Gillian White is the Senior Vice President for Revenue and Programming at Capital B, a new nonprofit news organization serving Black audiences.
Her role at Capital B is the latest stop on a winding career path. She initially started in finance before shifting to journalism. After attending graduate school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, she worked at Kiplinger and, most recently, The Atlantic.
For Women in Journalism, our Women’s History Month series, White discusses her journey switching career paths, the obstacles that women, particularly women of color, face within the industry, and the importance of young female journalists having a strong support system as they navigate their careers.
You can catch up on the entire series here.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Just to start off, introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about what you do.
I am Gillian White. I am the Senior Vice President of Revenue and Programming at Capital B, which is a nonprofit newsroom focused on Black audiences. And at Capital B as SVP, I’m in charge of our entire revenue strategy, so anything we do with advertisers, sponsors, things like that. Basically, everything that falls outside of the purview of fundraising and grants is my purview. I help a bit with grants and fundraising as well. The programming side of that is really focused on the intersection of what platforms are best for journalism, and if there are potential ways to monetize them. I stood up our events platform, which we kicked off a week ago with our launch event, and then anything that we build after — any opportunities that we see in the podcasting space or anything else where we think it’s a good outlet for journalism and also we think that there’s a way to monetize it and bring some additional revenue into Capital B.
The newsroom side of the journalism world is often romanticized, but the business aspect can be considered less sexy to some. What were your early career goals? How did you end up in the journalism field, and what appealed to you about the business of journalism?
I actually started out not in journalism at all, but it kind of makes sense that I ended up on the business side of journalism. I studied economics in college and a huge portion of folks who study economics in my college went on to banking. I was pretty competitive and wanted to do the thing that people were doing as well. So I landed at a bank right around the time of the financial crisis. I realized pretty quickly, probably after an internship or two, that I really did not love Wall Street. But I had that competitive 22-year-old mindset about me and really wanted to get in there and prove that I could get a job, prove that I could be good at it.
I landed at a bank after college. I was working in high-net-worth wealth management. Eventually, probably about a year into that, they culled my entire class because it was the beginning of the really horrible part of the recession. So I spent a summer being “fun-employed” and really trying to think about what I wanted to do next. In high school and before high school, the thing I’d always wanted to do was journalism — the thing everyone thought I would do. I actually got into Northwestern’s journalism program for undergrad and just felt like it was way too early to be committing to one particular career track.
So I took a job that was going to let me write about Wall Street and equity specifically, so kind of a bridge between those two worlds. I took a class at NYU’s journalism school just to make sure that I liked journalism in practice. I did, so I spent about two years just preparing to go to journalism school because I knew that no one would believe that an ex-banker could actually write in a legible, consistent way. I applied to a bunch of journalism schools, which was really good timing because I had a background and expertise that not a lot of journalists had — which was some pretty in-depth understanding of economics and the world of finance — which was obviously in really high demand in the years right after the recession. I ended up going to Northwestern and spent a year learning how to become a journalist and then finagled out of that a job at Kiplinger, which was a small personal finance magazine that I used to read when I was in banking, and work there, first as a economics reporter, and then pretty quickly moved up to being an economics editor. I knew I wanted something more than that.
I knew that I wanted to write for a more diverse and accessible audience and actually started tweeting a ton about my thoughts on economic findings, on indicators, things that I was writing about. Within probably a year and a half, two years, I got a DM on Twitter from an editor at The Atlantic, saying that she had been following what I was writing and wanted to talk to me. So I joined the Atlantic in 2014 as a reporter and editor on the economics desk, and then just evolved that role from there. I wrote, I edited, I became a senior editor, and then became a deputy editor doing kind of a mix of special project things.
