are you serving and representing that mission well. To me, that signaled that other editors in this industry are noticing that we’ve made some changes and that we’re headed in the right direction. I feel great about this first year and how much we’ve been able to accomplish and the recognition we’ve received. And I credit all that to having a team that really understands our mission.

A Royal Point of View: What advice do you give to those of us who want to be in your shoes someday?

Vanessa: Make sure that you’re building your skill-set on every single level. And I say that because I find that a lot of times people want to achieve a certain level – they want to be an editor-in-chief, but they may not have had completed all of the steps, so there may be some things that they’re totally unprepared for. They may not be prepared to have a conversation about how to balance a budget, they may not know anything about the digital aspect or social media, which they absolutely should, they may not have had any media training, so if they have to appear on camera, they’re really uncomfortable with it.

There are just so many things to learn along the way. And I truly believe that taking the time to learn those skills and not rushing is important because when you finally get to that point – and only you know when you’re truly ready – you’ll be absolutely confident in executing the job and you’ll know that your skill-set is solid. There will be so many other challenges that come your way, so you want to hone those skills as much as you can, so that you can focus your attention on the new things you need to learn when it’s time.

Michelle Obama gracing the cover of Essence Magazine's August 2014 issue.
First Lady Michelle Obama gracing the cover of Essence Magazine’s August 2014 issue.

A Royal Point of View: How do up-and-upcoming journalists find mentors to work with?

Vanessa: That’s so interesting. I attended a conference last week and one of the breakout sessions was about mentoring and sponsors, and what I loved about the advice they were giving was that a lot of times, people will come up to you and say, “I want you to be my mentor.” And it’s not that easy. A mentor relationship is a two-way street. The person who’s asking has to have something to offer the person who they’re asking. Where I think people make a mistake a lot of times in mentor-mentee relationships is that the mentee will think, “Oh, it’s the mentor’s duty to drive the relationship,” when actually it’s the reverse. It’s the mentee’s responsibility to reach out because that person who’s mentoring is really busy, they have a lot going on, and they might not always have the time.

If you’re going to have mentor-mentee relationship, it’s important that the ground rules must be laid out very early on, as well as what the expectations are going in. I think it’s important to get to know each other a little bit better, in order to make sure that it’s the right fit because even though that person might have a job that you aspire to have someday, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their style fits yours. So when you’re seeking out a mentor, you really want to do your homework and think about what this person is like, how they represent their brand, and would they have the right energy and mindset to be a good mentor to you. Also, think about what your responsibly is in the relationship as well.

A Royal Point of View: Thousands of people would jump at the chance to write for Essence. What makes a great pitch? And what sections are open to freelancers?

Vanessa: So if you go to the masthead and look under “Departments,” you’ll see entertainment, health, relationships, and personal finance and career – all those sections use freelance writers. It’s really important that before people pitch something that they study the magazine and not just the last two issues but at least the last six months, even the last year because I cannot tell you how frustrating it is and this happens all the time, when I get pitches for story ideas that we just did. It shows me that you don’t read the magazine. So first, know who you’re pitching and what they’ve already done. People pitch me columns all the time because they just want to write in their own voice, and we don’t do a lot of columns – that’s not something that we do – so why would you pitch something if you haven’t seen it?

For most freelancers, where you fit in is that you pitch a really amazing idea that the magazine has never done before, and you have some kind of expertise in it whether it’s because it’s a beat that you’ve covered regularly or because you have a connection with experts that would be willing to speak on the topic. There has to be something really unique about not just the story idea but also about why you’re the right person to write that story.

A Royal Point of View: Is there anything you wish you would’ve known about when you were just starting out in this business that would’ve make your life a little easier?

Vanessa: I wish I had known how important it is to network and send thank you cards – both are extremely important.

Be sure to follow Essence Magazine on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Pinterest. To subscribe, click here. You can find Vanessa on Twitter @Vanessa_KDeLuca and on Instagram @VanMommy.

