As part of our Women in Charge series with BMW, we’re spotlighting women in leadership who are driving change, innovation and impact in their respective fields. So far, we’ve discovered how founder Jasmine Cannon-Ikurusi pitched with purpose and won, got in the driver’s seat for change with Annette Baumeister and explored the eco gender gap with Nicki Shields. This time, we’re getting to know Vanessa Kingori MBE, Chief Business Officer of Condé Nast Britain and Vogue European business advisor. Vanessa shares her story of shattering through glass ceilings and strengthening her sense of self at every step of her career journey.
Tell us your story - how did you find yourself where you are today?
“From a career perspective, my path to where I am now has been a winding road of discovery. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to be and always slightly envied people who, when asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’, could roll an answer off their tongue with confidence and ease. As my career is not a typical one and effectively sits between two sectors, creativity and business, my two passions, the roles I’ve adopted have not been those that are most commonly talked about. So, I had to begin a process of trial and error which has been fun and at times challenging, but a fantastic way to learn”.
Your appointment to British Vogue as their Publishing Director – the first woman to lead the business, and Condé Nast's first Black publisher – made headlines and history. What was that experience like and what does that mean to you?
“Learning that I was not only Conde Nast’s first non-white publisher but also the first woman to lead Vogue was surprising to me, as I associate Vogue with being in the women’s sphere. The feeling was one of incredible progress, where roles seem less gendered than in the past – particularly as Edward Enninful became the first male Editor, a role traditionally held by women, and I took up the business reins.
“For me, whilst this was an interesting moment and there was lots of acknowledgement about it, my thoughts were predominantly on delivering in the role and the path forward to delivering seismic change to the business of Vogue, whilst adding purpose to our business processes.”
How did you navigate the media industry to build your career as a leader, what challenges did you face?
“The key challenge I faced in the media industry is the ongoing desire to categorise people based on their demographics. This is particularly poignant in the advertising industry, as that is what marketers do for audience segmentation. Therefore, it could follow that we look at the individuals leading organisations that we interact with, according to their social descriptors.
“At times I have been called ‘too young’, particularly when graduating to senior roles such as leading GQ. My class has been challenging at times – I am so proud of working class upbringing but have generally operated in spaces where traditionally middle class attributes have been celebrated. And, of course, ethnicity has played a role. Gender has also played its part, particularly when leading in the business sphere, where being listened to when young and female can be challenging.
“Despite all of these things being distracting and requiring lots of navigation, I also think that working through them has made me especially strong and resilient, and I would not change any element of what makes me, me.”
You're a champion for diversity in representation – how do you drive that change?
“For me, the question of diversity goes well beyond ethnicity and gender. We really need to do better for all groups who are othered. Those who are visible and easily identifiable as diverse groups, and those who are not – such as neurodiverse communities. My North Star in this space is about reducing echo chambers and creating growth and higher performance through diversity of perspectives. The views held by groups outside of the norm can be extremely valuable when needing to create new solutions and add fresh layers to ideation.”
What is the one most important thing women can do to future-proof their careers, in today's climate?
“My top two pieces of advice for women finding their way in careers. The first is to own your narrative and own your ideas. It is imperative that we learn to speak up, even when it feels uncomfortable. I have seen far too many women’s ideas and narratives co-opted by those who are perhaps more assertive - often our cultures can value confidence in delivery over true knowledge and authentic insight. This can be incredibly demoralising, as well as limit the career potential of these women.
“The other advice – perhaps controversially – is around fertility. I am seeing so many women struggle with fertility at key moments in their career. Often because if they think they might want to have children, they are often building their careers during their peak fertility years. Sadly work culture is still not where it should be in accommodating this normal and vital part of human life. When some women wait to start trying for children until their careers are in a stronger state, they can find that time may be against them. The key thing is that we really need legislation reform around maternity and fertility and a change in workplace culture to really support women in this space.
“I have seen several friends navigate that cruel reality, some too late.
“Not all women want children, this is of course a very personal choice. My advice for those who do, is that it is worth trying to circumvent a lot of heartache, struggle and investment in time, money and other resources by investigating early if freezing eggs or embryos, as an ‘insurance policy’ for when you are ready, is the right option for you. The effects of challenges to conceive can be devastating to women’s self esteem and to their careers as so many of our organisations are still not organised to create space for the amount of time out this might require.”
What is your vision for the future – for business, sustainability and innovation?
“My vision for the future is one where many more voices from many more perspectives with different life experiences are truly part of the process of finding solutions to fix the world’s biggest problems. I have personally found that we tend not to talk about these challenges as being real until the problem is present – not earlier, when more options are available. I truly believe that normalising speaking more openly about this topic could positively impact the futures of so many women.”
Our partnership with BMW has enabled us to share the stories and lift the voices of women driving change. Tell us more about your own connection with the BMW brand and what it means to you.
“When it comes to building a better future, I prioritise working with people and brands who I believe are ‘walking the walk’ and doing the work to create progress. I have particularly enjoyed Vogue’s ongoing partnership with BMW around Forces for Change, where we highlight the incredible people driving change and purpose-driven innovation. This has led me to build incredible relationships with the brand which are the icing on the cake to an exceptional experience with BMW products.”