When Lea Ann Leming says her best advice is “be fearless in your career choices,” she’s sharing some tried and tested wisdom. Years ago, when she was unsure of where her career was heading, she took the risk of trading a graduate program at the University of Chicago for an internship in the media industry — a bet that has clearly paid off. Leming’s willingness to try her hand at untested ventures is a quality that has carried her to successful heights throughout her career, from her auspicious start at CNN as a founding member of CNN.com at the dawn of the Internet age to the numerous thriving digital businesses she has co-created and launched. Now, at the leading women’s media group SheKnows Media, she is spearheading dramatic changes within the company — the platform already has more than 75 million unique page views a month across its five brands — as it swells in size and reach, with the bonus of fulfilling her mission of “identifying and developing talent” (through staffing and SheKnows’ Experts Among Us blogger program) and making a difference in women’s lives.
Here, Leming revisits her early career and discusses SheKnows’ steady achievements.
Name: Lea Ann Leming
Position: Chief content officer, SheKnows Media
Resume: Began her career as founding member of CNN.com and CNNfn.com (now CNNMoney). Was VP of content strategy and news features for CNN Interactive in 2001, then a VP of strategic planning for Turner Broadcasting in 2002, where she helped develop the premium gaming service, GameTap. As a founding member of Turner’s New Products Group in 2004, she co-created new digital businesses like TheFrisky, CNNgo and Eatocracy. Went on to launch HLNtv.com as the head of HLN Digital. Joined ABC News Digital as an executive producer in 2012 and SheKnows Media as chief content officer in 2014, where she oversees content from its brands and influencers, social media and the Emmy-award-winning SKM Video Studios.
Birthday: “I’m old enough to have worked on the launch of CNN.com in 1995.”
Hometown: Knoxville, TN
Education: Bachelor’s in English from University of Tennessee
Marital status: Coupled
Media mentors: Scot Safon, CMO and EVP of The Weather Channel; Betty Cohen, founding president of Cartoon Network. “I can’t claim him as a mentor, per se, [but] Ben Sherwood, who ran ABC News when I was there, is my model of impeccable leadership.” (“Each of these people is wildly smart, a visionary, ethical, kind and, most of all, actively encourage ideas from all levels of an organization.”)
Best career advice received: “Your job is not your life,” from Maggie Bellville, VP of Hitachi Consulting, Inc., former executive at Cox and Charter Communications
Guilty pleasure: “Real estate. I can look at houses and apartments online for hours. [Another] guilty pleasure of mine is — even though I don’t work in television news right now — TVNewser. I still go there several times a day.”
Last book read: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Twitter handle: @laleming
Throughout your career, how did you develop the qualities that led you to becoming a visionary and the person spearheading the launch of products?
At the beginning it was happenstance. And then it was curiosity. I actually met somebody at a party in Atlanta and she worked at CNN and said, “There’s this new division called CNN Interactive and you might want to check in with them.” She hooked me up with a friend who introduced me to the head of CNN Interactive, and at that point CNN Interactive was honestly like some forums and CD-ROMs. The guy that became my boss said I was the first writer ever hired for CNN Interactive, which is now CNN Digital. By the time I joined, we changed direction and were building CNN.com. That was the very early days [of] consumer Internet and there weren’t a lot of models to look to in terms of what a news website should look like and what roles people should play. We made mistakes along the way but, ultimately, we also built great stuff and a great team. It was all about experimentation and trying things.
Then during the first Internet bust, I moved over into corporate strategy at Turner Broadcasting and that was a major, major change for me as somebody who was primarily editorial in background. It was a very hardcore MBA training on the job and that’s where I learned all about how you program and position news networks. And through the course of my work there — which involved creating new network strategies as well as gaming strategy for CartoonNetwork.com — we developed a new gaming business called GameTap and then worked on the launch of a whole new division for Turner called the New Products Group, where our sole focus was developing and launching new businesses. That’s where we launched TheFrisky.com for women and a food vertical Eatocracy.com and an international site for CNN. It’s about curiosity and passion and not being afraid to fail and liking to identify talent.
Imagine that you had to mentor yourself early in your career. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given yourself?
I would tell myself not to worry so much. I think that especially younger people in their careers think there are a lot of wrong paths or wrong decisions. And so when they’re trying to make a decision about “Should I stay with this job or not” or change companies or change cities, a lot of times people just worry too much. I would just say — probably like Maggie Bellville told me — your job is not your life. And there are very few wrong decisions — as long as you’re not damaging yourself, someone else or your brand. [With] time I’ve just become much more confident in trying a variety of things.
How have you succeeded in your goals of unifying the SheKnows brands across digital and mobile and increasing video content production?
I’ve actively hired terrific talent for SheKnows. A couple of SheKnows hires include: Amy Boshnack, from Café Mom’s The Stir, [who’s] our editor-in-chief now for SheKnows.com and Melissa Haggerty, our video head who’s worked at Condé and Sundance. I was fortunate enough to get Laurel Pinson, who is the editor-in-chief of the StyleCaster brand, as part of our team when we acquired StyleCaster earlier this year.
And then in terms of evolving SheKnows… we’ve changed our look and feel. We’ve also changed our coverage and our voice. I very much wanted a site that was participating in the conversation. There’s a wide array of things that we’re talking about. And I definitely feel like our site and our coverage is extremely dynamic. We hired a terrific social editor who had been at HLN — a woman named AJ Willingham. We hired a terrific parenting editor, Eve Vawter, who was editor-in-chief of Mommyish.com. Putting these different people together has created in itself a robust conversation.
On the video front, there [are] some great things that we’re launching. We are developing new programs, we’re lining up new talent. We’re going to have some pretty big announcements about how we’ll be working with bloggers and experts and influencers. And StyleCaster will have a large role in that process. Of course BlogHer [recently acquired by SheKnows] has given us — we’re now number one in women’s social media — huge reach to amplify social conversation and distribute video.
What advice do you have for bloggers or experts who want to become a part of the SheKnows network? How do they make themselves stand out?
I think that, first of all, there [are] so many incredibly talented people who maybe haven’t found the perfect platform yet. I would say just reach out to us. We’re very hands on and approachable. Probably the most fun part of my day is when I get to talk to people who are interested in contributing. It’s just being able to speak in an authentic manner about something that’s important to you. I’ll give you an example of one of my friends. He and his wife take their three kids to the Atlanta Pride Parade every year. [It’s] something he feels very strongly about. So they wrote and submitted beautiful photos of the kids. Be willing to put yourself out there and believe that you have something to contribute.
SheKnows has stated it wants to be much more in tune with advertisers and be a leader in terms of expressing what the female buyer wants in the marketplace. What have you gleaned from your audience?
We did a Fem-vertising survey among our users in October. Something that was interesting to me is that like 92 percent of the responders were aware of at least one pro-female ad campaign — for instance, Dove “Real Beauty.” And 47 percent, or just under half, have shared a commercial or a print advertisement with a pro-female message. And nine out of 10 women believe how women are portrayed in advertising has a direct impact on girls’ self-esteem. That’s a huge number. I think as women we can say that, yeah, we probably agree with that, right? That’s a trend in advertising, in general, which I love — positive portrayals of women and girls. I think what our users are telling us is: “We appreciate and we’ll share messages from brands that we agree with. We like to see advertising that puts women in a positive light and/or really in a straightforward way addresses the challenges that we as women still have in our society.”
Janday Wilson is a storyteller based in the greater New York City area. You can find more of her work at jandaywilson.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.