Former Essence Editor, Niema Jordan on Moving to NYC In Pursuit of Her Dreams

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It goes without saying that New York City is the place to be if you want to make it in journalism, particularly magazine journalism. Essence, Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Glamour, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, People — you name it and I guarantee you it’s somewhere in New York City a.k.a. The Big Apple a.k.a. The Melting Pot a.k.a. The Empire State a.k.a. The City That Never Sleeps. New York City might be known for its many nicknames, but one thing’s for sure: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Writer/editor/filmmaker Niema Jordan is proof of that.

Since trading in palm trees for yellow taxis and the nearly all-black attire that New Yorkers are notorious for, the Oakland native has contributed to a host of publications, including Essence, Healthy You Now, Spa Magazine and Oakland Local. Currently, Niema serves as a reporter for Richmond Confidential and executive editor for 38th Notes. And did we mention she’s also in the process of earning a dual master’s degree in public health and journalism from the University of California, Berkley School of Public Health? In case you can’t tell, Niema is a go-getter!

Here, the former Essence editor reveals how she was able to break into magazine journalism — an industry many consider to be on its way out.

A Royal Point of View: Back in 2008, you decided to relocate to New York City, in order to pursue a career in magazine journalism. What inspired you to make that move?

Niema: I had just graduated from Northwestern and I was sort of back and forth about it because I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have a place to live. I had a home girl in New York and I was talking to her. She had graduated from my Alma matter about a year before and she said to me, “Well, don’t you wanna live in New York?” I said, “Yeah, but I don’t really have all the things that I need.” And she was like, “Well, I don’t really know how you plan on being a magazine editor in New York unless you move to New York.” And I was like, “Oh, right!” so I just kind of went with it. I took my last paycheck. Her parents agreed to let me stay with them for a few months until I found a job.

My goal was to get in front of as many editors as possible and work whatever kind of job I could get. I had gone to the NABJ convention in Chicago not too long before that, so I made some good contacts and a lot of people said, “If you’re ever in New York, you should stop by my office,” so when I got there, I took all of them up on that during the first week I was there and went into straight hustle mode. It was a very risky decision, but I had a strong network and I had some folks I knew would look out for me no matter what was going on. Ultimately, I knew that if things didn’t pan out, I could just go home and I’d be fine. It wasn’t like, “Oh, if I don’t make it here, it’s the end of my life.” I knew I could just step back and reboot. So much of it has been about my network. That’s really how I was able to survive out there. I had a strong support system.

A Royal Point of View: California and New York are very different from each other. How did you make that transition and was it difficult?

Niema: It wasn’t too bad because I had went to Northwestern for my undergrad, which is in Chicago, so I had already been away from home for a while, so it wasn’t like getting into the New York flow from being in Cali. I’d already been separated from home for a few years. I really love New York and New York is a place where you can find so many people to connect to. There were people I connected to because we went to the same school, there were people I connected because they were from the Bay area, and there were people I connected to simply because we were straight out of college, starving students, so it was really easy for me to find some folks that I connected with once I got out there.

A Royal Point of View: Is there anything you wish you would’ve known prior to moving that would’ve made life easier?

Niema: I would’ve had some money saved up. I think outside of saving money, my advice for people who are moving to New York is do not underestimate your network because honestly, most of the jobs I’ve gotten have come through connections and word of mouth. So if I worked really well with somebody on a project, they referred me to somebody else for another project. Like I said, I’m a member of NABJ, so people have passed my resume around to other folks. Inward networking is very real in New York and it’s very real everywhere. The other thing is be prepared to actually produce and do something dope when somebody in your network recommends you for something because you don’t want to make them look bad.

A Royal Point of View: Looking back, would you do it all over again if you had to?

Niema: Yeah, I think it was very much worth it. I think that sometimes we move to New York because we have something to prove to ourselves. I think that’s why most people move to New York. And some people choose to stay while a lot of people feel like, “OK, I’ve proven that I can make it here and do whatever and now it’s time for me to move somewhere else.”

A Royal Point of View: What would you say was your first big break?

