‘Be undeniable:’ Michele Ghee on succeeding as a Black woman in corporate America

Ghee invited as joint Women’s History Month initiative between W&L and VMI

Jin Ni

Michele Ghee believes the first step to success is to make your bed and clean your room every morning. 

“How you start your day is how your day goes,” said Ghee, CEO of Ebony and Jet. The monthly publication highlights Black issues, success, and personalities and has a monthly circulation of 1.3 million readers.

In an industry where both the staff rooms and glossy covers of top magazines like Vanity Fair, Vogue, and People are predominantly white, Ghee stands out.

But that is exactly what Ghee said she wants to do – she wants to be undeniable.

“You need to be your own brand,” Ghee said. “It’s not good enough to just exist – do something that makes you passionate, that makes you seen.”

Ghee spoke as part of a Women’s History Month event on March 21, co-organized by Washington and Lee’s Office of Inclusion and Engagement (OIE) and Virginia Military Institute’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office (DE&I). 

As a Black woman, Ghee often faced challenges at the intersection of her race and gender when she first started working. But she would not be deterred. 

“When the world makes you feel small because you are a minority or because you are a woman, remind yourself of who you are,” Ghee said. “That way, when the time comes, you can stand tall in someone’s face and say ‘I’m great’ and ‘This is going to be great’, whether it’s about a business project or even a personal relationship.”

Her intentionality and her persistence have been the fuel to her successful career and meteoric rise through the ranks.

Before starting as Ebony’s CEO in January 2021, Ghee worked at CNN, A&E, the History Channel, and The Weather Channel. From 2012 to 2018, Ghee served as the Senior Vice President of BET Her, a 24-hour lifestyle network designed for Black women. 

She said it was at CNN — a place where she was often the only woman and person of color at the table — that she began implement ing diversity and inclusion as a daily business practice.

“The journey is lonely sometimes. There were so many hallways I walked where I saw no one looked like me, so many tables I sat at where no one was like me,” Ghee said. 

But Ghee realized she could turn her loneliness into power. As the lone Black woman in the room, she became the resident expert when it came to issues regarding Black women, diversity, and inclusion. Though it was a heavy burden to bear, it was also an opportunity to pave the way for the women who would come after her.

She said she learned to come to meetings prepared, with at least one good question or one good bit of research she could levy. She also used that time to research every statistic there was to know about Black women in the U.S. 

The knowledge made her invaluable, but it did not make her undeniable. 

In 2019, Ghee started her job at 160over90, a top consumer media agency. She was laid off a year later, after contracting COVID-19.

Ghee wanted to be angry. 

“Don’t let these setbacks make you angry,” Ghee warned. “As soon as a woman is labeled ‘angry’, she is considered emotional and unable to handle big roles. As soon as that happens, people trying to crush you win.”

She started recording “Chalkboard Transformations” on Instagram, where she would teach inspirational lessons about work, ambition, and being a successful woman. It was a success that eventually led to her books “Stratechic 2.0: Her Plan, Her Power, Her Purpose” and “Success on Your Terms.”

“When corporate America wanted to make me invisible, this made me undeniable,” Ghee said about her book. “I realized that my purpose is bigger than any paycheck. I would never let myself work again for a company that didn’t value me, didn’t see me, didn’t realize my cultural intelligence, and didn’t honor their word about my roles and responsibilities. I’m worth more than that.”

While making a comeback as an author was not planned, it was not Ghee’s first pivot of her life. She recounted a time in her 20s when she was hanging out with the wrong people, in a relationship with a toxic boyfriend, and abusing substances. She decided to go back to school when she was 26. 

In May 2017, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from her alma mater, Golden Gate University.

“But it is never too late to reset,” Ghee said. “A title does not make me successful. Money and power do not make me successful. Being in a position where I can hire people who look like me – that is what makes me successful.”