Essence has acquired Refinery 29, but as several C-suite execs leave, staffers are divided over direction (2024)

Four years after a major shakeup, Essence is still struggling to find its new essence.

The magazine’s new boss, Caroline Wanga, is either a “narcissist” ruling a “culture of fear” — or a mentor “fostering” a “new generation” — depending on who you speak to as a rift runs through the brand.

Essence is expanding at the same time its staff and C-suite is shrinking. Parent company Sundial Media Group recently welcomed youthful digital entity Refinery 29 to its corporate family on Essence’s behalf.

But we’re told an allegedly “toxic workplace culture” continues to permeate the halls of the leading lifestyle magazine for black women.

Multiple sources told Page Six the workplace environment has left “a trail of black women who are sick, traumatized and victimized,” as one source put it.


The alleged workplace grievances at Essence come four years after an anonymous essay called for change, and resulted in the resignation of its top brass.

The issue forced the resignation of several top execs, including former CEO Richelieu Dennis, who purchased the company from defunct Time Inc. in 2018.

He appointed former Target DEI exec, Caroline Wanga, as a new president and CEO.

But several sources familiar with the situation tell us, “he is still heavily involved in day-to-day operations.”

We also hear that at least seven top female executives — who were new hires — have exited the company under Wanga’s tenure so far, with several saying they left due to her management style.

“There’s no women in leadership outside of Caroline. She’s very jealous when it comes to women,” an insider claimed, referring to the C-Suite make up.

“She’ll go around give these interviews and ridiculous advice as this corporate mentor guru rooting for Black women and it’s the biggest crock,” another source said. “She’s made several black women’s lives hell [at the magazine],” they added.


Under Wanga, Essence nixed publishing’s coveted editor-in-chief title in lieu of the role of vice president of content for Essence Ventures and senior content director of Essence communications.

Wanga promoted 28-year-old journalist Nandi Howard to the role. Howard, who worked at the mag as a fashion editor in 2019, before Wanga arrived, is the youngest to ever lead the editorial team at Essence.

But Howard tells Page Six that Wanga has championed her and other young staffers.

“When I was fashion editor, I was working with a lot of women, who no longer work at the company, who didn’t champion me,” Howard said. “They weren’t fostering a new, fresh, open-thinking generation… [Wanga] is one of the first bosses who fosters me.”

Howard added, “Rich and Caroline champion the next generation.”


“I left and came back to Essence in 2022 as content director, and was promoted to VP of content. I wouldn’t have come back to a toxic organization,” she said.

Longtime Essence employee and VP of branded content and video, Stephanie NoNe Dunivan, echoed Howard’s enthusiasm for the new leadership.

“I’m one of the few who have been here since we were formerly owned by Time Inc. I’ve seen every regime… I would not describe Essence as a toxic work culture. I hate that this narrative is being told,” she said.



She also disputed others’ account of the workplace, saying, “My whole entire team is black girl magic.”

She added of her boss, “As someone reporting directly to Caroline, I have been nurtured by her for the past four years. Narcissist doesn’t describe this woman.”

Others insist Wanga has centered on herself as the face of the brand, and, “She throws tantrums and yells at the executive team when she is not prominently featured or centered in editorial pages and social media,” an insider shared.

Also, “It’s not uncommon to receive texts at midnight or 4:30 a.m.,” the first source claimed.


Some employees say Wanga has threatened to fire staffers during “town hall meetings.”

Sources further claim any grievances just get back to Wanga. “Employees do not have psychological safety to report HR issues without fear of retaliation,” the insider shared, adding that Dennis’ family has a considerable influence within the company.

A spokesperson for Essence countered, “For the past four years, team members have had access to 24-hour a day external and independent HR team that gives them the ability for anonymous reporting, and we continue to create opportunities for our community to grow.”


The revolving door of execs and staff is potentially affecting it biggest event of the year for the company, its Essence Festival, we hear.

Essence is celebrating 30 years of the fest. Tickets went on sale in March, and the brand announced the big celebration in December, telling followers, “Save the Date and The Think Pieces, Essence Fest returns, and we are sitting on ready.”

The company has recently announced Janet Jackson as the headliner, and added Charlie Wilson and a Cash Money Millionaires reunion to the lineup, with the fest kicking off on July 4. Past performers have included Jackson, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige and Megan Thee Stallion.


A spokesperson for Essence told us of its festival rollout, “We operate with an intentional strategy that serves our community. Anyone who claims the festival is in trouble, isn’t internal to Essence.”

They further stressed Essence is simply “building the media business of the future.”

“We’ve moved into the age of AI and digital innovation with a healthy culture and team, focused on growth that will preserve and create more jobs for journalists and creatives with community development and engagement as the driving force,” they said.

“To accomplish these objectives, we’ve made changes to the organization and our business model from time to time to empower the best teams and maintain a culture of excellence to propel Essence into the next century. We are proud of the work we’re accomplishing with our teams, as Essence is experiencing positive financial health and rapid growth, and once again under Black ownership,” they concluded.

Essence has acquired Refinery 29, but as several C-suite execs leave, staffers are divided over direction (2024)


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