When Michelle Ebanks was a little girl visiting her grandmother's beauty salon in Dayton, Ohio, she loved to look at the pictures of stylish, confident black women in the Essence magazines in the waiting area. Years later, when she achieved the position of president of Essence Communications Partners, the memory of a young black child's hunger to see her hopes and dreams reflected in the glossy pages of a national magazine would give Ebanks a special sense of responsibility. Along with her professional goal of making sure that the 35-year old journal of African-American lifestyles continued to grow and prosper as a business, Ebanks felt a deep sense of connection with the magazine's most important goal—to reflect and improve the lives of all black people.
Ebanks came to Essence Communications after an impressive 20-year career in the business side of magazine publishing. Modest and reserved by nature, she nonetheless possessed a sharp business sense and a drive to succeed that led to recognition and promotion in a highly competitive field. As head of Essence, she has enjoyed the opportunity to combine her cor-
porate vision with her values as an African American, a working woman, and a mother.
Grew up in Ohio and Florida
Ebanks was born Michelle Marie Washington on January 11, 1962, in Dayton, Ohio. She was one of three children of Thomas K. Washington Sr. and Charlotte Smith. During her early childhood, her father served in the U.S. Army, and was frequently transferred to bases throughout the country and even in Germany. Young Michelle lived in Ohio, California, and Texas before her parents divorced. After the divorce, she and her two brothers spent the school year with their mother in Dayton and in summer lived with their father in Miami where he had settled after leaving the army.
Charlotte Smith worked for the city of Dayton in a variety of positions, including the department of Housing and Urban Development. Ebanks was proud of her mother's self-assured professionalism, as well as the important work she did, helping to provide affordable housing for Dayton's poor citizens. In Miami, her father had opened a chain of dry cleaning businesses, and during the summers, she learned about work herself, helping out in her father's shops.
Thomas Washington was also a political activist who worked for civil rights, wrote a column for a Miami newspaper, and produced a local radio show. He defined himself as "pro-black," and taught his daughter to be proud of her heritage and to work for change. When Ebanks was only ten, her father took her with him to ring doorbells, campaigning for the election of Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm was a New York democrat who had been the first African-American woman elected to Congress in 1968, and who in 1972 became the first black woman to run for president.
Besides her parents, perhaps the greatest influences on Ebanks' childhood were her brothers. Growing up with two older brothers, she determined at a young age to do everything the boys did because she did not want to be left behind. She rode bikes with her brothers and played baseball and basketball, developing a love of competition and challenge that would propel her career in later years.
In both Dayton and Miami, Ebanks lived in communities that were almost completely African American. She did experience mixed-race situations in school. When she moved to Miami during her high-school years, she attended Gulliver Academy, a private school in nearby Coral Gables. Ebanks and her brother were the first black students to attend Gulliver Academy, but she adapted well to the unfamiliar situation and continued to do well in school. Ebanks was quiet and reserved at school until one of her teachers, believing that she had a talent for leadership, suggested that she run for student government. She did and was elected, first president of her tenth grade class, then vice president of the student body. She also captained both the volleyball and tennis teams, learning that she liked taking a leadership role. During her sophomore and junior year, Ebanks took a heavy course load so that she could graduate a year early and leave high school when her brother graduated.
Studied Finance in College
After graduating from Gulliver in 1979, she entered the University of Florida. She had no particular career goal, but, having grown up working in a family business, she decided to study finance in order to help out in her future husband's business. She assumed that she and her long-term boyfriend would marry when they graduated. However, when he was not ready to get married so soon after college, she decided it was time to make a big change in her life. After graduating in 1983 with a degree in business finance, she neither married nor returned to Miami to work in her father's business. Instead, she went to California, where she could stay with relatives while seeking work. She got a job with an African-American-owned business called Univox California, Inc. Univox was a manufacturing company that made a variety of products including a water purification machine used by the U.S. Army.
Ebanks worked in the purchasing department at Univox for over a year, but she wanted to find a job where she could use the business skills she had learned during her college career. She answered an advertisement for a financial analyst with a Los Angeles magazine publisher called Knapp. Knapp published a wide variety of magazines, and Ebanks first worked on Home. Her natural drive to perform well combined with her ability to plan successful business strategies soon led to her promotion to business manager, then director of operations at another Knapp publication, Bon Appétit.