Niema: My first job in New York was working at Essence. I got my job at Essence after about two months of living in New York. I was editorial assistant and I was there for about nine months. Then my dad got sick, so I moved back to California for about a year and a half. I was freelancing for the magazine during that time and then when my dad got better, I moved back to New York. And the person who had replaced me at Essence was actually leaving, so I just fell right back into my same job. And since I had more experience under my belt, instead of getting the title of editorial assistant, I became assistant editor.

A Royal Point of View: Did you have any mentors along the way?

Niema: Oh yeah. Everyone at Essence was really supportive. I guess my go-to was Charreah Jackson, who’s currently the relationships editor there. The person who mentored me and got me through with everything when I first moved to New York is Demetria Lucas, who was the relationships editor. I was working directly under her when I first started. And Sharon Boone, who’s the health editor there, is always amazing and helps me out a lot still even though I’m no longer there.

Outside of that, I’d say Kelley Carter. I met her when I was an undergrad and we had lunch one day and she basically tore my resume to shreds. She was like, “You have potential, but you’re not doing everything you should be doing. You don’t have enough internships, you don’t have enough clips. You’re graduating in a year and if you want to be able to do anything after you graduate, here are the steps you need to take.” And that pushed me in a very real way, which is important, because outside of your professors, there are certain things that people who are currently in the field can tell you that your professors can’t.

A Royal Point of View: You’re actually back in Oakland now. What led you to move back to California?

Niema: For me, my departure from New York was really about having another plan and really wanting to complete my master’s here because I really loved the program at the University of California, Berkley. I could’ve stayed in New York for a little bit longer, but I always planned on coming home. I’m actually home earlier than I thought I would be. I had a lot of other goals besides being in New York, you know?

For me, it’s a great opportunity to get two master’s degree in three years. I think I was really inspired in a lot of ways by my experience at Essence because I was working in the health department and getting all these crazy statistics across my desk about Black women and health, so I really wanted to understand a lot more at the core of those disparities and do research. So yeah, I enjoy it and I’ll be done with everything by the time I’m 30.

A Royal Point of View: As you know, the publishing industry is extremely competitive. What’s the best way to get your foot in the door?

Niema: Writing, writing, writing. I think there are certain times when we’re so focused on getting in the door when we should really be focused on doing the work. I worked at this magazine called Venus Zine and it’s not running anymore, but it was an Indie Rock magazine that focused on women in music. It was not my scene. I didn’t know anything about the majority of artists they covered. It wasn’t one of the magazines I grew up idolizing. It was a small magazine. It was one of those places where I could write 200 words for Essence and my whole family would just spas out and I could write a 1000-word story for Venus Zine and people would be like, “What is that?”

The key, however, was they were letting me write those big stories. It wasn’t so much about getting to the big names as it was about getting my clips. And if I didn’t have those clips from that small publication, Essence wouldn’t have been impressed at all. If you really want to write and you really want to edit, then write and edit if even if it’s not for the big names you grew up idolizing or the editors you stalk on Facebook and Twitter because eventually, you’ll get up to that space of writing for those folks.

A Royal Point of View: What are some of the biggest dos and don’ts in this industry?

Niema: Do write. Do hustle. Don’t compare yourself. Don’t talk shit about other people because the world is very, very small. Don’t only have one project or one thing that you’re working on, so if you have one story you’re working on, you should also be looking for your next story. Things are not stable. I’ve seen people dedicate themselves to a brand and then get laid off. What people don’t understand is that it’s all business. People can love you, you can be great at what you do, but when bottom lines are effective, bottom lines are effective.

Because it’s a business, you can’t get into this brand royalty that will leave you out in the cold. They don’t owe you anything. And I think a lot of people get lost in that and dedicates themselves and their lives to these brands and then if they get let go or the brand changes ownership and they’re going in a new direction and you don’t fit that and you don’t have any money saved up or have any other contacts, you’re effed. Don’t put yourself in that position. Always have a backup.

