African women are on the rise. The continent has produced a lot of females of prominence who are steadily changing the narrative and breaking the ceiling in the digital age. Amongst these women of influence are Kenyan-born, Vanessa Kingori. From an internship at the Evening Standard to becoming first female publisher at the British Vogue, it’s evident that for the UK-based editor, the sky is only the beginning. In an interview with Vanessa, she talks how it all began, balancing work and her personal life, her African heritage and more.
On her publishing career debut
A very indirect route. I was doing all kinds of different things. I was working in fashion and then went into events. From working events, I realized that a lot of my private life was going over to the job because a lot of the events were in the evenings and on weekends. I spoke to a friend about it and she suggested I go into media. She was very kind and arranged for me to meet some friends of hers in the industry. During one of these meetings, one person said to me they have opening for a 6-months placement – admin based, not exciting but if I wanted to come and see what it’s like, the job was mine. I took the job (and a huge pay cut) but that was how my career at Evening Standard began. That was my big break. Within 4 months, they had given me a permanent position because my performance was good. What was really funny is that last night, there was an event with the Evening Standard (it’s been 15 years since I worked there) and they named me as one of the Most Influential people in London, which is really cool considering that I came from being an intern.
On being a female publishing editor at a men’s magazine
You know, that’s a really interesting point because we have a lot of male staff and I think to have some balance is always good across sexes. I think that perhaps the fact that I don’t bring a lot of ego or bravado to the job helps. I don’t want to stereotype too much but the fact
that I deal with a lot of things with empathy rather than just work, work, work makes a difference. I try to look at the challenges that people might have and when dealing with strong characters I am less likely to be verbally combative, but still push for the things I need to happen but without getting into a challenging dialogue. I just think that the fact that I come at things wanting for everyone to win, rather than wanting to shine on my own is important.
On women in leadership positions and equality in the workplace
One thing I can say at Vogue when it does happen in January 2018 is that I will have been the first woman to get the job. Vogue has been in existence for over 100 years and there has never been a female business lead. Quite interestingly, the Mayor of London’s office told me that it’s a 100th year anniversary of the Suffragette Movement – a landmark for women’s equality in the UK. So, it’s kind of amazing that my appointment matches a historic moment. I think it’s a really interesting shift that is happening that is very positive. I think there needs to be more happening in the workplace where the needs of women are considered more like better provision for childcare. But, I don’t think it’s just about women but also the men. I was very keen in GQ to ensure that my guys who had families took the proper paternity leave because of two things. I learned, one, their partners are always really grateful for the extra time, and I always think, even if their partners don’t work with me they are able to make a transition back to work if they choose, with their partners there to support them. Two, what I realized is, the men who took paternity leave showed more empathy for the women on their team who took maternity leave. They would understand what it’s like to be missing for a few months and it would check them a little bit more. So, I really think that equality in the workplace is about engaging how men act and how women act and how the company acts. It’s a whole ecosystem that constantly needs to be reviewed.
On adaptation in a fast-paced digital world
My whole focus as publisher of GQ has really been about building and expanding the digital, while maintaining the fabulous print brand and we’ve had a huge amount of success. We have won more awards than we’ve ever had and recorded the best financial performance of the last decade. Our highest revenue ever happened in 2016 and that was driven by digital. I think a lot of print media are panicked by digital, but for me digital is by far the biggest core tool in terms of the future of print. We use social media to drive people to the magazine, we use the website to build up content we have in the magazine and then drive people to the newsstands to buy more copies and feed content to people who otherwise might not buy the magazines and then get them into the brand. We have just looked at digital without fear, we’ve not thought of digital as scary and it’s fabulous, it’s incredible, it’s been exciting using social platforms to build the brand.
On the perks of becoming publishing editor for british vogue
It is really huge, the visibility around Vogue is so different, I am really excited about it because I am excited about Edward Enninful (Editor Vogue UK) and all the people he
is bringing in and the content he is going to create and has created actually. It’s super interesting and exciting. For me it’s a really exciting chapter and I love that everyone has embraced it so well, I am so overwhelmed by how invested and excited everyone is. Also a little bit daunted as well because I feel that I don’t want to let anybody down, that’s the pressure as well.
Success does not happen by luck
It’s funny because I always say that I feel very lucky to have the opportunities that I have. I was at a GQ event and I said to Lewis Hamilton, who happened to be there something about being lucky and feeling lucky and he said to me “you really mustn’t say that because if you say that this was luck, it would say to all the young people who are following you and maybe want to emulate what you’ve done that they cannot do that because luck is something that is random”. What he said to me that night that always stayed with me is that; sometimes you create a positivity around you and sometimes people have the same amount of lucky opportunities that come their way but some people make more of them and harness them, while some other people don’t hold on to these opportunities with the same grip and I thought it was really interesting. I do actually feel lucky but what I do know is that everything positive that happened to me, I feel duty bound to make the most out of every single opportunity, every single lucky break. I suppose to a larger extent, I create more of my luck than I could have. I think what I am lucky in is the people I have around me, I have an amazing support network and that really helps everything else come together. I feel blessed on that account; great family, great friends, great support network.
On habits that helped her achieve success?
I have three that I picked up along the way. One is from my mother, she said to me that expecting for things to be fair is a way to drive yourself crazy, so my mother would always say to me that “only the privileged expect for things to be fair”, of course they should be fair, but going into everything thinking it will be fair, you’ll drive yourself crazy. When I am mentoring students ( I am a fellow at the university) I always say to them “don’t go into an internship or into a class thinking that everything will be fair, as soon as you do, you relax a little bit. See where the inequality is and then you start to work against it where you can with positivity”.
