On August 22, 2015, Jacqueline Sanders interviewed Mona Lisa Faris about diversity and STEAM. In the interview, Mona Lisa explained her story behind each of the five magazines she founded.
Jacqueline: Today is August 22nd. We are at the BDPA National Conference at the Hilton in Washington, DC, and I am interviewing…
Mona Lisa: Mona Lisa Faris of Diversity. DiversityComm publishes five different digital and print magazines: the Black EOE Journal, the Hispanic Network Magazine, the Professional Woman’s Magazine, the U.S. Veterans Magazine, and the Diversity in STEAM Magazine. Each magazine has its own websit
e, its own subscribers, its own article distribution, its own Social Media and its own conference distribution.
Jacqueline: Why don’t you give us a little bit of history of how long you’ve been in business and how you first got started?
Mona Lisa: It’s an interesting story. I’ve been asked what’s a White girl publishing a Black magazine doing, and when they hear the story, they never ask the question again. Basically, my father came to this country from the Middle East and was given an opportunity at a very young age. He was 16 when he came here, and when he was old enough, he joined the army. After the army, he was given a job by Fluor Corporation. He basically told them, “Don’t judge me by my accent, but if you hire me, I will be the hardest worker. I will always be on time. All I want to do is learn and work for you.” The gentleman who was the recruiter didn’t look at his skin or his voice. He hired him, and my father stayed with them for 35 years. He started off as a welder and got into engineering. He became a consultant, but back then it was a recruiter. He was a diversity recruiter because of his own experience.
We traveled the world. I did not come to America until I was an older teenager, but 6 months after I was born, I lived in South Africa. I’ve lived in Venezuela, Spain, Puerto Rico and back to Spain, so my very first la
nguage was Spanish. The next was Arabic, and the last was English. Growing up in different countries and coming to America only to visit grandma was great, but coming here as a young teenager was a complete culture shock. Before I had moved here, I had lived in South Africa for 3 or 4 years, and my father was on a project helping the Bantus work and teaching them skills that the government was not keen on. He was explaining how we need to teach them a skill, we need to house them, and we need to give them opportunities. He was always about equal opportunities. This was the type of discussions that were at the table.
Social issues were very deep-rooted in all of my family. Coming
here in high school, I found out a lot of my dear friends were foreign-exchange students; I could relate to them. Going into college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but because I was always talking about the places I had come from and what I had experienced, I naturally went into public speaking. I didn’t realize that there was something called intercultural communications, and from there, it snowballed into wanting to discuss. I didn’t even realize what the word ‘diversity’ was at the time, but it was a passion of mine. From that, my brother-in-law said to me and my sister, who was also passionate about it, “You guys should consider writing about this.” It started off as a newsletter that went to all of the HBCU’s. After that, I was speaking to a professor. When I was 19, I had extremely high energy, and I was extremely gun-ho about this. In graduate school, my dean was very upset that I didn’t want to be a professor and that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. He said, “You have to pick between the two.” It was such a turn-off, and to me, it was a sign that I needed to be an entrepreneur because you can’t just say this or that. When I requested to teach a fellowship, I said I didn’t want to do Monday, Wednesday and Friday because I had a job. I wanted the afternoons, Tuesdays and Thursday from 4-6, but she gave me Monday, Wednesday and Friday. She made it difficult, and I said, “You know what? I want to try this other avenue,” because that’s where I felt I belonged.
One day a professor said, “You need to see the National Urban League and meet somebody there for me.” I said, “I don’t know, are you sure its ok? I’m not Black.” He’s like, “Don’t worry about it.” Then, I walked in. Not only did they know who I was, but they practically held my hand and mentored me, guided me and supported me to this day. They introduced me to Corporate America. From Corporate America I started getting great stories, and I started understanding the issues that were much greater than I. I would go up to the clients and say, “What do you like? What don’t you like? What do you want?” The Black EOE Journal was developing so fast that I went from working at a coffee shop to working at my sister’s house to getting an office and having to get a bigger office and more people. I was traveling all the time, and it was just amazing because from the National Urban League I met a lot of other conferences that we partnered with that we’re still partnered with today. I went back to the National Urban League this year, and when I saw Marc Moriel, it was such a reunion.
