Vanessa Kingori was less than a year into her job as publishing director of British Vogue when she found out that she was pregnant.
“That was interesting,” she says. “Everyone had made such a fuss over me getting this big job, I had shattered the glass ceiling being the first woman and the first black person to do it and I had to put my best foot forward every day; perfect outfit, great decisions, so I was nervous when I found out I was having a baby.” She did what she has always done when she feels overwhelmed at work, she asked other women for advice.
Kingori’s son Charles is now one — she says neither of them slept last night because he is teething — and Kingori is on a mission to make sure that every woman has a network like hers that they can call on for guidance.
Today, the start of Black History Month, she and Stephanie Phair, CCO of Farfetch and chairman of the British Fashion Council, are launching Share the Mic UK, to magnify black women’s voices. Seventy white women will relinquish control of their Instagram accounts for a day so that black women can take over and as Kingori puts it “blow their own trumpets so that people know the success they are capable of”.
Author Emma Dabiri will be posting from Gwyneth Paltrow’s account and Kingori’s mentor, advertising executive Karen Blackett, is swapping with Natalie Massenet. Kingori looks incredulous when I ask who she has been paired with: “Kourtney Kardashian. She’s giving me her actual Instagram password. I am terrified.”
They were introduced through a mutual friend and have bonded over their views on motherhood and regulation in the black beauty industry. Kingori would “never have talked so openly about my race and successes a few years ago”. “We based this on Share the Mic US, which happened in June and I worried that it wasn’t very British to ask people to talk about their achievements. But if we don’t, we lose so much potential to prejudice.”
The idea is to keep having conversations and ensure that change comes out of the pain of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter. “The worry is that people will just post one thing, attend a rally, buy a book, but that conversation needs to be deeper. We are at this stage where brands are looking at their output and saying they need at least one woman, a black person, ticking the boxes.
But a lot of it is virtue signalling and it is problematic. The big thing is who is inside the organisation.”Her partner works in intellectual property and they discuss branding. “The thing that needs to change is who is around the table. I don’t want straight white men to think they are obsolete. But they can’t achieve this on their own. We need to have women there. Mistakes are made if things are inauthentic. It isn’t just what we see but who is inside the organisation.”
Kingori had her first break because a friend from university put her in touch with a contact at the Evening Standard, where she started out in advertising. “I didn’t know the job publisher existed. When you come from a working class background you don’t know what’s out there or the soft skills that tend to get you ahead. Class is a huge barrier. At school the careers advisor asked what my parents do – they are divorced, my father is an engineer in Kenya and my mum is a midwife here. The advisor said I’d make a great nurse like my mum.”
From the Standard, she went to GQ. “On my first day I went into my office, held my head in my hands and thought ‘sh*t’. There were all these things I needed to navigate. Then other women got in touch.” What about people who don’t feel they can ask for advice? “You worry you won’t look competent. But if you come at it with respect people find talking cathartic. Maybe in the Nineties women had to keep everything together all the time. Now we are over it. Shoulder-pad woman is over.”
That doesn’t mean you have to take the advice. When Kingori was pregnant, a woman told her to never talk about her child at work. “She said only men can do that, as soon as women do they are seen as mothers and people find it hard to see them as business leads. But they should see me as a mother. I am the template for others. If I make up a mysterious voodoo holding everything together that’s wrong. It is me holding it together.”
The big question though is what will she post to Kardashian’s 102 million followers and if she will get a like from Kim? “I haven’t even had time to think about it,” she says. “It’s giving me anxiety.”