It became clear that there was this really specific path that only a few people could probably do, and only a few people were probably interested in, which was the intersection of our journalism and how we make money on that journalism, which is a really tricky space in journalism right now and has been for quite some time. [I] worked at the intersection of our newsroom and our business team, and tried to help us find creative ways to make money off of our journalism, help fund big journalism that we really wanted to do that required outside support, and find ways to get that — so doing everything from actually editing projects, assigning them and running teams in the newsroom, to going to pitch meetings and working with our business team to figure out how they were going to talk about things outside and pitching actual sponsors on those things, just living on both sides of that. I did that for roughly three years before this opportunity.
Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism, publishing, or business fields or in general that you look up to?
Yeah, I mean, I have lucked out tremendously. I’ve just had some of the very best colleagues. It was actually a former colleague at the Atlantic who helped me think through this Capital B opportunity and figure out that it might actually be good for me. I had a tremendous number of mentors in the journalism community –– a lot of older Black journalists who are just so willing and helpful and will just talk to me about my career and can really understand the nuance of what it is like to try to be a person of color in largely white spaces. It’s really hard to make a decision when you’re in the thick of it, but for folks who have been on the other side of that, or have been in the industry for a while, kind of see the lay of the land. It’s really helpful to have somebody say, “This feels like a big risk now, but it’s not that big of a risk.” Or, “Taking this one job doesn’t mean that you’re permanently foreclosing other opportunities,” and help you see what that path could be, because they’ve seen other people walk it or they’ve walked it themselves.
I have a godmother, A’Lelia Bundles, who was a journalist for years at ABC. She is now an author, and is still very active in the journalism community. Kevin Merida, who is the executive editor of the LA Times, has been just a wonderful mentor to me. Former bosses have been incredible mentors to me, along with colleagues and peers, people my own age, especially other women of color who I’ve worked with. Being able to just bounce ideas off of them and ask them what they think and vice versa has really just been absolutely invaluable.
What advice would you give to your past/younger self when you were just starting out in the journalism industry?
Don’t be afraid. The opportunities will always present themselves as long as you are working really hard, staying true to yourself, and listening to your gut. I had the benefit of starting out my career, my original career, in a job that felt almost viscerally wrong for me. So I know what that feeling is like, and I know when something doesn’t feel right, and I know when I’m not walking in my purpose, and I know what it feels like when I am. So for me, getting that gut check at the ripe old age of 22, 23, I’m really always able to kind of sit in something and say, “Does this ultimately feel more right than wrong?” And if it doesn’t, I need to pivot and really discern what hesitations I have. And sometimes when something feels more right than wrong, but I’m still freaking out, I’m able to tell myself that’s just fear, and being scared of something isn’t a good reason to not pursue it.
At the end of the day, one choice is not all of the choices. If you choose and choose wrong, you can always choose again. Nothing is really the definitive end. So I would tell myself to not put so much pressure on myself to make the perfect choice every single step of the way. You know, careers are generally, and if you’re lucky, very long, and there are lots of choices there. So it’s okay if you don’t make the perfect one.
How do you feel women are represented in the business and development side of journalism? How do you think the business challenges facing the news industry have impacted the representation of women in your field?
I think I’ve been luckier than most in that the Atlantic’s publisher was a woman, Hayley Romer, and a lot of her deputies were women. I got to, as kind of this christening into journalism, just to be surrounded by women who were absolutely running the business side and being really smart, really accomplished. I don’t think that’s the norm at all. Part of the reason that I wanted to come to Capital B is to work with Lauren [Williams] and Akoto [Ofori-Atta]. They’re co-founders, they’re amazing, they’ve had a ton of experience. Lauren was not just the editor-in-chief of Vox, but she was also an SVP there, which meant that she was responsible for running the business side as well and making sure that Vox was financially viable.
