Elaine Welteroth on ageism in the workplace, friends that double as colleagues and the itch for a multi-faceted career

Elaine Welteroth sat down with Rebecca Jarvis on "No Limits" podcast.

September 3, 2019, 10:57 AM

Elaine Welteroth was 29-years-old when she was named editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue magazine in 2016, making her the youngest person and only the second African-American to ever hold the top editorial position in Conde Nast’s 107-year history.

From being drawn to Oprah and Barbara Walters at a young age, to having imaginary interviews in the bathtub, Welteroth says the passion to “pick people’s brains” was always present, but it wasn’t until she was in college that she realized she might make a career out of it.

As she navigated her way through major publications, beginning Ebony, then at Glamour before finally landing at Teen Vogue, she kept her head down and followed the rules, but learned her limits along the way.

“We have to learn how to create boundaries,” Welteroth told ABC News’ Chief Business, Tech and Economics Correspondent Rebecca Jarvis on “No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis” podcast. “We have to learn that we do have limits. We are not superhuman.”

Before becoming editor-in-chief, Welteroth was serving as the beauty director for Teen Vogue, making her the first ever black beauty director at a Conde Nast publication.

“Seeing my race in a headline next to my name in 2012 put a lot of things in perspective for me,” Welteroth said. “It helped me realize that no matter how much I code switch, no matter how much I attempt to assimilate and slick my hair back my race will always walk into the room before I do.”

When she realized she was making history, she also realized the weight of responsibility being added to her new role.

“If my race is going to walk into the room before I do I better start embracing that and figuring out how to use that as my superpower. What are the stories that only I can tell? Who are the kinds of voices that I can amplify?” Welteroth said. “And it really shifted my whole mission and reframed the significance of this opportunity for me.”

While Welteroth was making history with each step in her career progression, she said that being the youngest in charge took its toll on her. She even concealed her age from coworkers and went as far as covering her assistant’s eyes when she filled out her date of birth.

“I very much felt the pressure to work ten times as hard as my counterparts for equal respect,” Welteroth said. “This is something we don't really talk about often but ageism strikes in both directions.”

In January 2018, Welteroth made the decision to step down as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, two months after the publication announced they would no longer run print editions.

“That was both a very hard decision to make and one that I absolutely knew I had to make,” Welteroth said. “My ultimate bucket list of goals had all been checked off and I was ready and eager and yearning for more.”

While Welteroth battled her decision on whether to leave, she said her mentor, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, made her realize she had accomplished her goals at Teen Vogue and was being called to “be braver.”

PHOTO: ABC News' Rebecca Jarvis with Elaine Welteroth for "No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis" podcast.
ABC News' Rebecca Jarvis with Elaine Welteroth for "No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis" podcast.
Taylor Dunn

DuVernay is just one of Welteroth’s impressive and wide-ranging mentors. The list also includes her former boss at Ebony Harriette Cole and marketing executive Bozoma Saint John.

“Younger people who are looking for a mentor need to remember that the best mentee mentor relationships are mutually beneficial, and the best mentors I've had have actually been bosses that I worked for, for a good chunk of years,” Welteroth said.

But mentors don’t have to fall into the category of bosses or older individuals whose careers you aspire to one day have. Welteroth said she also looks to her left and right when seeking guidance.

“Look at people who are in your peer set,” Welteroth said. “I call my friends my colleagues because there isn't a single business decision I make without checking in with certain friends of mine to say can you help me gut check this? Do you think this rate is good? Would you negotiate this differently? It's the best mentorship that I have and we're all the same age.”

Since leaving Teen Vogue, Welteroth has gone on to publish a part-manifesto, part-memoir titled More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say), landing her on The New York Times bestseller list, and taking the reality television world by storm as a judge on Project Runway alongside fashion icons Karlie Kloss and Christian Siriano.

“I have always been a hustler, a really hard worker and what I've learned is that's never going to change. Just because you reach a certain level of success that you define for yourself…there's no finish line.”

Hear more from Elaine Welteroth on episode #127 on “No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis.”