A Royal Point of View: You’ve worked at a number of newspapers and magazines. Based on your experience, what’s the biggest difference between the two?

Niema: I love magazines. I’m so a print girl, I’m so a magazine girl. I love the time that you have to spend on a project. I guess the biggest thing is how much time you get to spend with your words. Yeah, that’s probably the biggest thing for me. Also, I like not having the pressure of having to stay super current because a magazine’s lead time is three months in advance, so right now, I’m thinking about October, November, December and what stories I’m going to pitch. I’m already at the end of the year instead of having to anticipate what’s going to be hot next week.

A Royal Point of View: How do writers pitch fresh ideas to print when online content is constant? Do you have any brainstorming techniques?

Niema: Read different things. On one hand, the things you see in print aren’t that different from online. It’s just more in-depth. You’re thinking new people, you’re thinking slightly different angles. Even print may have their themed issues. You know that every year, InStyle is going to do the body issue, you know that in October everybody’s going to do a breast cancer story. It’s really about discovering new angles. And you can’t get new ideas if you’re consuming the same things all the time. So sometimes the idea is getting offline and reading something in print that might you inspire you take a different angle. Read things that are not on your beat and you’ll see a new way of thinking. What we write reflects our experiences. Consume differently and you will get different ideas.

A Royal Point of View: How can writers make their pitches stand out?

Niema: Know the publication. Know and be able to articulate why you’re the best person to write the article you’re pitching. Don’t send things at strange hours. No one is going to respond to you if you’re emailing them at 5 o’clock on a Friday. Don’t be afraid to follow up. Don’t be an a-hole. Try to get face to face with people. I know it’s increasingly hard because not everybody has for you to sit down with them and have you pick their brain, but join organizations. Join NABJ, join SPJ. Go to a networking event because an email is one thing, but in-person contact is still so key and important. People are busy, so if you can get in front of somebody and you can talk to them, then do it. If you can join an organization, if you can get somebody to recommend you, do it. Networks are important.

This is the other thing: Give your editors what they ask for and give it to them when they ask for it. The easier you make your editor’s life, the more they will assign you stories. When you miss a deadline, you’re not only messing with their schedule, but you’re making them look bad when they have to go back to the meetings and say where their stories are in the process.

Editors talk to each other. Someone may see something you wrote and say, “What was your experience working with this girl? That story was really good.” And if your editor has to say, “Actually, she didn’t turn in the story on time and I did the largest rewrite I’ve ever had to do in my life,” you not only ruin your chances with your editor, but you also ruin your chances with the editor she talked with. So much about this business is about your reputation. You have to protect your reputation.

A Royal Point of View: For those interested in becoming an editor someday, what makes a great editor?

Niema: I don’t know. I know my favorite editors to work with as a writer. I like editors who give good direction and feedback. When I was an editor, my focus was really about understanding your audience, getting them the information that they need and doing it in a creative way, but that’s the writer’s job as well. It was also about deadlines and being able to work with a team and having certain outside contacts and having relationships with people who would then get you access to something else.

A Royal Point of View: When we were in the process of setting up this interview, you mentioned your journey in the world of journalism is ongoing. Do you feel like you still have some ways to go?

Niema: I still have so far to go. I think that’s why I found it so interesting that you wanted to interview me because I was like, “Oh God, I’m still trying to find my way,” but I understand that it’s good to talk to people who are in different phases of their careers. You know, I get that, but I have not made it at all. I think in terms of my journey, I would still love to get to the point where I’m writing a bunch of magazine features. I still need to get to a point where I have a few documentaries under my belt. There are so many things that I want to do.

I kind of discovered early on that I’m much more of a freelancer. I like working on multiple projects, so I wouldn’t say that my goal is to become Editor-in-Chief of a magazine or anything like that. I would also like to teach journalism because it’s very rare that I see someone that looks like me as a professor, so I would like to be that for somebody. I think I’ve accomplished a lot, but I still have a lot more writing and learning to do. And if I ever got a point where I felt that I’ve done everything I needed to do, then I think it would be time for me to switch careers.

