As head of the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Companyone of the
largest and most respected publishing organizations in the
country—Desiree Rogers is tough and has to make critical decisions
when it comes to business. Navigating the company’s flagship
publications, Ebony and Jet, through tough economic times has been a
challenge for the Harvard Business School alumna.
The 55-year-old New Orleans native is no stranger to controversy and innuendo. In 2008, Rogers was named the first African-American Social Secretary at the White House. The position put her under international spotlight when two uninvited guests were able to crash a private White House dinner.
In 2010, she was named CEO of Johnson Publishing in Chicago. She is an innovative leader with a knack for putting past foibles behind her and moving on. In 2014, she was recognized as one of the most powerful women in business by Black Enterprise magazine. Rogers was in New Brunswick, NJ recently to headline the African American Chamber of Commerce’s (AACCNJ) 5th Annual Circle of Achievement Awards gala. We caught up with her for a brief interview.
TNJ.com: Desiree, describe for us a typical day for you running one of the largest and most recognized African American-owned organizations in the country.
Desiree Rogers: No day is typical. My job is something different every day and that’s what I love about it. One thing that doesn’t change is that customers are first. A reader mentioned that it was difficult for him to navigate the web site to locate pictures to purchase. My team and I revamped the website and made it more user-friendly for people to locate some of the thousands of photos in the archivesmany of which have never been published–to purchase. We have regular editorial meetings to discuss topics and issues that we will be covering in the magazine. We discuss photo shoots; Fashion Fair cosmetics. We recently opened two stores in South Africa and we want to establish a presence there. So, I’m all over the place.
TNJ.com: One of the key aspects of the AACCNJ is to not only advocate starting a small business, but successfully implementing the art of reinventionor rebranding. How are you rebranding the legacy we all know as Johnson Publishing?
D.R.: Much of my work and career history has been focused on brandingor rebranding. I was with the Illinois Lottery; Allstate Insurance and of course, the White House. The work I’ve been known for is to develop a more mature brand and recognize that our industry is changing and customers’ tastes are changing. I’ve known the Johnson family for a very long time and felt comfortable with what their goals and aspirations were. I had a good understanding of what Mr. Johnson stood for and what he wanted the company to stand for. Additionally, I recognized what a trailblazer Mrs. Johnson has been and all the work she has done for the Untied Negro College Fund and women and Ebony Fashion Fair cosmetics. It’s all about a new look and new attitude on the work that had been done up until the point when I joined the company.
TNJ.com: Why is it important to establish and support Black-owned businesses. How do you advocate this notion to your readers?
D.R.: We all know that we operate in a world that is more than just black and white. Unfortunately, sometimes we forget our Black colleagues. We mistakenly think another color is better. We need to own our power. If things aren’t happening the way we want them to happen, you need to make it happen and move the lever. It’s not about threatening anyone or anything. Sometimes the only way you get respect is to ask for it. I encourage everyone to support Black-owned businesses. As you go about shopping or buying, think about a Black-owned business where you can shop or a Black-owned bank where you can do business. Money spent in our community, eventually trickles back into our community. We have to support our own and we, at Johnson Publishing, constantly share this philosophy with our readers.
TNJ.com: After 70 years, how do you keep Johnson Publishing and Ebony relevant?
D.R.: What’s old is new. We keep the publication relevant by talking about the issues that are timely and interesting. We regularly cover important and ever=changing topics like voting; education; housing, and economic development. We explore issues and ask questions like why are events like what happened in Ferguson, Mo., and Trayvon Martin still occurring. People react when they see thousands of people marching for the same cause. It’s not only about picketing and marching; it’s about following up on situations and voting. We must make sure the right people, judges and others, are elected and put in place in order to make positive changes. This is how we keep JPC and Ebony as an essential component in the Black community after all of these years.
TNJ.com: Any final thoughts or comments you would like to share?
D.R.: Black media matters! Support our cause. The mainstream media doesn’t cover issues that are important to us. The Black media is critical to the growth of our community. We can’t be divided or selfish if we want to move ahead. I encourage everyone to buy Black and support Black-owned businesses!