While you may see Elaine Welteroth on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon or as a judge on Bravo’s Project Runway, her journey hasn’t been easy. As a minority, she’s had to break barriers to get to the top of the media and entertainment world.
Raised in Newark, California to a white father and an African American mother, she was educated as a journalist. After an unpaid internship at Ebony Magazine, she relentlessly pursued a role as editor-in-chief Harriette Cole’s assistant. After working in that role, she became the magazine’s beauty and style editor. Then, Elaine joined Condé Nast as the beauty and style editor at Glamour Magazine. All of these experiences prepared Elaine for her big moment in 2017, when she became the first ever African American beauty and health director at Teen Vogue, then stepped up as the youngest ever editor-in-chief. Her journey is captured in her new book, “More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say).”
In the below conversation, Elaine shares how she breaks barriers as being a minority, what she learned early in her life that has helped her today, how being authentic makes you more confident, who has influenced her the most and her best career advice.
Dan Schawbel: How did you break the barriers in your career as a minority?
Elaine Welteroth: Having a game plan is what turns any dream into a reality for anyone. I didn’t recognize that I was a barrier-breaker until I had already signed up for a job that didn’t come with that label as part of it. When it was announced to the world in a headline that way it became a turning point for me to recognize that being first to do something, being the youngest to do something, being one of the only people of color or minorities to have a position or a say in a space where we once did not comes with a real responsibility. And for me that responsibility was showing up more authentically and recognizing the value of my voice as an outsider. I had to realize that assimilating is what helped me get into the room, but it was not going to help me change the game. And so I had to lean into my authentic self, my voice, my background, my community, and pull those stories and those experiences that previously had made me feel other and less than and unqualified and unworthy and recognize that those were the very things that were my superpowers. They gave me a point of difference that was actually quite valuable as an editor, storyteller, and creative person.
Dan: What lessons did you learn early on that allowed you to make better decisions today?
Elaine: Discovering what you don’t want is just as important as finding out what you do want. We go through life being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do? What’s your passion?” Answering that is a process of exploration and you have to do the things that actually ultimately aren’t right for you in order to be pointed in the direction of what you are meant to do and what does feel good and right. That’s in relationship as well as friendships and work. You never have to have it all figured out from the beginning. You just have to put one step in front of the other and keep discovering what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. Allow enthusiasm to guide you on your journey. Follow the voice of enthusiasm, not the voice of fear.
Dan: How can being authentic, instead of blending in, build self-confidence?
Elaine: My most transformative work happened only when I was willing to take off the mask that I was wearing. What I mean by that is that doing creative work that connects with people requires a level of vulnerability and risk-taking. Playing it safe served almost no one if the goal is to push the world forward. My mom has always said, “What comes from the heart touches the heart.” In order to do work that is from the heart, you have to be true to your authentic voice and who you are. In my career, like for many other people of color or women who are the only ones in a male dominated industry, you have to learn how to stop assimilating. The pressure to assimilate, to conform, to fit the mold, to play by the old rules is something that we learn as survival tactics that help us become successful.
But, what will ultimately make us transformative is unlearning all of those assimilation tactics and finding a way to bring more of our authentic self to the work that we’re doing. And when we do that, it will find its audience and a deeper level of connection out in the world. When you get that positive momentum going where you have an audience of people or a consumer base who is responding to the work that you’re doing from an authentic place, there is nothing like that in terms of building your self confidence. There is nothing better, nothing sweeter than bringing more of you do the work and then finding that there are people in the world who have been waiting for that very thing that only you can give. I think everyone on this earth has a zone of genius. Our obligation is to figure out what that is and eventually to operate from it and to fight against all the forces in the world and internally to make sure that we’re spending more of our time in our zone of genius, which I define as doing that which only you can do. When you’re in that place, there’s no self-confidence like that self-confidence that comes from being who you truly are in doing work that only you can do.
Dan: Who has most influenced your thinking and what changes have you made as a result?
Elaine: I would say my mom has been my ultimate source of strength, identity, and power. All good things flow through my mom in my life, straight to me. I think those who have had a really loving, supportive mother or father figure are lucky, and I consider myself very, very lucky. In my life growing up as a child of the product of an interracial marriage, navigating my racial identity was tricky for me. Finding self confidence in my skin when I didn’t look like a lot of the people that I grew up with was challenging, and my mom was always there to point me back in the direction of who I am and she helped instill a sense of pride in me even when the world was telling me to shrink. I always say, “When the world tells you to shrink, expand.” And that message came from my mother.
Dan: What is your best piece of career advice?
Elaine: Job titles are temporary, but purpose is everlasting. It’s important that we remind ourselves of that because so often we claim two job titles or a certain salary or certain career paths as part of our identity, as the things that come to define us in the world. The truth is that purpose looks a lot of different ways and it can unfold in a lot of different ways. We should think about our lives and our careers as a series of dreams realized. You do not have to be defined by just one thing. You do not have to just be one title for the rest of your life. Your salary will look different over time, but it’s important to stay rooted to your purpose and let that guide your career decisions.