Charli Penn: Relationships Editor for Essence.com
AimerAmour: Take me back to when you were in college and what you thought you’d be doing post graduation?
Charli Penn: I entered Spelman College as a psychology major, pre-law. I wanted to be a forensic psychologist. I grew up watching TV shows like Law and Order and CSI. I wanted to solve mysteries. I know that sounds so bizarre when you look at what I do now but that’s what I thought I wanted to do.
I was always a good writer. My mom was a published author and English professor so writing was in my blood. It was always a strength of mine but I never considered it to be a career. My sophomore year at Spelman I took an intro to journalism elective and I fell in love immediately. We were going out and covering stories, writing for the campus newspaper, the Spelman Spotlight, and I was in heaven! I started writing and I didn’t want to stop. In that one semester, everything I saw myself doing had changed.
We didn’t have a communications program or a communications major at Spelman, so even if I wanted to switch my major to journalism I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I decided I didn’t want to do Psychology anymore. So I chose Sociology and Anthropology because it’s the study of people and cultures. I had to really go out of my way to find opportunities in journalism because I didn’t want to be behind when I graduated. I joined the student chapter of the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists [Student Chapter]. It was an instant network of journalists in broadcast, digital, sports, news etc. I was extremely active; I became the Vice President of the chapter. Every year they sent their student members to the national convention, and I was all over it. I would tap someone on the shoulder in the lobby and say, “Hi, I’m Charli, I’m a student, I want to be a journalist, talk to me.’ It didn’t matter who they were, I just really wanted all of that exposure. In the mean time I interned at Creative Loafing, which is an alternative newsweekly in Atlanta and every summer when I went back home to New Jersey I would have a magazine internship in New York City. When I wasn’t in class I was focusing on my journalism career. By the time I graduated I had already had several journalism internships, a wealth of connections and I knew which direction I needed to go in. I could have not done those things and been at square one after graduation. If you’re blessed to know what you want to do at an early age, you have to get a jump-start. Don’t ever wait. If you know what you want to do you have to go for it.
AA: I enjoyed reading your Huffington Post article on your love advice to your future daughter. What would be your top career tips to your future daughter (or younger self) based on career trials, errors and successes?
CCP: I would definitely tell her that you never know who you’re sitting next to. So treat everyone in a professional and kind manner. I’ve watched other people pick and choose who they want to engage with and who they want to network with based off status and seniority because they’re trying to get ahead. I’ve never focused on knowing the right people; I’ve always focused on being the right person to know. When you do that, you build a different kind of professional network, it’s much larger, more supportive and more real. The girl that you sat next to on the train that was just an intern or a junior level associate that time you made casual conversation with her, five years from now she could be the person you’re interviewing with for your next job. You just don’t know. And I think the mistake a lot of young people make (and that I would tell my future daughter not to make) is don’t just try to attach yourself to people who are already stars. Make your own star shine brighter. Align yourself with people who are personally and professionally similar to you and that will serve you well; as apposed to only focusing on success and only dealing with successful people. Eventually we’re all going to be successful.
AA: That is so deep and it makes so much sense! It’s definitely a refreshing perspective on networking.
CP:Thank you! And it’s true. We all know people that walk into a room and only want to connect with particular people because they’re big and they’ve made it. But those aren’t the people that can help you. Truth be told, most of the time when people get to a certain level of success, they aren’t trying to help others. People interact with who they came up with; their peers, not the mentees or the people trying to get on. I have friends all over every publication, top websites and newspapers-we all started together. We were all interns in the trenches sharing horror stories trying to meet up with each other for free lunches and be each others plus ones at events for a photo op. We were having fun getting to know each other and trying to survive in this industry. Now fast-forward ten years later, we’re the people that other people want to connect with. It’s a cycle. But if I hadn’t connected with my peers and I was instead so focused on aligning myself with people from other generations and other levels, we wouldn’t have the sense of family that we have today.
AA: How does one become a “Relationships Editor”? What is the title and expertise based upon?
CP:As a journalist your expertise is what you’re an expert at covering not what you’re an expert at experiencing. I’m really more of what you call a “Lifestyle Editor” which I feel means I specialize in writing about topics that relate to lifestyle. Not necessarily fashion, hair or beauty, but love, sex, relationships and anything family or friendship-oriented. You kind of build up to an expertise and there’s no one-way to get there. If you’re constantly covering news and trends in the same beat, eventually you will become an expert on that area, journalistically speaking, and have amazing contacts you can rely on too. It’s important to have connections within a particular field. For example if I need to do a news story on love and relationships I have a list of contacts from authors to psychologists to people who have their own sex toy lines. You name it; And you don’t have to stick to one specialty. Right now I love writing about love and I’ve embraced it; it’s what makes me happy and it’s fulfilling for me. But if I wanted to write about health, I could do that because I’m a trained journalist. It’s more about your preference at a particular time as long as your skill set is solid.