The other thing is, I try to approach everything from a positive place, if I wake up one day and I am feeling a little bit negative about something or the other, I really check myself and I try to turn off everything negative thought or idea. The last thing is to make sure you take time for yourself to reset. I think now more than ever we are always on our smartphones because of social media, we are always available, so what you can find is, you get to the end of the week and you haven’t had a moment to think about anything to do with your own life. I wake up extra early in the morning and I do a little bit of yoga everyday and in that time I make sure that no digital devices are around and I let my mind clear of work things and what I find is this; that time gives me a moment to reflect, which helps me go into my day more focused and better organized. I think it’s really important to keep your energy up, then work, rest, reenergize yourself, so that’s one of my very important habits.
You have made your passion for youth development very clear over the years. How do you think the African fashion industry can empower young people?
I think the African fashion industry is already empowering young people. I am really proud to see how the African fashion industry is developing, how sleek it, places like Alara in Nigeria are doing incredibly great, I am really so impressed with that. Also some of the designers coming out of Africa now are absolutely incredible. I always try to make sure that during fashion week I wear at least one African designer myself and this may sound strange but when I do so – I feel different. Even if the clothes don’t look African,I feel empowered when people photograph me or ask me who I am wearing and I get to say an African designer. I also think it’s very interesting how inspired Western designers are by Africa. They may not always give the credit to Africa but if you look at the moment at what Supreme are doing; when I went to Kenya in 2008, everywhere you went there were traditional fabrics with Obama’s face on them, all of the aunties and mummies were making wrappers, they were all very excited. Now, fast forward to 10 years later and Supreme are now making garments with their versions of fabric with Obama’s face on them. What I think is really exciting about the African fashion industry is dynamic it is. It’s inspiring Western designers and vice versa, it could be more equal for African designers but the progress is there and I am inspired by it.
Africa is really important to the Kenya-born, UK-raised publisher
To be honest, I belong to three places because I was born in Kenya, raised in the Caribbean, I came to the United Kingdom when I was seven. I visit both places; St. Kits and Kenya, I am really excited to be visiting Nigeria, I am so excited because every single time that I have very positive news, the response first comes from Kenya, St. Kits and then London. I just feel like the support and love in Kenya is so strong, in Africa and it really makes me feel so good and I am really proud of it, I am proud when I see people eating our food. There’s a great restaurant that opened in London owned by a Nigerian, I love to go there, I just took Edward there on Tuesday and it’s International so there are people there from Asia and even Europe too. For me, it’s really good because our culture should be a proud export, we have enjoyed it for a really long time and there has been a feeling that other people wouldn’t understand it. But no, we should be really proud and I think the more people who can experience the various African cultures, the better for all of us.
Do you have any advice for young women in the world who have their own dreams of breaking glass ceilings?
My biggest piece of advice is to stay true to yourself without arrogance. Being true to yourself can sometimes be construed as being cocky; slightly arrogant while being humble can also be misconstrued as being a pushover and conceding too much. Somewhere in the middle is where I think success lies, not immediately but if you are proud of who you are and you project it in a genuine and comfortable way, people want a part of it. If you’re arrogant, it pushes people away, if you apologize for who you are, nobody is interested. If you can find a way to be strong and proud without being arrogant then your foundation for success is so much greater.
This is what Vanessa derives her greatest satisfaction from
I just feel like it’s really important to have fun in life. I’m come home everyday and something is making me feel upset or I don’t like the color of my walls or my bedding, or there is someone on my team who is not doing what they are supposed to do, I want to fix it because ultimately I think particularly in the industry that I work in, it should be fun. One of my big motivations is to remove any obstacles that are bringing me any frustration or sadness so that ultimately I can get on with having a fun time. Fun and enjoyment and laughter brings me the most satisfaction.
Blending over balance
I struggled with this for a while especially when we had a big focus on digital as there is no monthly deadline in digital. You know when you work on a magazine, you go to print once a month and that creates some downtime in between. However, with digital, the deadline is always there -there is always something going on. I struggled with the idea of balance where on the weekend I am looking at emails and documents and I read this brilliant piece about work life blend not balance. So if you work in an industry that you love and you do a job that you love, balance challenges are less because you are enjoying yourself. The other thing is, “can you bring people with you?” So for me, if we have a work trip, I always say to my colleagues, “do you want to bring your partner? When we have a meeting at the end of the day, you can have dinner with your partner, I try and make sure that happens, I try to coincide my trips with the times my friends might be on business trips. I am about to go to to New York and San Francisco on business before I arrive in Nigeria and then what I am doing is reaching out to my friends and families who are there and saying “ok I’m here, I have to work today, I have meetings, shall we have lunch”. For me it’s about blending your responsibilities with the things and people that bring you joy as much as is feasible.
Here’s something you didn’t know
I am a secret cat lady, I love cats! I think that surprises people. My Instagram algorithm is very embarrassing because it’s always feeding me videos of kittens, which is basically all I am looking at when I am not looking at what fashion brands are doing. When I was younger, we always had cats and I love how cats make you work for their affection and they are very intelligent in their interactions. I don’t have a cat at the moment; I really want to get one. Right now isn’t such a good time to have a pet cat because I’m busy covering GQ and moving on to Vogue; basically straddling two jobs. I’m not really at my house very much but once things settle down, if you hear that I have a cat or a kitten, it means that everything is going very smoothly and I have a little bit more spare time on my hands.