Column: ‘People don’t expect a boss to look like me’: Elaine Welteroth on leading Teen Vogue and challenging our biases
October 10 2019

Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune

On her summer book tour, at the beginning of the audience Q&A portion, Elaine Welteroth would invite people to the front of the room to answer the following:

“My name is (blank). I am claiming space for (blank). No matter what (blank) may say.”

It was a nod to her book title, “More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say),” but it was also a way to get the crowd talking about challenges and naysayers they bump up against day after day.

“A lot of times it’s the voice in your own head telling you you’re not capable,” Welteroth, 32, said. “Sometimes it’s people literally telling you, ‘You can’t do something you want to do because of the way you look, where you come from, what you have or don’t have.’”

The exercise is a little scary at first, she said.

“But once it gets going, it is absolutely so powerful to see what comes to the surface when you create space for people to feel safe and seen and heard,” Welteroth said. “When you invite vulnerability to the table and lead with your own vulnerability. Every single time, it would blow my mind.”

Welteroth became editor-in-chief at Teen Vogue in 2017, the youngest person to ever hold the position. Under her watch, the magazine evolved into a politically- and socially-minded publication, tackling politics and abortion and social justice alongside health and beauty. Prior to Teen Vogue, Welteroth was the senior beauty editor at Glamour — the first black beauty editor at Conde Nast.

On Tuesday, she’ll serve as the keynote speaker for the Chicago Foundation for Women’s annual luncheon.

“We live in a society that has conditioned us to believe certain things and see people through a certain lens,” Welteroth said. “When we acknowledge it, that’s when we can take away some of the power from the bias and claim our own power to reframe how we see the world, how we see each other, how we see ourselves.”

For her, that has meant changing the role and reputation of a beauty and fashion magazine — and challenging expectations of what that magazine’s leadership looks like.

“Young people aren’t expected to be political,” she said. “Women aren’t expected to be fierce leaders. People don’t expect a boss to look like me or wear their hair like mine in corporate spaces.”

She tells a story about sitting in a meeting at Conde Nast shortly after being promoted to editor-in-chief at Teen Vogue.

“We sat there waiting and I finally said, ‘Are we waiting for anyone else?’ and the woman next to me said, ‘We’re just waiting for the editor-in-chief to arrive,’” Welteroth said. “I said, ‘Great! Let’s get the meeting started!’”

I asked her what workplaces need to do to create more space for people from underrepresented groups. It shouldn’t all be on the space-seekers to muscle their way into rooms where they haven’t historically been invited, after all.

“Companies need to hire for their blind spots,” she said. “When we continue to hire people who look like us, who see the world the way we see it, it only reinforces our worldview. We’re incapable of speaking to a diverse world or catering to a diverse customer base. We’re limiting growth, limiting resonance. Hiring outside of your culture fit isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s a business imperative if you intend to stay relevant.”

And not just at the entry level, she said.

“It’s even more important to hire outside your comfort zone, outside what already fits your culture, in leadership roles because culture trickles down,” she said. “Culture changes from the top down. It’s so much harder to change culture from the bottom up because people who don’t look like everyone else cycle out before they ever make it into managerial roles. There’s no sense of belonging there. There’s no one there to foster a more inclusive culture. There’s no one who looks like them that they can aspire to.”

Welteroth left Conde Nast after a year and a half as Teen Vogue’s editor-in-chief. (The company folded the print edition of the magazine.) Since then, she’s written a book, served as a judge on “Project Runway” and written for the sitcom “Grown-ish.”

I asked her what she hopes to be doing at 40.

“I hope to have another book out, a successful TV show that amplifies underrepresented voices, a family of my own,” she said. “That’s my American dream.”

She has goals for the world around her too.

“I hope by the time I’m 40 we aren’t still talking about diversity and inclusion,” she said. “I hope those words feel so utterly outdated and we’re finally living that reality. And I hope people stop saying they don’t see race or color. Claiming blindness is not the best solution. I hope people know better than to say they don’t see something that deeply reflects other people’s lived experiences.”

And I hope Welteroth continues to be a beacon of light and guidance for all of us — at 40 and well beyond. I have a good feeling she will.

The Chicago Foundation for Women luncheon takes place from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets at cfw.org.

 

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