Since its inception in 1945, founded by John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing Company, Ebony Magazine has been and continues as an African-American cornerstone highlighting Black culture and achievements in business, entertainment, politics, and social justice. When the publication announced that it would close its doors on May 24, 2019, and file for bankruptcy, the Black collective became dismayed with the news of the ending of such a principal African-American media outlet.
In July 2020, former shooting guard for the Milwaukee Bucks shooting guard and businessman Ulysses Lee “Junior” Bridgeman purchased Ebony and Jet for $14 million in December. The publication relaunched in March, according to NPR.
Bridgeman’s daughter, Eden Bridgeman Sklenar, is now at the helm as the Chief Executive officer and Owner of Ebony and Jet‘s parent company, 1145 Holdings, LLC. She was born in Los Angeles, California but grew up in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I’d say, a mixture of Hollywood and southern hospitality all wrapped up in one. I’m the youngest of three, and I was the only girl, so that also speaks to my level of competitiveness. I am a new mom; I have a 16-month-old daughter. That happened as we were trying to acquire Ebony and Jet found out I was pregnant and was able to birth two things with this company and our beautiful daughter into the world,” she starts the conversation.
Sklenar graduated from the University of Louisville with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications. She earned her MBA in Entrepreneurship at Loyola University’s Chicago-Quinlan School of Business and is a member of The International Business Honor Society.
She brings more than 15 years of senior management experience to the brand, previously working as the Chief Marketing Officer of Manna Inc., one of the largest minority-owned restaurant operators in the U.S. that functions as an affiliate of various restaurant concepts based in Louisville, Kentucky.
Sklenar considers her journey in the private-business sector is firmly rooted in servant leadership, which she says is a “pillar within my family and our family business.”
“I’ve been able to grow in new opportunities, the number of people I need to manage. I try to make sure that I am leading with a servant’s heart, and it’s been interesting that the majority of my career has been within my family operations. We are most known for being a franchisee of different restaurant concepts; we diversified into being a bottle or distributor for Coca-Cola in the U.S. and Canada. As we have acquired different properties, I’ve been able to grow my experience just working with my family,” she says. “I’d say that dynamic alone provides interesting avenues where maybe I don’t necessarily play the corporate politics, but you still have the family politics you have to maneuver. It’s been a fun journey to grow within a family business that has seen successes thus far, and now lead our operations in media with the acquisitions of Ebony and Jet.”
Many historians will look back at 2020 as a pivotal cultural year in areas of business, diversity, inclusion, and civil rights amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic. Sklenar recalls sitting in her quarterly family meeting when her father brought the opportunity to obtain and revitalize Ebony and Jet along with other properties that would come with the acquisition.
“I think, like everyone, we were going through so much; we were sheltering in place from the virus and not sure what each day was going to bring,” she says. Based in Louisville, Kentucky, is her family’s business headquarters. She saw firsthand visual accounts of the turmoil that erupted in the city resulting from the Breanna Taylor police shooting.
“I left that meeting with, either you can call it, a divine vision or a sense that this was something we needed to do for a number of reasons; it would hopefully provide more opportunities for future generations with more business lines and hopefully more wealth creation. But as a millennial seeing the world pull apart, maybe Ebony and Jet could bring us together as they once did in pivotal moments throughout history. So we went after it and were fortunate enough to win in the courts. Then my journey from there was that I needed to bring together a team. The only way that I could do that is if I stepped into the CEO role, which I did in July of this year. I’ve been running ever since as CEO and also as the owner of these iconic brands,” she says, adding that her family had to weigh the cost of procuring the publications because it would mean giving up their anonymity.
Ebony and Jet are now digital platforms, and Sklenar has plans, rollouts, and developed numerous strategies to reimagine both periodicals. She certifies that both publications have immense brand equity and awareness and are known globally.
“I’ve been fortunate to travel domestically and internationally, and the minute I say who I am working for and what I’m trying to do, they know the brand. So the hurdle of brand awareness is something previous administrations did the hard work. For me, it’s finding a way to make Ebony and Jet a bridge within our community, domestically and internationally, instead of just being a singular point of view from an African-American experience,” she says. Sklenar boldly acknowledges the incorporation of the entire Black diaspora as a significant component of her marketing efforts considering many Black Americans are attempting to separate themselves from the international Black community.