A Royal Point of View: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now, professionally speaking?

Niema: Alright, I’m just going to throw some things out there. So 10 years from now, I’ll have a couple documentaries under my belt and a few cover stories. And I will be splitting my time pretty evenly between Oakland and New York, but I’ll be traveling a lot and working on a lot of interesting projects nationally and abroad.

Be sure to follow Niema on Twitter and check out her website.

Sesi’s Editor-in-Chief, Andréa Butler, On Starting and Growing a Print Magazine in Today’s Digital World

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As a teenager, wordsmith Andréa Butler was (and still is) obsessed with magazines but never felt that any of them catered to the needs and interests of young Black girls such as herself. According to the former high school English teacher, Essence was “too old” and magazines, such as Seventeen and Teen Vogue lacked diversity. Tired of flipping through the pages of magazines she couldn’t relate to, Andréa decided to take matters into her own hands back in 2009 with the launch of Sesi Magazine.

Sesi, which means “sister” in the Sotho language of South Africa, is a quarterly print magazine dedicated to “today’s eclectic Black teenage girl.” It’s a place where Black girls can go to feel celebrated to the absolute fullest. Since its inception, many popular musicians and actors/actresses have graced the cover, including OMG Girlz, Mindless Behavior, Keke Palmer, and now Imani Hakim. Here, Andréa reveals how she was able to successfully launch a print magazine in a technology-driven world.

A Royal Point of View: We keep hearing that journalism is dead, especially print, so I’m curious to know what inspired you to launch your own publication in this day in age?

Andréa: I actually got the idea when I was 17 because I was obsessed with magazines, and I would always look through them and wonder, “Why isn’t there anyone who looks like me on the cover? And why don’t they address issues that I’m going through?” I thought, “Well, if nothing changes by the time I’m out of school, then I’ll start one,” but I kind of went around that and taught high school English for five years [after completing graduate school]. Then I decided I really wanted to do the magazine, so I initially launched it in 2009 while I was still teaching.  Then I got a new job as an editor at LivingSocial.com, so I put the magazine on the back-burner. But I kept getting called back to do the magazine and knew this is really what I wanted to do, so I relaunched it in December 2012 but was still working at LivingSocial.com full time. I didn’t start doing the magazine full time until January 2014.

I decided to do print because our audience is Black teen girls from ages 13-19, generally speaking. A lot of teen girls don’t have access to iPads on a regular basis. Also, magazines are such a different animal than newspapers. Still today, teenagers like to rip out the pages of their favorite ads or rip out a page of a cute guy to hang on their wall. They still do that. You can’t fold up an iPad and sneak it in your locker or stick it under a textbook, which I’m not advising people to do [laughs], but you can’t do that. It’s just a tactile experience that you have to have with a magazine. It’s so different from any other type of media.

KeKe Palmer on the cover of Sesi's spring 2010 issue.

A Royal Point of View: What were some of the steps you went through to ensure the success of Sesi?

Andréa: After college, I went to graduate school. In college, I studied English and in graduate school, I studied magazine journalism. That’s where I learned more about the business of magazines because all I knew was I liked to read them [laughs]. As my master’s project, instead of writing a thesis, I did a business plan for a new magazine and I did it for Sesi. And I did a prototype with it as well. When I started, I was using [a content publishing service] and I just did not like the paper that they use. It didn’t feel right. It felt more like a homemade project, so when I relaunched it, I met with a local printer. I knew it would be more expensive, but I thought, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right!” So I met with the local printer, got to feel the paper and take a tour of the place. And it feels like a real magazine now.

What I did next with the relaunch anyway, was get one of my friends from high school do the layout. She actually got her degree in graphic design and she’s working on her master’s in magazine design. And she does it all on a volunteer basis since our budget is tight. Then I posted ads on ed2010.com and Twitter asking for freelancers. And when I left LivingSocial.com, I asked some of the freelancers if they wanted to come with me, so finding writers wasn’t difficult. As for the celebrities on the cover, I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just said, “You know what? I’m going to email the publicist. What do I have to lose?'” And so, they wrote me back and I was able to get KeKe Palmer on the second issue ever. You just have to take chances and do your research. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also really fun and a lot of trial and error.

