From Fashion Editor to Champion for the Poor: The Bold Career Path of Susan L. Taylor
After 27 years as the chief editor of Essence magazine, Susan L. Taylor left publishing to focus on helping the impoverished. In 2006, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and while leading the publication, she founded Essence CARES to galvanize able African Americans to engage in mentoring vulnerable Black children in under-resourced families, communities and schools. In 2008, she handed the reins to the next generation at Essence to concentrate fully on what today is known as the National CARES Mentoring Movement, which is an initiative devoted to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty among African Americans.
Today, with affiliates in 58 U.S. cities, The National CARES Mentoring Movement is the fastest growing mentor-recruitment organization in the nation. Ms. Taylor spoke at the Key4Women Forum in March. Her vision, her passion, and her achievements have been an inspiration to women for nearly 50 years.
- Take quiet time to reflect so you get to know yourself.
- Trust your instincts and inner voice in all your career choices.
- Rely on the wisdom of mentors, young and old.
Born in Harlem, New York in 1946, Susan L. Taylor spent her formative years surrounded by entrepreneurs. Her father was the owner of a successful clothing store and her uncle ran a business just a few blocks from where she lived. “I consider them my earliest mentors,” Taylor explains. “Every day, I’d watch them welcome their customers and help their clientele. They really taught me the importance of bringing kindness, an open mind and a listening ear to leadership.”
The lessons learned as a child have served Ms. Taylor well throughout her long and successful professional life. Her career trajectory has been nothing short of inspiring.
While still in her early twenties, Taylor formed Nequai Cosmetics, one of the first companies to make beauty products specifically for women of color. The knowledge she gained would open up opportunities she hadn’t yet considered.
In 1970, Taylor saw an opportunity to make an even bigger impact when she learned that Essence, an upstart magazine catering to African American women, was about to launch. With no journalism experience whatsoever, the 23-year-old novice was offered a position as beauty editor. Even with more seasoned candidates applying, editor-in-chief Ida Lewis recognized that Taylor had something special to offer.
“People see in you what you believe about yourself,” Taylor says. “Once you acknowledge your talents, invest in strengthening your weaknesses and overcoming any insecurities – which we all have – there is no end to what you can achieve. Our challenge is staying self-aware with a focus on continual personal and professional growth.”
Over the next decade, Taylor nurtured her newfound talents fully. As fashion and beauty editor, she made a profound impact on the publication’s direction and success. Because of her immense contributions, she was promoted to chief editor in 1981.
Once again, Taylor found herself in uncharted waters.
“The most significant challenge for me was not knowing the breadth of what the chief editor would be responsible for.” Taylor recalls. “When I was fashion editor, I was out shooting covers, working with my beauty and fashion teams and traveling the world with photographers and models. So, the challenge was making that transition to leading the entire magazine.”
Taylor embraced the opportunity and excelled. Under her leadership, Essence magazine experienced tremendous growth, with readership exceeding 8 million people around the world.
A Higher Calling
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Louisiana, leaving a path of destruction and devastation. Nearly 2,000 lives were lost and damage was estimated at more than $125 billion.
For Taylor, it was a life-changing – and eventually, career-changing – experience. “New Orleans was home to the Essence Festival – an event that brought half a million people there every year. I knew that we couldn’t go back and have a party without a deeper purpose.”
The tragedy was the catalyst for the formation of Essence CARES, a national initiative with an emphasis on mentoring. The program evolved into the National CARES Mentoring Movement, the organization that Taylor heads today.
“Once you acknowledge your talents, invest in strengthening your weaknesses and overcoming any insecurities – which we all have – there is no end to what you can achieve.”
- Susan Taylor
“Our mission is to break the cycle of generational Black poverty by building a bridge to healing and wellness in those places where Black children are losing ground.” Taylor explains. “Across the nation, we are recruiting, training and placing mentors in schools and youth-support organizations desperate for Black volunteers.”