I think between those two things, I have found people who are very much like me and who are also women in this space, who have had a lot of success and are able to teach me a ton. I think when I look at the industry more broadly and when I’ve had to step outside of the particular silos in which I’ve worked, obviously the landscape writ large looks very different. Even when I was moving into this new role, the people who had the most hesitation about me taking it were often men,white men, who, despite the qualifications that I have, and despite the fact that even from the short time that I was on Wall Street — that is probably more business experience that a lot of men in business journalism have — they just couldn’t see the full picture in the way that a lot of the women that I work with could. That’s frustrating, and it can be discouraging, but again, you have to go back to having those really good mentors, having those colleagues, and knowing who you are and what you are capable of, and being able to take that risk on yourself and trust yourself that you can achieve the thing that you want to achieve.
What point in your career was the most difficult for you? And how did it affect the way you think about the journalism field now and how it’s going?
White: The very beginning of my journalism career was probably the most difficult. Landing those first few jobs and really figuring out where you want to be in the journalism space is difficult. I was seeing a lot of people that I graduated Medill with go into PR or comms pretty quickly — leave what we think of as traditional journalism, and take these kinds of corporate communication jobs. It’s really easy to think that it’s just impossible to make it in journalism or impossible to make a real living, or impossible to make it to those publications that you actually want to be at when you’re not seeing it around yourself. Having that faith and trying to think about what I really wanted and not get sidetracked. There were a lot of publications that people wanted me to apply to that people thought made sense for me. When I thought about working there, I got that same pit in my stomach that I got from my days in banking where I just knew that’s not the audience I want to be writing for. It’s not the type of journalism that I want to be doing. It’s not where I want to be. I was, again, lucky enough to not have to do that and lucky enough to be able to trust my gut and say no, I want to wait for something that really resonates with me where I want to write for that audience, where I want to write for that publication. It’s the type of journalism that makes me feel like 15-year-old Gillian would be really proud of this.
Women often face a number of unique challenges in professional settings. What are some challenges you faced in your career and are there any sacrifices you’ve had to make that your male counterparts may not have had to?
I think in general, especially coming up as a business reporter, there are just times when your expertise and your capabilities are overlooked. There were times when there was someone who had been at a publication longer than me, but quite frankly, had fewer economic and financial qualifications than me. I was told to check my analysis with that person when it’s like, I literally did this professionally for some time. I assure you, my analysis on what is happening in the market at this moment, is at least as good as, if not more sound, than that person’s. Things like that are really hard.
I think a lot of newsrooms, when you look at their higher ranks, are still boys clubs. I think in the past three to four years in particular, there’s been a huge attempt to change that, but I’ve been in journalism longer than that. When I started out and you have these good ideas, or you have ideas about what you should be doing, but there aren’t other women who are really speaking in the room and it’s just men batting about ideas and congratulating each other on their smart ideas, that’s really hard. Because you’re junior, and you’re a woman, and for me, you’re a Black woman, so no one like me [is] speaking up in these meetings. Can I? Should I? Is that smart?
But for me, my career really started taking off when I realized that people were speaking up, even if their ideas weren’t that good. They were just saying their ideas. And I promised myself that for, I think it was a period of a couple of months, I would just say my ideas and if it seemed like it was going poorly then maybe I would be quiet again. But that’s not what happened. I started being more vocal about my ideas and my thoughts on everything from stories, to how the newsroom was set up, to what we should be covering — things that quite frankly, were not in my purview. I gained some institutional capital, I’d been there for a while, people knew I was a hard worker, they knew I was committed. And I’ve done this in a few places. Just by speaking up more, and having people who listened to me, having higher ups actually, who listened to me and were happy to put me in those meetings, happy to listen to me, happy to elevate me once they realized that I had good ideas and I was going to work hard to do them, that really helped me out.
But those were risks that a lot of my male counterparts didn’t have to take. They didn’t have to sit there for a year plus, wondering if they should speak up, or being nervous to do so, or wondering what the ramifications on their career would be. They just spoke, and for a lot of them, it meant that they ascended, and ascended fairly quickly. It doesn’t mean that they were smarter or more talented than the women in the room. It just means that they saw people like them be part of those conversations and in those roles, and they saw themselves as a part of that lineage. For a lot of us, we didn’t, so we had to take the time to figure out how to do that for ourselves and how to carve that path for ourselves. Every moment, every year, every position that you lose in ascending does something to your career, and it takes longer to catch up.