A Royal Point of View: What was the biggest obstacle you faced along the way?

Andréa: I would say the biggest obstacle is selling ad space. It’s really difficult. In the beginning, I was trying to sell ads, but nothing was happening for a year and a half. Recently, I just sold two ads — well, technically, three because one is running in two issues, so it’s starting to happen. All the nos are starting to become,”Oh yes!” And I’m having more meetings with potential advertisers. It takes a lot of patience.

A Royal Point of View: Many publications these days come and go. What do you think has been the secret to sticking around for this long?

Andréa: I don’t know. I would say hard work and faith because there are times when I’m like, “I don’t even know how we’re keeping this going” because it’s very hard. There’s also been times when I call my friends and my mom and just cry. I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” But they’re so encouraging and they tell me, “Andréa, this is what you’re supposed to do.” I pray a lot as well.

A Royal Point of View: Talk to us about why it was so important for you to create a publication that represented and celebrated Black girls.

Andréa: Like I said, when I was younger, I was obsessed with magazines. I subscribed to Seventeen, YM, Teen Vogue and Teen People and it was just the same people on the cover all the time. It’s still like that today. All the teen magazines that are out today — the mainstream ones, their mission statement specifically claims that they’re for all girls, but when you look at the magazine, they are clearly for White girls. That’s who their audience is. I didn’t like that they claimed they’re all inconclusive, when they’re really not.

There’s also Essence for older, Black women and we have BET, TV One, Radio One and all that, but we need a magazine for Black girls as well because they need to see themselves on the cover. They need to see their beauty, hair, fashion sense, music and movies celebrated. We published an article about color complex in our fall issue last year and we also talked about racial profiling — you’re not going to see that in Seventeen. People equate mainstream with White and that’s why our slogan is, “We’re covering the Black girl’s mainstream.”

Mindless Behavior covers Sesi

A Royal Point of View: As of now, Sesi is a print magazine, but it’s sold exclusively online. Do you think you’ll eventually sell it in stores?

Andréa: Even harder than getting ad space is getting into stores. You can’t just go to a store and say, “Hey, sell my magazine.” You have to go through distributors and the distributors have to think you’re worth it. They’re very subjective. I’ve reached out to many distributors and they’ve said to me, “Oh, we don’t think that you’re magazine can make us money right now.” Until I can get into stores, I’m focusing on selling it online. It’s just like any other magazine, where you can order it and have shipped directly to your home. I know its going to take a while, but we are looking into getting into some of the local stores and we’re actually in several school libraries and public libraries already.

A Royal Point of View: What entrepreneurial advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Andréa: Do your research — that’s very important. Study your competition, study your market and make sure there is a market out there that isn’t being covered. You want to find a niche because you’ll have so much competition already, so you really want to find something that you’re filling a void for. It’s a lot of trial and error, but definitely read books on starting your own magazine just to give you some type of structure. Build a team. If you can do it all, that’s great, but I’ve found that I’m not that great with the design aspect, so it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses. And if you have money, that’s great, but if you don’t, you might want to keep your day job for a while.

A Royal Point of View: What tips and pointers would you give up-and-coming journalists who want to thrive in this competitive industry?

Andréa: The whole multimedia convergence thing is really huge now. I’d say learn not only how to write and edit but also how to do video, incorporate Google hangout interviews, learn about social media management and start a blog. Basically, learn about every aspect of your business that you can. And networking is everything. I’m really not the type of person who likes to go to mixers, where I don’t know anyone. That’s not really my thing, but if you go to conventions like the National Association of Black Journalists or the Society of Professional Journalists, you can talk to people in the different sessions and it’s not so forced. Also, network while you’re in college with your friends because they may go off and do the same type of thing you’re trying to do.

