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The storyteller of the future

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Elaine Welteroth empowers women to fulfil their dreams. What’s her secret to success?

While most New Yorkers shop and lunch on Saturday afternoons in the summer, Elaine Welteroth is at her desk, working on her upcoming book that will launch in mid-2019. She’s so deep in it that she doesn’t hear the alarm clock she set on her iPhone and overlooks a reminder email. She is “embarrassed” that she’s ten minutes late for the interview. That’s Elaine. Which is a nice way of saying she’s an overachiever. Since leaving her post at the helm of Teen Vogue earlier last year, she has interviewed everyone from Oprah to Michelle Obama. Her goal is to become the most effective and passionate storyteller for a new, socially- conscious generation.

Elaine, you infused a much more inclusive perspective into the ethos and mission of Teen Vogue, which was once a fashion magazine for teenagers. What does diversity mean to you?

I actually prefer the concept of inclusivity, which is the practice of actively seeking out diverse perspectives and fostering a sense of belonging among a diverse group of people who might otherwise be excluded. Diversity and inclusion should be looked at as business imperatives that fuel innovation and drive bottom-line results – not just as a nice thing to talk about. Sometimes companies jump on the diversity blow-horn without understanding the barriers to a true sense of inclusivity across the organization, which are typically quite layered and systemic, and therefore require thoughtful deconstructing of processes to rebuild a more equitable ecosystem. It isn’t something anyone in business today can afford to treat as an afterthought. Equal representation is incredibly important, but especially in leadership roles because diversifying the pool of decision-makers is the only way to effect meaningful, authentic change across any organization. As a storyteller in media, you can’t change the stories without changing the storytellers.

How did you realize that you had to diversify the content?

The digital revolution alone has transformed the way we all work. As an editor, there was no way to ignore that. We had to re-evaluate what we meant to our audience and then reimagine how we could mean more to them by addressing more of the issues that matter to them. Fashion magazines primarily spoke to women about celebrities and style, but on the internet and on social media young people were interested in so much more. They were debating politics and discussing intersectional feminism – a term defined as exploring how women’s overlapping identities, including race, class, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation, impact the way they experience oppression and discrimination. Young people are so much more sophisticated and interested in learning about the world around them than they were given credit for. I saw that we were underserving them.

“Diversity and inclusion should be looked at as business imperatives, not just as a nice thing to talk about.” Elaine Welteroth

The word ‘woke’ is often used in the context of diversity. What does it mean to you?

This term is admittedly overplayed these days, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of its original meaning. When DeRay Mckesson, an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, gave a talk to the editors-in-chief at Condé Nast a couple years ago, he said something that I’ve carried with me since: “We aren’t born woke. Throughout our lives we encounter moments of awakening.” That really resonated with me because being woke doesn’t work like a light switch. You can’t just wake up one day with all the answers. It’s an ongoing process of learning, empathizing and seeing the world through someone else’s lens. It’s a conscious decision you make to seek, to care, to do. It’s a way of being that you commit to every single day. At Teen Vogue, my goal was to create more moments of awakening for young people. I carry that intention into the work I am doing today and into my future.

How did you get to where you are now?

I think I always dreamed of living an extraordinary life. When I was a little girl, I remember hosting these imaginary interviews in the bathtub. I would pretend I was Oprah! I was in there channeling conversations with Liz Taylor and Michael Jackson, all these iconic people. As crazy as that sounds, I think as kids we have a sense of who we are and who we want to be. But then we get introduced to limited thinking and we often become a product of our environment. I don’t think the world prepares young people, especially not young girls of color, to dream big – and they aren’t given the tools to step into the bigness of those dreams. I want to help change that. For me, there was a point where I had to break free from all the limiting beliefs in order to throw myself into creating the kind of career I always wanted.

Tell us your “how-to”. Where did you start?

First, I did two internships and found out what I did NOT want to do. That’s really important, too. Then I started looking for what would make me feel alive. I was soul-searching and it led me back to the things I loved as a kid: interviewing people, writing stories and, of course, fashion! I loved fashion and style and watching my mom dress for church. I wanted a career where all of these things could co-exist together. That was my “strategy”, if you want to call it that. The real turning point for me though was finding a role model in a magazine editor, a black woman named Harriette Cole. I studied her life, her career, and thought, “Wow, that’s what I want, too.” To edit a magazine, to have a career in TV, to be a bestselling author, to empower women and people of color along the way. But it was much more than a career I wanted; I was interested in how she managed to become her authentic self through the work that she did in the world. So I wrote her a letter by snail mail and called her many times. At one point, I’m positive she thought I was crazy! But eventually she called back and offered me a one-off freelance opportunity in Los Angeles to feel me out. It turned out to be a cover shoot with Serena Williams! It was my Cinderella-career- dream-come-true moment. That day she ended up hiring me. So, I moved to New York City to assist her when she was the editor- in-chief at Ebony magazine, where I eventually took over the style and beauty section. Then I moved on to Glamour magazine, then Teen Vogue. I worked my way up. But seeing someone who looked like me and had a dream like mine was crucial in making me believe any of it was possible.

You are addressing a generation that demands inclusivity, diversity and representation, and expects the same of its influencers. After Teen Vogue, are we looking at a brand called ‘Elaine Welteroth’?

I have to admit, I kind of cringe at the idea of talking about people as brands. But I always knew that one day I would become my own boss. That was one of my goals. If you have a clear vision of how you can make a positive impact, now is the right time to bet on yourself.