Variety is ‘lifeblood of the long run’: Essence CEO Caroline Wanga


Caroline Wanga on stage at the Cannes Lions 2019 in Cannes, France.

Richard Bord | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

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Caroline Wanga is fed up with companies dangling rewards and giving pats on the back of employees who adhere to initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion.

In an interview with CNBC’s Sharon Epperson, Black Media company’s CEO Essence Communications said employers should consider attendance a mandatory part of the job, just like they expect people to show up to work if they want to keep getting paid.

“It’s important to your business,” she said at the CNBC @ Work Summit Tuesday. “It’s your endocrine system of your business. If your kidney fails, you won’t get a piece of cake or a lollipop. You will be on dialysis.”

“You are not encouraged to participate in what is the lifeblood of your company’s future,” she added.

Wanga, a former Target executive, started as an intern at the big box retail chain. When she left the company about 15 years later, she was its Chief Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Vice President Human Resources.

She joined Essence in June and now runs the legendary Black brand. Black entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis, founder of beauty company Sundial Brands, bought Essence from Time Inc. in 2018.

At the company, Wanga’s skills were quickly put to the test. She was hired by Essence as Chief Growth Officer but soon rose to Interim Chief Executive and later CEO following anonymous allegations of bullying, sexual harassment and “abusive work culture” in an article published on Medium in June.

The company denied the claims. Essence hired two law firms who independently investigated the allegations and found no evidence to support them, the company told the New York Times.

In the fall, Wanga praised Dennis for authorizing a “full review of all allegations” and described the allegations as “falsehoods” intended to belittle a “cult brand” in a statement shared with The Times.

Companies are under pressure to act

At Tuesday’s virtual event, Wanga focused on other challenges businesses face, such as building brands that appeal to customers across races, backgrounds and life experiences.

Corporations have faced increased pressure over the past year to make their boards of directors and C-suites more representative of the country’s diversity, especially following protests against George Floyd’s murder and violence against Asian Americans.

She urged executives to be as aggressive in pursuing diversity efforts as corporate competition, top talent, and the full weight of their organization behind it – not just making empty statements and cutting out a check.

“When you think about competing with your competitor, who do you hire?” She asked. “Put them in charge of D&I. Watch your results.”

And she added, savvy clients can tell whether diversity efforts are authentic or choreographed. She said this is why a company’s commitment needs to be built into everything it does, from the products it sells and the suppliers it works with, to the messages and images in its ads and the people they work with who does it.

“At the end of the day, when I spend my money, I should be able to tell who I look and believe my money with,” she said.

She said companies need to be critical of the makeup of their own workforce in order for them to remain relevant and thrive as businesses. She recalled a conversation early in her career with a colleague who worked in the clothing industry and was tasked with creating a range of goods that would appeal to women of all sizes.

“She said, ‘Caroline, I am responsible for expanding our clothing line to include women who are classified as plus sizes, but my team is too thin and too white. How am I supposed to deliver this?” She said. “The answer was ‘Change the succession plan’.”

By hiring people who better reflect potential customers, companies can actually increase sales, according to Wanga.

“You have to disrupt the succession plans, the hiring plans, the recruitment plans, the promotion plans,” she said. “You have to surround these people with the resources to be successful. You have to stand up for them when people try to put them down. And you have to make sure that the people who move you are also used for their insights and knowledge and are not a sign. Otherwise, take steps backwards. “

Instead of looking for solutions in a slide deck, she encouraged companies to go where they can find new perspectives and honest answers. For example, she said, you talk to entry-level and middle-school black men in a barber shop, not in a boardroom. “Make the people you deal with and who you want to recruit feel more secure than you,” she said. “They will tell you the truth. They will honor your presence. And you will receive the information that will actually change things noticeably.”