So, there’s that. There are all of the other choices that women have to make — having children was a choice that I thought about a lot, “Is this the right time? Is this the right time? How established do I want to be? if I’m in a new role, should I give it a year?” Things like that, that again, my male counterparts don’t need to think about. If you’re a woman you physically birth a child, if that is how you’re having a child, but even if you’re adopting, it is likely that you are the primary caretaker of that child. So taking time off to either take care of your body or take care of a new addition to your family is not really an option in the way that it is for men. The time and mental energy that women have to put into those decisions and those conversations and thinking about how to navigate those things are just all things that men do not have to do. And it comes with a cost.
What ways has being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to the way you approach your work?
I think I’m more empathetic and insightful. I think I’m able to read a room because I spend so much time trying to read them just as a woman. Studies that show women are more attuned to what is happening, they’re more attuned to other people’s feelings — they have to be. They have to think about those things. They have to think about people’s responses to them. I think that has been really helpful because part of the thing that helped me rise in newsrooms isn’t that I’m the most aggressive. It’s that the people who work in the newsrooms I work in trust me, believe that I have their best interests at heart, and I think they believe that because it’s true. They believe that because I take the time to get to know them and talk to them, and when things are going wrong, I want to understand why. When people have issues, I want to understand how they can be fixed. Sometimes they can’t be, but a lot of times there are things that could be made better. I think people see that in me, and I think people see that in other female leaders.
I think that is such an important leadership quality that people often forget and forgo in favor of things like aggressiveness and boisterousness and things like that. But at the end of the day, a newsroom is made up of people, and you have to have those people there wanting to work for you, wanting to do their best work, especially at times like these. We’re in a pandemic, there’s a war, there’s a racial reckoning, you name it — things are going absolutely haywire. You have to have people who want to show up and want to be their best and believe that you are trying to be your best for them and trying to shepherd this whole thing in a way that makes everyone successful. I think people feeling seen and feeling understood is crucial to that. I think being a woman and having to read rooms my whole life and understand how I fit into them, or how I could fit into them if I didn’t, was really, really helpful in helping me develop those specific leadership qualities.
Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship?
I was lucky enough that from an early-ish age I always had women who were a little bit above me [and] a little bit kind of below me on the organizational chart. I was really lucky that [with] the women who were a little bit above me, who had been there before, I was always able to ask questions, I was always able to get help, whether it was thinking through a story, or approaching something, or even how to ask for a raise or leverage something. Because I always had that ability, and people were so helpful with me, I really wanted to pass that on. As soon as I got to a position where I wasn’t the most junior woman in the room, I was always happy to work with people, whether it was partnering on a story when I was not the most junior reporter, or I got to a point where there are people, especially women of color, who, if they hadn’t had a raise in a really long time, word got around that Gillian is really knowledgeable about thinking through how you might go about [asking for a raise], or how you are comparably compensated versus other people, and how to have those conversations.
A lot of times it wasn’t even helping people with the hard facts or the ask, it was just helping women have the confidence and understand how to have the conversation because they were so trained to not [ask] and to just work really hard, and if you worked really hard, somebody would notice your effort and give you that promotion and give you that raise. Sometimes the truth is you have to bring those things up, and then people look at your record and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, you are really awesome. We do want to keep you, let me rectify this situation.” A lot of times that has been the way in which I’ve been able to mentor and help younger women. Sometimes it has been people trying to figure out what that next career step is for them, and again, that’s a place where I’ve been so lucky to have so many mentors who can help me see the forest for the trees. Helping younger women, or women in different positions, do that and go through their career path is something that I really love doing. I think helping each other out is a huge, huge part of being in the space and a huge part of being a leader in the space and anyone’s boss. If you’re not doing that, I think you’re probably not helping newsrooms become more equitable.
