In May 1970, Edward Lewis led a group of four African American male investors to publish the first issue of Essence magazine, a lifestyle monthly dedicated to interests of African American women. Launched in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, the magazine reflected the gains made during that era and broke barriers in advertising and publishing. Under Lewis’s leadership, Essence became the core of a publishing business that produced a television show, fashion catalogue, award shows and the Essence Music Festival, which has hosted hundreds of thousands of people every 4th of July weekend for the past 20 years. In 2005, Lewis made the controversial decision to sell the brand to Time Inc. (TIME) He was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame last April, and he has just released an autobiography, The Man from Essence. Lewis talked to Fortune about his life in the publishing business.
FORTUNE: In your memoir, The Man From Essence, you are candid about the highs and lows of giving birth to what would one day become the leading voice of black women around the world. What is the one most important lesson you learned?
EDWARD LEWIS: The most important lesson is having a very high tolerance for risks and the ability not to allow them to turn into doubt. There was no sure outcome when Essence was started that it would be successful. My business partners and I took enormous risks to our personal and financial lives, but we believed that creating a magazine that would provide a platform for African American women was worth the risks. For seven years, we struggled to make a profit and the magazine persevered.
In light of how many publications now feature black women on their covers and within their pages, what makes Essence vital 45 years later?
Essence still touches black women in a way that is inspirational, transformational and empowering. From beauty and hair to finances, the magazine maintains a high level of consistency and integrity that each month speaks to the needs and aspirations of its target audience.
Many publications are going through financial difficulty, especially in the realm of print editions. Why is it that black titles, in general, have continued to fall flat in terms of growth?
The world has changed a lot since 2005 when I sold Essence, with the internet and other digital applications leading the way. Advertisers and the readers are much savvier today, so publishers have to produce strong editorial content to continue to grow in this different environment. In today’s marketplace, you have to be careful about growing your numbers. For most publications, if you have a consistent subscriber base and readership, the goal is to maintain those numbers. When you start to surpass those numbers in a significant way, you have to be sure that you have the capital and advertising dollars to support the costs of that growth. I believe that black-owned magazines such as Ebony and Black Enterprise have the tools to continue to succeed and will overcome their present challenges in the industry.
There were quite a few voices of opposition surrounding your decision to sell Essence Communications to Time Inc., including your one remaining partner at that time. What was the business case for the sale? And thinking back on that decision, what about Essence Communications as it stands today accurately reflects your intent?
It was the absolute best decision. I’ve lived the American dream of bringing something to the world and ultimately having the ability to sell it to a majority company. They came to me to discuss the possibility and we got to know each other. Looking ahead of time, I knew that a partnership with Time would open the Essence brand to a pool of advertising and distribution resources that we would not have had as an independently owned company. I knew that there was an untapped market potential for the brand and wanted to make sure that it would have an opportunity to grow. It was also an opportunity to give our shareholders a return for their investment. So far, I’ve been well satisfied with the direction.
You end the book with 11 business rules for business owners and managers within the workplace. If you had to prioritize, what are the top five rules and why?
It’s very important to understand that cash is king and that you have to rely on cash coming in and going out. You should also surround yourself with the smartest people available and allow them to do their jobs. Make sure that you support the people who are doing their jobs and always acknowledge them and their abilities. Finally, get to know your customer and understand what their needs and desires are. Then you want to work hard to fulfill those needs.