Clients would tell me, “I really want something that focuses on Latinas / Latinos,” so naturally, I did my research, used the same model and created the Hispanic Network Magazine. I created both to be women-focused, and both of them were extremely popular. From that, I realized that there were too many women-issues and too many great stories that it needed its own platform, so I started the Professional Woman’s Magazine. Then, the National Council of La Raza became a great partner, and Janet Murguia is a fantastic president. With our relationship, she invited me to a segment where President Obama came to speak. This was when he first came into office. She said they were inviting people that had influence within the community and had reached many people, and I came. I heard the president speak and say that the veterans were coming in two years. He said there were 250,000 of them, and they needed jobs. He wanted to know what we were going to do and how we were going to get involved. I sat there and felt that he was speaking to me, and I felt the need to create. Doors opened, and people helped me .
You wouldn’t believe that now, Barnes and Noble told me that U.S. Veterans Magazine is one of the fastest growing magazines. I have to do reprints and send more copies because it’s flying. Each magazine had a STEM focus: African-Americans in STEM, Latinas and Hispanics in STEM, women in STEM, veterans in STEM, and the need for Diversity in STEAM. You have to include the A, the arts and design, because without that, you can’t have the others. Diversity in STEAM came about. All the magazines were created to promote, inspire and advance; for a person to recognize the person or organization in the magazine and say, “That could be me.” I partner with all organizations that pave the way and advance others. From there, it keeps growing. I’m at the point where I’m very selective. Every issue also has a LGBT focus as well as a disability focus. One in particular has a very large disability focus. The other side to that is 25 years ago when I started the company, and this is something that g oes back to my father because he was an employee who always had an entrepreneurial mind. I always believed in diversity-inclusion. I don’t believe you need to have a magazine that just focuses on entrepreneurs and one that just focuses on your employees. They’re the same audiences. I believe and have always believed that diversity-inclusion needs to be there. The magazine has always focused on it. My audience is well because an employee can automatically be an entrepreneur and vice versa.
Jacqueline: All of your magazines are available at Barnes and Noble?
Mona Lisa: You can go to Barnes and Noble, you can go to Amazon, or you can download the app. Four of the magazines are on it, but U.S. Veterans has a separate app. U.S. Veterans has a separate app because again, if you know your audience and you know who you’re dealing with, veterans are a different group, and the distribution is different. When you go to the veterans, you’re looking at the bases, the VA hospitals, and it’s a different realm. It’s not the same as the other magazines. If you subscribe on your app, you get the other four, but veterans have a separate app. The four and the one do not crossover. Again, that’s the thing about me. I understand my audience. I understand who they are and where we need to be. I attend a lot of conferences, and I attend a lot of panels and workshops. It’s very important for me to know the issues and the audiences because how can I report and be in media without knowing that. That way, I understand what issues are sensitive and what issues need to be brought up. Do people understand these different ideas? And, that’s what I report on. There’s something to take away from each story, and if there’s not, why would I put it in the magazine?
Jacqueline: What brings you to the BDPA Conference? Can you talk about your relationship with BDPA and your thoughts in general about this year’s conference?
Mona Lisa: I’m thrilled with my relationship with BDPA because I am finding and meeting some of the most amazing people with amazing stories. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to learn about these individuals that need a platform and that need to be heard, and what other magazine can do it but this? It’s a way to bring the right attention that they need and deserve.
Jacqueline: How long have you been affiliated with BDPA?
Mona Lisa: I’m not sure. It might be 10 years, but with STEAM, the past year. I was thrilled to receive an award last night. I asked why did I win this award because I was so honored, and they stated that they tracked the value of what we had done. Because they saw value, they presented us with an award, which is all I’ve ever wanted. Not the award, but I bring value. That’s what it’s all about. Winning the
award was thrilling, but to hear they saw value, that’s what the real award was for me.
Jacqueline: Your magazine is beautiful, and I love the cover. Why don’t you talk about some issues, topics or stories that you would like to highlight?
Mona Lisa: It’s so exciting. We interviewed Leland Melvin, who is an astronaut that is doing amazing things. He’s with Child Genius and is a BattleBots judge, but he’s doing so much more. He has a STEAM Foundation, so we were able to interview him. What he’s doing with the younger kids in mentoring them is amazing. He’s very familiar with will.i.am who we just interviewed a few days ago. It was such a wonderful interview that I don’t want to give away what’s in it. We believe in a lot of issues, but moreso, he believes in adopting one person at a time and bringing them into STEM. That is something I’ve heard repeatedly, especially at the end of the last panel: bring one along. If you attack it that way and we all bring one along, and then another one along, that’s what we need to do; mentoring.
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