“What’s happening with people of African descent around the world because Black people are everywhere, and they’re doing amazing things. Ebony and Jet have to become borderless from the point of view of bridging the divide that has happened over generations into where everyone can see themselves now represented by the brands. So for me, that’s how we need to reimagine it, and plans to expand will allow us to have a borderless brand [and] plan to bring people together underneath these iconic brands.”
Sklenar knows that it is imperative that her media outlets have a rich social media presence, especially if her company wants to tap into the Gen Z demographic, who are a third of the 7.7 billion global population in 2019, outnumbering the 31.5% of people labeled millennials based on a Bloomberg analysis of United Nations data.
Generation Z are those born between 1997 and 2015, and as consumers, they have enormous spending power worth $143 billion according to Business Insider.
According to Forbes, their influence can alter the fields of retail and business. They stand by their needs and beliefs and demand that companies and organizations meet them to gain their patronage.
“What this means is that Gen Zers are choosing to layer their social media time. They are intentional about where and when they choose to engage,” said Heather Dretsch, assistant professor of marketing. She supervised a market research survey with hundreds of participants in the Poole College of Management’s Consumer Behavior Lab.
“The plan for social [media] is that’s where Ebony [needs] to be relevant to a newer generation; that’s where they are. Ebony has to show up and lead conversations which drives them to other avenues to expand upon [like] the short caption, the quick video, and the dance on TikTok. The trends are birthed a lot of times through social media, but maybe it doesn’t give you the full picture. So maybe you need to experience it at Ebony Power 100 or our experiential activations or with the writers that can expand on a relevant topic that people [can] learn from and be fueled. For us, social is almost a gateway into Ebony’s ecosystem that we are building out,” she also explains, including that she has many Gen Zers on her staff and touches every demographic at this present moment.
Sklenar makes sure their voices and perspectives are part of corporate conversations, “I think a lot of times, brands want the research or the data to tell us something, and that is a part of a strategy. But when was the last time someone talked to a Gen Zer ‘what are the things that keep you up at night, or does anything keep you up at night? What is your distinct point of view? How can we provide a pathway forward? As we say, we want to move Black forward, and we don’t talk about that as a certain demographic, but that all want to ascend. Gen Zers are no longer waiting for things [like] going to a four-year college and then spending ten years in this position to hopefully make [their] mark. They want to make their mark right now, and we’re bringing them into a conversation, and being authentic in our approach is how we’re going to engage that next generation.”
Speaking to the La Sentinel she said that “our growth strategy is fueled by culture data, innovative ideas and relentless execution” she plans to use these categories to grow the Ebony brand and utilize specific methods to implement innovation.
She stands on the idea that to increase the Ebony brand, she has to have a complete understanding of ‘who is Ebony’ and answer the question so many people have with legacy brands, why Ebony, and why now?
“So for us, it’s having a clear understanding of our value proposition, fueled by innovative ideas and those different segments of culture and data. But it comes down to Ebony always showing the aspirational opportunities for people of African descent, and harnessing that is where we feel that using data using culture will continue that unique value proposition in the marketplace,” she contends. “I don’t think that there is one method, but it’s a clear picture of the value that Ebony can bring and has always done; it just now needs to find new avenues to continue to amplify and show upward mobility at its core is Ebony. For Jet, it will be something very different. That’s where we will use that brand to lead with innovation to tap into the STEM aspects within our culture that haven’t necessarily had a brand that allowed it to lead within the tech STEM world. That’s where we want Jet to be, so combining these brands will allow us to grow within culture using all the different methods possible.”
Sklenar and her leadership teams are committed to fully finishing Ebony and Jet’s digital transformation and are already rolling out the new offerings. As she plainly states, the opportunity she sees for the company is “world domination.” She wants everyone in every corner of the world to fully comprehend how both brands can uplift, make the global community laugh, and challenge and bring everyone together, as the magazine did from the beginning.
“The opportunities are endless. That’s the brand equity—built for almost 77 years now with Ebony and Jet. I love to tell people that when we took over, and the news broke, I got calls to do Ebony wine and credit cards to do everything possible because people loved the brand. They wanted us to bring it to them to experience it in their everyday lives, from a tangible touch and feel to a digital Metaverse experiential aspect,” she says.