A Royal Point of View: For those of us who are interested in contributing to Sesi, what do you look for in a pitch? What excites you?

Andréa: I like pitches where the opening is really attention grabbing. I won’t finish reading something that’s like, “Dear Andréa, I would like to write about blah blah blah…” Just get to the point. Tell me the story that you want to write and really grab my attention. And then go into who would you interview for this story and what’s your angle. Be creative. I don’t like the standard, cover letter-looking pitches. Also, be sure that you’ve actually read an issue before you pitch me something because we get a lot of pitches that are just off-based.

On our website, we have a page that’s just for writer’s guidelines, so you want to make sure that you follow all the directions because if you don’t, I don’t even read it because I’m like, “You don’t even follow directions. How can you follow directions when you write an article?” Lastly, we like to get things at least three months in advance. Right now, we’re working on the back-to-school issue, so our deadline for pitches is June 30.

Drew Sidora covers Sesi

A Royal Point of View: What if the person pitching is just starting out and has little or no writing clips?

Andréa: If they don’t have a lot of writing clips, I understand that. We’ve all been there, but if the pitch is really strong and I talk to you and you seem to have your stuff together, I might ask for you to send a sample of something that you’ve written just to make sure you have our style down because that’s main thing. You’ve got to be able to speak in our voice. If you’re a writer, you’ve got to be able to write in the voice of the publication you’re writing for. You’ve got to be able to adapt. You should also be able to take constructive criticism.

A Royal Point of View: What are some pitching dos and don’ts?

Andréa: Do your research about the publication you’re pitching for. Make sure you know what kind of articles they’re looking for, what kind of departments they have in their magazine or what they cover on their blog. Do make sure that you follow the writer’s guidelines because they’re there for a reason. We took the time to write them out and tell you exactly what we’re looking for, so you don’t have to guess. Do be creative with your pitches, so that we actually feel compelled to read them. Don’t be rude — that’s big a thing. And don’t waste people’s time.

A Royal Point of View: Looking back, what’s been the best part about taking that leap of faith five years ago when you decided to launch Sesi?

Andréa: I said I was going to do this at this 17 years old. I remember that moment. I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom and I had all these magazines spread around me. And I was like, “Why doesn’t anybody look like me? Well, I should just start a magazine!” But I wasn’t actually serious at the time. Like I said, I did avoid it several times by teaching after graduate school for five years. I launched the magazine while I was teaching but put it on the back-burner and said, “Maybe I won’t do it.”

When I started working at LivingSocial.com, I kept feeling the urge to return to the magazine, so I relaunched it while I was still at LivingSocial.com, but I couldn’t dedicate myself to it 100 percent. It was difficult leaving my day job, but I believe it’s going to be worth it because it’s slow growing, but it’s growing and I think that’s the important part. I was not happy just going to work every day and coming home. All I did was get up, go to work, work all day, come home, watch TV, go to bed and do it again. And it wasn’t that exciting. If you’re going to do it, don’t think it’s easy. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone.

A Royal Point of View: Where do you see Sesi 10 years from now?

Andréa: Well, my hope is that Sesi takes off very soon so that in 10 years, we’ll be the largest magazine for Black teen girls around. By then, we would like to publish 10 times a year, have plenty of ads, be in stores and have a full staff writers and editors. We’ll always be in print, but we’ll probably also have a digital option. And we hope to keep inspiring Black girls everywhere and educate people who aren’t Black — they can read it as well and learn about their Black friends. Hopefully, it’ll be bigger and better than it is now and keep going forever. That’s the plan.

A Royal Point of View: Is there anything you wish you would’ve known back then that you know today, professionally speaking?

Andréa: I feel like I learned a lot in graduate school, but you don’t always know what you need to know until you get there. There’s nothing that I feel like was left out necessarily. I think you can only learn a finite amount of information when in you’re in school, which is important because you definitely need the foundation. However, you learn more when you actually get into it and realize all that it takes. And things are always changing. When I was in graduate school in 2003, there was no social media, so as things keep changing, you just have to adapt.

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