AA: What are some important business aspects of blogging that you didn’t know when you first started?
CP:It’s important to monetize your brand. Everyone has a brand. Whatever you have to offer, whatever you’re giving out, there’s probably a way to monetize it.The first step to doing that is to acknowledge that you’re great at something. Asses your strengths then think, who can I help? Who can I share this with? Who can I sell this to? You should spend just as much time, if not more, working on your personal brand as you do your professional brand. Meaning if you’re going to give 100% to work give 110% to yourself when you get home. The only way you’re going to discover those opportunities is if you’re focused and paying attention to branding and monetization opportunities. Because there are so many ways to make money. Whether it’s from speaking engagements, selling books or being paid to tweet because you have so many followers. It’s also important to find your competitors or your peers within your industry or your specialty. Look at how they’re monetizing their brand. Reach out and ask them if they’re willing to talk to you. I think you’ll find a camaraderie especially in the digital world. If you ask how someone did it, most people will tell you because there’s a slice of the pie out there for everyone.
AA: Many women in their 30s and 40s haven’t been married and don’t have kids because they’ve been so focused on climbing the career ladder. Many men also say they can’t make time for a relationship because they’re on their ‘grind to be successful’. Everyone is working so gosh darn hard! How do you find a balance between career and relationship?
CP: Honestly, we make time for the things that are important to us. I never really buy into people saying that they only had time to work on their career for the last ten to twenty years. That’s a myth. If you had time to watch TV or grab a drink with your girlfriends or go to a networking event, you had time to go on a date or share that same TV show with your future boyfriend or husband. I don’t buy ‘I was so focused on me that I never got around to it’ No, you didn’t choose to get around to it. And that’s your business. I don’t judge either way but I think the people that find love sooner in life wanted it, chose it and were open to it. The people that didn’t weren’t really checking for it.
If you wake up still single in your 40s, just acknowledge that now you have to do the work. Don’t say it was because you cared so much about your career. I think the people that are too focused on their career and don’t put forth effort to have a balance are doing themselves a disservice because everyone needs that balance. Everyone needs that happiness and if you’re not open to it because you tell yourself you don’t need it, then you probably wont find it. If you ask any older single woman to be honest with herself, how long has she been open to finding love?
AA: Can you talk about your decision to contribute an essay to the book, Bet on Black: African-American Women Celebrate Fatherhood in the Age of Barack Obama.
CP: I am such a daddy’s girl. Since I lost my mother when I was so little, he did an excellent job of being both parents. That’s a story we don’t hear enough.
So much of the media and our story telling is that black fathers are non existent or they’ve abandoned us. But they’re so many stories in my world where black fathers are doing an amazing job. When the editor of the book, Kenrya [Rankin Naasel] asked me to share my story, I couldn’t wait to do it. There isn’t enough dialogue about that out there. If I can add to that and help the cause I was happy to do it. It’s not often you get to pay tribute to your parents for all the wonderful things that they do for us in addition to giving us life. For me it was a unique opportunity to tell the world how amazing my father is without posting it on facebook and have him be apart of a dialogue about black fathers.
AA: How can upcoming bloggers build a unique brand in an overcrowded market?
CP: When I started Man Wife and Dog I didn’t work at Essence. It was definitely a time when there weren’t nearly as many relationship blogs and websites as there are today. I was right at the beginning of that boom so it wasn’t as tricky. But honestly, no one can do what you do like you do. And that’s what you have to tell yourself. No one is like you, there are no carbon copies. You are unique and anything you put into the world will be unique. You have to trust that you will find your own way to do something and create your own moment within that crowded space.
If you truly think that this is your strength then you’ll stand out. People will notice you but you have to keep trying and keep putting yourself out there until people begin paying attention. But if it’s not your strength then you may get drowned out and that’s where people have to be honest with themselves and figure out what am I great at? What makes me unique? And really play into those strengths. That’s where you’ll find the most success.
WAIT! There’s more Charli Penn! Part 2 will be published on the blog, ZonDAmour.com soon!
Photo Credit: Michael Rowe Photography
Special Thanks: Kiah McBride for contributing questions!