Stephanie NöNe Dunivan, the Vice President for Experiential, Branded Solutions and Video at Essence, emanates vitality, relevancy, and empowerment, synonymous with the media brand she represents and the multifaceted audience she serves. As a Hunter College–The City University of New York graduate, Dunivan was introduced to television production when a recruiter visited the Black Student Union, inviting students to sit in as audience members for a new unknown music variety show called 106 & Park. She became immediately enamored with television production, and witnessing the significant representation of African-Americans behind and in front of the camera served as an epiphany for the young music major.
“They were joking, having such a great time, and I was like if I don’t become the next Mary J. Blige, maybe this could be a great backup plan,” she mused. Dunivan set her sights on locating the individual who supervised the interns, but no email was available at the time. Instead, she had to call a hotline, which she did daily. Eventually, Dunivan landed an internship with Inside Edition. She returned to 106 & Park, then hosted by A.J. Calloway and Free Marie, and remained with the program for the next 15 years until the last hosts with Shad Moss, known as Bow Wow and Keshia Chanté.
“It was a great time for me; I didn’t go to an HBCU, but it felt like that was my HBCU days, being a part of that tight-knit family. From there, I moved on to producing the red carpet live shows for the BET and Soul Train Awards (she also produced the first-ever live game show in a mobile app). Then this opportunity to [work with] Essence came in 2017 when they were looking for a new supervising producer of the Essence Festival,” Dunivan recalls. “I was already in love with it as a consumer; the first time I saw Beyonce in 2007 was at the Essence Festival, so of course, I jumped at the opportunity to tell the story of [such an] iconic cultural [brand] – I’m glad they changed the name to Essence Festival of Culture ®. It speaks to the magnitude of what it is for our community, to tell that story was major.”
In 2018, entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis founded Essence Ventures and acquired Essence Communications Inc. from Time Inc.
“We became Black-owned, the whole video team from Time, Inc., fell off, and I was the last video person standing, so I started doing cover shoots and became head of all Essence video,” she says. Today, Dunivan hosts Shop Essence, a live weekly program to facilitate Black-owned businesses to prosper in the E-commerce sector. Within her role, she manages all branded Essence content across its property for such divisions as Afropunk, BeautyCon, and serves as executive producer for the docuseries Time of Essence.
Under her leadership, Dunivan led the video production for the inaugural virtual Essence Festival Culture in 2020, which garnered 70 million views of Festival-related content, with more than 45 million full streams across all platforms.
“We definitely unpack that in episode five of Time of Essence; it’s going to air September 15. But back in 2020, Covid hit at that time; it was March, all other festivals were canceling [and] there was just so much happening in the community with George Floyd, with all of the protests going on, we felt not only should we do it, but we had to do it for our community,” she says. The Essence team had to decide on cultivating a blueprint on how to execute a virtual festival, with Dunivan at the helm, they produced six days of “full content.”
“We were driving with Jesus a little bit; we didn’t know if this was something that people were going to consume if people were interested in seeing Essence Festival at the Superdome. But from the results of 45 million views, and that’s worldwide, we had international acts, we wanted to make sure we were represented because it’s a pandemic, we’re all hurting, [and] in need of some kind of reprieve,” she emphasizes. Utilizing crew members located globally and taking extra measures to ensure the safety of participating artists helped the organization develop a new virtual business vertical.
The loss of revenue generated from the festival adversely impacted New Orleans, Louisiana, due to the pandemic. In 2021, Essence Ventures instituted a hybrid model for smaller events and concerts for the local community. To gain admission to the social functions, patrons had to do community service to unlock their tickets.
“I really love that it was [called] ‘Action for Access,’ and from there, we packaged and produced our virtual event. We saw the numbers grow even more past 45 million. So not only are people interested in it, but we’re fulfilling that FOMO (fear of missing out). So year over year, whether we’re fully on the ground, we have our virtual model, you see the Essence Fest Primetime at Hulu, giving people a peek into our concerts at the Superdome. So that’s never going anywhere,” she vows. “There may be one good thing that came out of the pandemic, opening up the doors and making it readily available to the masses not in NOLA.”
The legacy of the Essence‘s brand serves as a resounding cultural pillar, reminding society of the importance of the African-American woman. As detailed in the first episode, Clarence O. Smith, Denise M. Clark, Cecil Hollingsworth, Jonathan Blount, and Edward Lewis founded the magazine in 1968 to reclaim the narrative of the Black women which proved essential during the President Ronald Reagan era, who led a campaign to disparage the image of Black women, labeling them as “welfare queens.” Today, this often-overlooked demographic has emerged as a formidable force in education, business, politics, sports, entertainment, and media, to name a few. Essence and its partners, 51 Minds, believed reminding their audience of the corporation’s compelling origin story was vital.
“We started looking back at archives for this in 2019,” Dunivan says, speaking of the Time of Essence docuseries. “We originally wanted to come out around our 50th anniversary, which happened to be the year of Covid, so there were a lot of kind hiccups. But everything happens for a reason, and getting OWN as our partner and the catalyst of who was telling our story is the network owned by Oprah Winfrey. In the first episode, Oprah talks about getting that feature in Essence magazine. Throughout her career, you’ll see in this series how much we have supported her to have that now be the conduit for us telling our story on her network as a Black-owned brand; it’s so full circle.”
The five-part one-hour series is available for streaming on OWN and Max.