In 1993, a larger periodical publisher, Condé Nast Publications, bought Knapp. Condé Nast was based in New York City, and Ebanks moved to New York, where she became corporate business manager for 13 of the company's magazines. She was quickly gaining a national reputation for her astute business vision and able management. After three years with Condé Nast, she was hired away by another media giant, Time, Inc., where she became general manager of the respected Money magazine.
At a Glance …
Born Michelle Marie Washington on January 11, 1962, in Dayton, Ohio; married Gordon Ebanks, 1999; children: Gordon James and Benjamin. Education: University of Florida, BA, finance, 1983.
Univox California Inc., purchasing agent, 1983-85; Knapp Communications Corporation, Home magazine, financial analyst, Bon Appétit magazine, business manager and director of operations, 1985-93; Condé Nast Publications, corporate business manager, 1993-96; Time Inc., Money magazine, general manager, 1996-98, Mutual Funds Magazine, president and chief executive officer; 1998-2001; Essence Communications, Inc., group publisher, 2001-05, president, 2005-.
Magazine Publishers Association; New York Women in Communications.
Office—Essence Communications, 135 W 50th Street, 4th Floor, New York, New York 10020.
After two successful years on Money, Ebanks received another promotion. In 1998 she moved back to Florida to take the job of president and chief executive officer of another financial journal called Mutual Funds Magazine. Three years later, she returned to New York to take a job with Essence, the glossy magazine of African-American fashion and culture that she had first read as a child in her grandmother's beauty shop.
Went to Work at Essence
Essence Communications Inc. (ECI) was founded in 1968 by Clarence O. Smith and Edward Lewis with the goal of creating a woman's magazine that focused on the needs and interests of African-American women. They released the first issue of Essence in 1970, a full-size, glossy journal that featured articles on fashion, entertainment, and lifestyles, all from a black woman's perspective. Essence began with a circulation of 50,000 and grew rapidly. Readership had reached seven million and subscriptions over one million by 2000. That year, ECI signed a working agreement with Time Inc. and became Essence Communication Partners. Along with publishing the monthly journal, the company produces community events, many of which include charitable work. One such event is the annual three-day Essence Music Festival in New Orleans.
In 2001, Michelle Ebanks became group publisher for Essence, responsible for supervising production, advertising sales, and circulation. The magazine has thrived under Ebanks' management, and in 2003, it became the first African-American periodical to reach seventh place on Advertising Age magazine's "A-list" of outstanding publications. In 2005, Time Inc. became the owners of Essence Communication Partners, changed its name back to Essence Communications Inc., and placed Michelle Ebanks in charge of business operations.
As president of ECI, Ebanks has been able bring her vision and financial management skills to a business whose mission was close to her heart—entertaining, informing, and supporting black women and their families. She has found it especially satisfying to be part of projects that could offer help to members of the community. For example, after New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, ECI contributed resources toward repairing the damaged city, including a partnership between the Essence Music Festival 2007 and the Children's Defense Fund, whereby a portion of the proceeds from the Festival will help expand the Fund's Freedom Schools Program in New Orleans. President Ebanks even picked up a hammer and joined a work party when Essence joined with Habitat for Humanity to rebuild houses in New Orleans.
Business Wire, April 26, 2001.
Essence, May 2000, p.28; May 2005, p. 32; November 2005, p. 14.
Jet, January 24, 2005, p. 17.
Playthings, July 2005, p. 9.
"The Barrier Breaker: Michelle Ebanks," Min Magazine,www.minonline.com/magazinesite/min_110106_p46_58.pdf - (January 25, 2007).
"Bios: Michelle Ebanks," Essence,www.essence.com/essence/bios/bio_ebanks (January 25, 2007).
"Chevrolet, Essence and Habitat For Humanity: Spreading Their Spiritual DNA," Houston Style Magazinewww.stylemagazine.com/print_article.cfm?art_id=329 (January 25, 2007).
"Essence Turns 35," AOL Black Voices,http://blackvoices.aol.com/lifemain/lifemain_canvas/featurestory/_a/essence-turns-35/20050415161509990001 (January 25, 2007).
"Shakers: Expanding Essence," AOL Black Voices,http://blackvoices.aol.com/workmonmain/careers/shkebank0110200 (January 25, 2007).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Michelle Ebanks on February 8, 2007.
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