A voice that needed heeding

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Anniversaries are both a time for celebration and reflection. Now, at the threshold of Essence's 35th anniversary, I am reminded of how a bold idea, nurtured by conviction and persistence, can change the lives of millions of people. Over three decades ago, black women were marginalized and undervalued. There was no place where their voices could be heard, their dreams encouraged and accomplishments honored. Essence changed that and empowered a whole new generation of women.

It's not an accident that I ended up running a media enterprise dedicated to the empowerment of women. I come from a family of strong and dynamic women. My mother, grandmother and aunts I can count as my "sheroes." As a boy, I saw women around me embracing the role of both mother and worker. Black women have always had to work, and the men in our family were given unisex chores like washing floors, making beds and cooking. Women in my family were admired and the work they did was noble. There was no distinction made between traditional male and female roles.

I was sensitized early on to appreciate women as the glue that held the family together. Later , I realized that women needed to be recognized for what they accomplished-for most never got their due. So the idea of Essence was born out of the realization that there was not a single magazine that spoke to and reflected the lives of black women. Today we have evolved to become much more. Essence is now the voice of a national African-American women's community, 7 million strong.

Over the years, Essence's pages have reflected an enormous shift in new opportunities and overdue recognition. Condoleezza Rice is in the White House, Halle Berry claimed her well-deserved Oscar, Oprah hit the Fortune 500, Ruth Simmons broke the Ivy League race barrier as president of Brown University, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., is holding Washington accountable and Ann Fudge, Y&R's CEO, is bringing enlightened leadership to one of the top ad agencies. Happily, the list goes on and on.

EMERGING CLOUT

It is very rewarding to see how instrumental Essence has been in stimulating the emerging economic clout of black women by providing the necessary tools, information and access to capital to fuel their businesses and to guide their professional success. Just this past year, Essence hosted a groundbreaking conference for black businesswomen at the Pierre Hotel in New York where more than 600 successful women saw that they were no longer the exception, but now the new rule. One of the speakers marveled at seeing hundreds of women achievers-professionals and entrepreneurs in the very hotel her grandmother had worked as a maid. While this observation is apt, it is also thankfully dated as the amazing brainpower and personal accomplishments of those women testified.

The stunning fact is that black women are starting new businesses at twice the rate of their white sisters, generating in excess of $15 billion in annual revenue. Quite simply, black women are revolutionizing the world of business, and they are also part of a dramatic new shift in America's demography.

Whether by vision or necessity, corporate America is now acknowledging black women as a vital, valuable and enormously important market that they can no longer ignore.

I am delighted that Essence has changed both the way black women see themselves and how America sees them. And Madison Avenue certainly sees them, too. L'Oreal, Estee Lauder, Procter & Gamble, General Motors, Kraft and Citibank join many other leading companies that place black women front and center in their advertising.

MARKETING PARTNERS

All I have to do is think back to our very first issue over 30 years ago to remind myself how far we have all come. There were 13 very forward-thinking companies that were willing to go outside their comfort zones to reach out to black women. What fascinates me is that over half of them were beauty and fashion advertisers such as Bergdorf Goodman, Yardley of London, Houbigant and Faberge. While Essence was helping black women appreciate that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and skin tones, the beauty and fashion industries were also getting an education about how to market to this underestimated, highly fashion-conscious consumer. It is gratifying that the advertising community has finally come to understand that black women's billion-dollar buying power makes them a force to be reckoned with.

The MPA's Lifetime Achievement Award and Ad Age's anointment of Essence to its A-List in 2003, along with Time Warner's acquisition of Essence this year, have established its rightful place in the mainstream media. If the success of Essence and the recognition of that success have taught me anything, it is that everyone, regardless of color or creed, economic status or conviction, deserves a voice and an equal opportunity to enjoy what makes this country unique in the world. It's time to just be who we are as Americans, judged by our deeds and character. We must all find better ways to work with each other in perpetuating the good of this country because while our differences matter, our shared humanity is paramount. While we cannot ignore race, we must remember that it is only part of who we are.

Ed Lewis is the chairman and founder of Essence Communications.

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