SPOTLIGHT ON FINANCE
By Ruth Mahoney, President, Capital Region, Keybank.
CAPITAL DISTRICT — At age 24, Susan L. Taylor was a talented, creative and ambitious entrepreneur who was growing a cosmetics company. Then she heard that a new magazine, Essence, was searching for a beauty editor. It piqued her interest, and despite not having a college degree at the time or experience as a journalist or writer, she met with Editor-in-Chief Ida Lewis and dressed and acted the part—unsure of the role and responsibilities the job would require.
Today, after serving 10 years as beauty and then fashion editor and 27 years as chief editor of Essence, Taylor is credited as the visionary leader who turned the magazine into a powerful global brand. She has since founded the National CARES Mentoring Movement, which builds transformational initiatives for children in poverty and is the fastest growing mentor-recruitment organization in the nation. She is also the keynote speaker for the 2016 Key4Women Forum, “Bold, Visionary Leadership: From the Inside Out.”
Here, Taylor talks about her views on leadership and the power of choice, as well as what core message she will share with attendees of this year’s Key4Women Forum.
Ruth Mahoney: You write in your book In the Spirit that life is an inner experience. Can you explain what this means and how it translates to leadership?
Susan Taylor: Society inculcates in us to look outward, to value greatly how others perceive us. So much of our energy is focused on how we appear to others. These things certainly are important in business, but ever more important is our inner world—how we see and feel about ourselves.
What we say to ourselves about our confidence, capacity and efficacy . . . these are rooted in our inner world and impact our leadership, fulfillment and success. So it is within that we must nourish ourselves to have confidence in what is true, authentic and innate in us. Then we will step into the world at peace with ourselves and can be visionary, determined bold thinkers, which are critical leadership qualities.
RM: Tell me about how you turned starting a cosmetics company into an editorial position with Essence?
ST: Often, the older we get, the more fearful we become. In my 20s I was absolutely adventurous, so welcoming of change and transitions. If we are not watchful, over time we will curb our passion and forget our purpose. We learn to play it safe. I stepped forward with my cosmetology license believing I could bring value to Essence in its first year. And they believed I could, because I believed I could.
RM: You credit Ida Lewis with taking a chance on hiring you because she simply believed in you. Clearly that belief was well placed. But why did you take a chance on Essence?
ST: Unbridled enthusiasm and creativity. Looking back, I see I was naive as well. I didn’t realize becoming the beauty editor of Essence would mean giving up my cosmetics company. I saw an opening for my expertise. In the volatile and exciting early 1970s, black women with journalism degrees weren’t interested in writing about beauty. The editors had heard about my cosmetics company and I heard they were looking for a beauty editor. So I showed up looking how I thought a beauty editor should present—having no idea what that that role would actually require. So yes, Ida Lewis did take a chance on me because I wasn’t a journalist or writer. But I didn’t realize I was taking a chance on Essence because I didn’t know I’d have to give up my company.
RM: Can you talk about your decision to leave Essence and start the National CARES Mentoring Movement?
ST: National CARES started as Essence CARES after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita exposed the depth of poverty people were struggling through. New Orleans is the home of the Essence Festival, and so many children in the region were suffering. The CARES movement was created to provide a protective shield for them and our vulnerable children throughout the nation. When I learned that 80 percent of black fourth graders were reading below grade level, I knew it was time to leave publishing and devote my full time to my community. I believed I could strengthen National CARES and build partnerships to ensure that people who are marginalized have the opportunity to move into the middle class and become self-sustaining. And after 37 years at the magazine, it wasn’t difficult to leave. I had fulfilled my purpose there and was leaving the magazine in good hands. This new beginning has given me new wings.
RM: The power to choose and create change is a message you repeat often. Why?
ST: We forget we have free will. We really do forget that not just every day, but with every moment we have the power to choose again. We can choose how we respond…not only to people but to every issue and change that occurs in our life. Our challenge is to pause and think, not allow our emotions to rule, or people and circumstances to manage us into bad behavior. We can choose what we will think and say, how we show up in the world and what we stand for. Free will is life’s greatest gift to us. It’s what separates us from all other creatures, and with it come responsibilities.
RM: What financial lessons did you learn from your mother?
ST: My mother made me pay rent. I was 13 and working at the cleaners around the corner, and my mother made me give her $7 a week. I was so mad, but it was the best lesson, because we need to learn how to manage our money, become self-sufficient and take care of ourselves.
RM: Your commitment to CARES is a great example of service to community. What message would you share with others about giving back?
ST: At the end of the day, it’s what you give to life, not what you take from life that matters most. Albert Schweitzer said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” Giving back creates inner peace and a sense of fulfillment, because we are in alignment with the essence of life, which is to alleviate needless suffering. This is all of our assignment and the moral choice we must make intentionally at this time of challenge and change in our country and the world. We are at a crossroads and should ask ourselves repeatedly, Who am I and what do I stand for?
RM: What message do you have for women who are reading this?
ST: Fire the judge . . . your inner critic that is self-diminishing and always picking away at your esteem. The world is out of balance because women’s wisdom is gravely underutilized, often attacked, not invited to the table. If more women had say-so in corporations and governments throughout the world, there would be more peace, fewer wars and more equity. We need the fierceness many man bring, but we also need the deeper understanding and wisdom that is innate in women.
Women work on more fronts than most men, caring for family, community, our employees, business. We leave too little time for self. We have to adopt private rituals that maintain wellness, balance and joy in our lives.
Finally, we have to learn to trust ourselves and one another. Where do we go from here for the benefit of our children, communities and country? We have to know that we can set things right. We must be strategic, think big and plan slowly…and move with deliberate speed.
Ruth Mahoney is president of KeyBank’s Capital Region. She may be reached at either 518-257-8619 or [email protected]