In what ways do you think business changes can lead to cultural changes within the industry? How do you see yourself taking advantage of these changes to create a more equitable environment for women in journalism?
White: [As] a startup nonprofit newsroom, we get to try and get things right from the jump. We are not trying to rectify 50, 100 years of inequity that has been compounded by societal inequity and all these other things. We get to try and get these things right and use best practices right now.
So for us, part of that is putting the salary online so women aren’t coming in and low balling themselves because they have no idea what the range is, and being honest with what that range is. If we say that the salary for something is $65,000+, that’s what it is. That is what we can afford. We can probably negotiate a little bit around that and we will look at your qualifications and all of those things. But I think just that fact of knowing what the range is where you’re starting is so huge. In the past, people have just said, “How much do you want to make?” or “how much do you want?” “How much did you make at your last job?” The hope, quite frankly, is that people say some salary that’s way below what you budgeted, and you get this person who you think is fantastic at a $30,000 discount. We’re not doing that. We don’t care if you made $35,000 at your last job, if you’re qualified for this job, you can make $65,000, that’s just what it is. That’s a huge part of equity for us.
Also, telling people outright that they do not have to have every single bulleted item on a list. There was a study that showed a lot of women, if they do not meet every single qualification on a list on a job application, they won’t apply for it. If it says 5+ years and they have four and a half, they’re like, “Well, I’m not qualified,” and they won’t apply for it, and they might be an amazing fit. [We are] outright telling people take the risk on yourself, apply, maybe you won’t make it but maybe you will, and then you’ll have this great job that you’re really excited about.
And then I think just leading and having a business culture and a newsroom culture that is built on radical empathy, just trying to see people as people, trying to understand what their career goals are, trying to understand where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are, and wanting to work with them on those weaknesses to get them to that next stage of their career. That is something we’re really focused on and that we’re really thinking about. Being nonprofit allows us to do that — we are not chasing every single last dollar that we can scrape up and we don’t have to do that because we are not-for-profit. We are values-and-mission-driven. We can put that front and center over making every single dollar of revenue that we need to. That really helps in equity and culture and everything else.
What do you hope for the next generation of young women entering the journalism field? What would you like that space to be like?
My hope is that women entering the workforce writ large can just focus on their work. You asked earlier what the cost is of being a woman in this job and in the workplace. I think in general, it’s that a lot of times we can’t just focus on the work, and especially women of color. There’s so many other things that we have to manage. There’s so many other questions that we have to ask. There’s so many other political things that we have to navigate that it’s like, what would it be like if I could just if I could just report, if I didn’t have to worry about my tone when I disagree with an editor, or if I didn’t have to wonder if race was a part of me not getting that promotion, but somebody else who seemingly doesn’t have the same qualifications managed to get it. What would it be like to not use all of that psychic energy to do these other things, to do all this other work? A lot of us have spent a ton of time and a ton of energy helping companies try to overcome all of the bias and all of the inequity while living in it, while having suffered from it. That is work that we are trying to do so that other women do not have to go through it. My hope in journalism — in any job, really — is that women would be able to just show up, do their work, be judged on it in the same way that men are, and not have to do all this extra political, emotional BS, and that they could just show up and try and be really, really good at their jobs and excel at them and just be judged on that and not have to worry about it.
Is there anything else that I should have asked, or anything else you would like us to know about yourself or your organization and the work that you do?
The exciting thing about Capital B is that we get to try and get this right from the jump and we got to try and write the ship and create all these best practices and do all of these things that we think are going to make journalism a better place to be women specifically a better place to be Black women. And that is an unreal opportunity and to do that while serving Black audiences, especially in the local space where you know, Black audiences have been so devalued and have gotten the short end of the stick when they most need reliable news. So being able to try and write all those practices now in this newsroom and in this organization, I think it’s just really exciting.