10 Things I Learned from Elaine Welteroth, Teen Vogue's Former Editor-in-Chief
I could probably write a thousand more words about what I learned from the second African American and youngest person to hold an editor-in-chief title in Condé Nast's 107-year history, but I'll spare you the details in the placed where I geeked out a little too hard over Elaine Welteroth and her fierceness in thought and in fashion.
Here, condensed into a little over a thousand words, I've summarized the most poignant points and amazing advice Welteroth gave at Ball State during the Education in Leadership Lecture Series.
1. Lean into your unique perspectives
“My race walked into the room before I did.” Elaine Welteroth made history and headlines not 48-hours after being appointed to the Editor-in-Chief position at Teen Vogue. The second African American appointed to an editor-in-chief position at Condé Nast, and the youngest on top of that. Welteroth’s youth and race made history before she did, but she took her unique perspectives and embraced them, allowing her to change the face of Teen Vogue, a traditionally beauty- and fashion-oriented magazine for teenage girls and young women.
By leaning into the new perspectives she brought to Teen Vogue as both a young person and a minority, Welteroth fostered the evolution of the magazine into one that allows young women to be everything: stylish, smart, and involved in the social justice issues and triumphs that have defined this generation of consumers.
2. Step out of the way and pass the mic
“Let’s step out of the way, and let’s pass the mic.” In the past, Teen Vogue was frequently accused of cultural appropriation (think: spread that includes photos of white girls in traditional headdresses and dreadlocks). Welteroth emphasized that the past mistakes on the part of Teen Vogue allowed her to create a conversation surrounding diversity and amplifying the voices of the oppressed instead of making them into mainstream trends.
Having those tough conversations and answering even the questions that seemed silliest is how Welteroth got her team on the same page, how an atmosphere of education was fostered at Teen Vogue, and how they came up with the idea to pass the mic. Instead of white women representing the cultures of Native American, African American and Latin American communities (among other), Teen Vogue allowed minority women to represent their own cultures and why they’re proud of their heritage.
3. Lead with empathy and understanding
Increasingly, servant leadership has been highlighted as a leadership tactic that succeeds in creating empowered and fulfilled teams. Welteroth reflected the idea that shining a light on your team makes collaboration and create that much easier. Listen more than you talk. Allow your team to feel seen and understood. Ask the right questions. When everyone is on the same page, the problem gets solved. Empathy, often seen as a weakness in professional settings, is considered by Welteroth to be one of the greater strengths a professional can have because human connection makes the world go ‘round.
4. Never let one dream or title define your whole life
“Life is a series of dreams.” And we often corner ourselves into one path, one main dream that is the end goal. One title that we put all our energy toward, that we believe our lives are leading up to. But what happens when you achieve your dreams and reach your goals? Will you spend the rest of your life feeling unfulfilled and lost?
At 29 years old, Welteroth was seemingly living her dream but struggling with what to do next. As someone who has one end-goal and one dream job, this was probably the most poignant point Welteroth made in her entire lecture: Do not let one dream define you. Allow yourself to acknowledge that you made it this far, but that it doesn’t have to end here. Dream another dream, or another ten dreams. It’s the only way to keep going.
5. Find what you love, connect the dots, and make it happen
A relatable moment was when Welteroth discussed how her passion for creating photo albums, her ability to connect with strangers psychologically, and her love for all things fashion and beauty led her to Teen Vogue. Maybe not literally relatable, but being passionate about unconventional things (you can’t major in creating photo albums, after all) and not know what to do with these passions is a struggle for many young people moving on to college or maybe even the career playing field.
Welteroth’s advice for finding your path? Ask yourself: What makes you feel alive? What would you do every single day, if you could, for free? Determine those things, and connect the dots to form a career path that you actually care about. And then hustle to make it happen.
6. Be fashionable, be smart, be woke
And be all three at the same time! “Young people care about social justice issues and politics...and Bieber and bronzer.” Teenage girls especially are forced into a box that says they can like fashion and makeup, or they can like politics and school, but they can’t have the best of both worlds. FALSE.
Part of Teen Vogue’s evolution under Welteroth was to give young women a platform for personal and creative expression of beauty and fashion, but also to include the social justice and political issues that young women care about and that affect them every day. The complexity of femininity, even after Welteroth’s departure from the magazine, is still evident in the issues and triumphs covered in Teen Vogue today.
7. Elevate the voices that you stand behind
Teen Vogue is not meant to be an unbiased news magazine. As Welteroth said of her time at the magazine, “We were never afraid to take a stand.” That means having opinions and taking the stances on issues that they believe in, and elevating the voices that stand for, beside, and behind their audience.
Teenage girls don’t want unbiased news. They want to see themselves being represented in a media outlet by people who care about their opinions and who are fighting for their ability to express them. They want to hear from people like Ava Duvernay and Yara Shahidi and Hillary Clinton, all powerful people who use their platform to support the idea that the opinions of young women matter, and they make a difference, and they should be heard.
8. Live in your purpose
A common theme of Welteroth’s was to lean into yourself, and that includes doing what you love, setting boundaries to take care of yourself, and being focused on your why. And she acknowledges that living in your purpose - being a mover and a shaker - can be scary. To this, she says: “It’s worse to feel complacent than it is to feel fear.” And that if you’re not a little scared, your dreams aren’t big enough.
9. Be kind
“Kindness goes so much further than you can imagine.” And, alongside hard work, human connection, storytelling, relatability passion is important in achieving your goals. And it all goes back to empathy.
10. Eat, sleep, drink water, and start every morning with something that feeds your soul
The basics. Things your mom has told you to do your whole life, but now that Elaine Welteroth has also told you to do them, maybe you actually will.
Every morning, wake up and do something that reminds you why you’re here, that encourages and cultivates the creative inside of you, and that allows you to indulge in something you love. This makes all the difference.