Ebony Media Group can increase market share by becoming a publisher of different verticals similar to Hearst or Conde Nast. Sklenar has tinkered with the idea of expanding the EMG banner by hosting magazines pertaining to house and garden, business, travel, food, and tech. Also, she has contemplated creating outlets specially geared to young Black boys, girls, and Black men. At one point, as she recalls, there was an Ebony Man and Ebony Junior. Sklenar is analyzing what is missing in the marketplace, which is significant when addressing minority communities but, at the same time, not wanting to contribute a general mass of ideas.
“That was partly why we even named the holding company 1145 Holdings, which owns Ebony, Jet, and Ebony Jr. and a few other properties, because we wanted it to attach a name 1145, meaning that November 1945 was when the first Ebony Magazine was published. So it’s a nod to the past and the future that there should be a Black-owned media conglomerate that has expansive opportunities to showcase all the ways that we want to live life, be informed, and continue to be better individuals and have better opportunities for generations to come. When [mentioning] food and travel, we’ve thrown it up on the whiteboard, we’ve looked at what is tech and some of the other publications that are out there not to steal what they’re doing, but to make sure there’s a representation for our community,” she adds.
The biggest challenge the company faces is ensuring it takes advantage of opportunities on the horizon and with the right staff members. The time that Ebony and Jet went into bankruptcy and remained dormant for a period and the attention given to how the brands reemerged in the past year solidified in Sklenar’s mind the relevancy the names still hold within the Black community and its impactful leadership.
“It’s simply meeting the demand currently from the marketplace. So a challenge per se, but I see it as a blessing that people want to see these brands back into their lives and that I need to hire and bring on the right staff to meet that demand,” she discloses.
The traits she looks for when assembling her leadership team and hiring employees for the company are anchored in a straightforward tenet, “my leaders have to care about people in order to work for us.” For the other businesses her family manages, they are devoted to ensuring the care of all their employees. For example, establishing tuition reimbursement; during the holiday season, they host a staff Christmas party where staff members can request a particular dollar for a child 12 years old or younger. Sklenar is also particularly concerned about the employees who work certain hours in her family’s restaurants, taking time away from their families and wanting them to know they are appreciated.
Employee engagement is paramount to the favorable outcome of all her family’s brands, “For the Ebony or Jet employee base, if they’re not also consuming what the brand is putting out, then we can’t be successful. We are a representative of the audience we are trying to speak to and build, and they have to be thoroughly engaged in every step of the way for this to be successful. We used to say we would never acquire a brand restaurant concept that we didn’t want to also eat at; it just didn’t make any sense, and that’s the same type of expectation I have for the team, that they have to be engaged not only in the brand but also in each other in order to see the success that we need.”
In the next five years, the level of growth that Sklenar would like to see for the media arm of her enterprise would be the completion of the Ebony digital landscape.
“Which means you can go through your day and engage with the brand at different points, whether it’s through social media, [the website] or OTT [means over-the-top, where consumers stream their content over the web] meta-universe or Web3. For me, over the next three to five years, is to make sure you’re moving forward, and Ebony can do that,” she says.
“For Jet, number one, we want to launch the brand into the marketplace again. You’ll start seeing that even more over time, and we have a completely different plan for Jet than what most people are expecting us to do, so I’m very excited. From there, it’s developing more ways to amplify our community to see the potential that may not have been there previously for us in creating new brands, acquiring or even learning to make this whole process even better than what it could be.”
On October 29, 2022, there will be the Ebony Power 100 gala. While it is not available for streaming, Sklenar is working to have the infrastructure in place for everyone to enjoy the event in the future. Fans of Ebony can peruse the event’s coverage through social media, and Sklenar has a partnership with Bloomberg media, which will have a special segment after the occasion.
Those fortunate to attend will be inundated with excellence, “I’m so excited to have it hosted at Milk Studios and just what the team is doing visually to bring Ebony Power 100 to light, the number of honorees and Amber Ruffin as our host, the talent in the room. But most importantly, what I expect is when I say excellence, those 100 plus the special honorees that will take the stage for everyone to give them their flowers at that moment, for the idea of all the work that they’ve had to do. The glass ceilings they’ve broken, and the impact they have made in their respective industry. That being on display and that level of excellence is what I’m so incredibly excited to make sure the world knows that these individuals are moving us forward.”