Today, as she continues to lead the National CARES Mentoring Movement, Taylor focuses on expanding and growing the organization's influence. Having recruited more than 150,000 mentors serving over 200,000 children today, Taylor says National CARES is laying a blueprint for breaking the cycle of Black poverty.
Be Your Own Leader
Whether she was starting a cosmetics company or entering a field with no relevant experience, Susan L. Taylor has taken bold steps in her career. While she may not have followed the safest and most logical career paths, Taylor always trusted her instincts.
“It really has to do with what’s inside of us, because that’s where transformation and powerful vision begin,” she explains. “We must trust putting aside some external things that have no real consequence and focus on what matters most – our total wellbeing and building healthy supportive relationships with our family, friends and colleagues. We have to slow down, learn to move at a pace of grace, take time to listen to our inner wisdom – we all possess it – and unearth the courage and self-confidence needed to be innovative, creative thinkers. These things are critical to building with clarity, purpose and faith. All are important to our fulfillment and joy, and staying ahead of the curve so you succeed in business.”
Her advice: Be your own leader, your own best friend. Listen to others but be your own guide. No one knows what’s best for you, better than you.
"The way to healing and wisdom is within us. My life is a testament to that truth.”
- Susan Taylor
Guiding the Next Generation of Women Entrepreneurs
For women looking to build a business or their brand, Taylor is a case study in how to do it right. So what are her secrets to success?
Taylor advises aspiring entrepreneurs to embrace their strengths and to recognize that there will be challenges all along the way. “No matter what career path you choose, you’re going to have challenges. The question is how do we handle those challenges and how do you work through them? ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ was my mother’s constant refrain. There is always a solution. Embarking on the problem-solving path builds muscularity and confidence. And in the end we will look back on the challenge and see how it helped us grow and move our efforts in a better direction.”
As Taylor sees it, one of the greatest challenges facing women is the necessity to achieve a work-life balance. With women still filling the traditional roles of caring for their children and families, Taylor believes that the key to success is prioritizing what’s really important and engaging the support of our mates, other family members and friends. She believes taking time for ourselves is more critical than anything. Then we are not stressed and curt with others. With devotion to our wellness in body, mind and spirit high on our agenda, Taylor says, we bring our best self to our family, to work, to everything we do and everyone we encounter.
The Value of Mentors
While trusting your instincts and your inner voice is vital, Taylor also believes that nobody can do it alone. “We need advocates and guides, people who we can rely on. We need to put together our own ‘board of directors,’ so to speak, to help us navigate through all the different twists and turns that are certainly along the way.”
Along with her parents and extended family, Taylor cites poet Maya Angelou as a major influence in her life. “She was one of the wisest people I have ever known, and she’s certainly someone I would turn to when I needed sound advice,” Taylor says.
But Taylor doesn’t just look to her contemporaries and elders for guidance. She’s learning from the younger generation, as well.
“I’m mentoring them and they’re mentoring me,” Taylor says with a smile. “They help me with my technology. They help me with popular culture. They help me to relax some regarding beliefs I hold about appropriate language and behaviors. Young people are fearless, they are wise, and they are vocal. And I know when to be quiet and to listen and follow.”
All her career, Susan L. Taylor has faced enormous and daunting challenges. But in each and every instance, she never wavered – or as she says, “Not for long.”
Taylor joined Essence, she entered an industry dominated by men. While the male owners of her magazine were wise enough to hire women for their editorial staff, there were times when Taylor had to dig in and speak to them in a way that they could understand.
“I knew my place and I had to be strategic in helping them to understand theirs,” she recalls.
Clearly, Taylor’s courageous attitude has served her well.
“You can’t let fear limit your growth,” she says emphatically. “There have been times along this journey when I have been fearful like I never was at 23. But when you are working to make life and our world better and don’t allow ego or greed to override compassion and love, you see that everything you need to thrive and grow your efforts is placed in your hands. It’s truly amazing! All we must do is grasp it and keep stepping forward.”