Rechelle Dennis of Girls United on Uplifting a Generation of Disrupters
Hypebae sits down with the co-creator of initiative to discuss this year’s summit, community building and her biggest accomplishments.
Four years ago, Rechelle Dennis, along with co-collaborator Sophia Dennis, set out to curate a digital community for young Black women aimed at advocating for Zillennials by amplifying their voices and providing a platform for them to grow professionally and personally. Through candid conversations with members of the boundary-breaking generation to understand their needs and wants and how to meet them where they’re at, the two launched Girls United, under Essence, and have shifted the cultural landscape ever since. With Essence‘s Girls United, Rechelle and Sophia curate annual summits that speak to all things Black culture from entertainment and politics to entrepreneurship and the arts, by inviting industry insiders to share their insight with the masses.
Each year the masterminds behind Girls United establish a thought-provoking theme to center the summit’s panel topics and event activations around. Following up form last year’s “Forever the Blueprint” theme, the summit marked its fourth return to Atlanta, GA with the “Era of Disruption” theme, shining a light on inspiring individuals who have defied the status quo in the industry by showing up as their true selves shamelessly. Gathering Gen-Z and Zillennial creatives, entrepreneurs, digital creators and more in the same room, Rechelle took the lead in kicking off the star-studded event.
Familiar faces who provided their own words of wisdom, along with Rechelle herself, included sister-duo Jordyn and Jodie Woods on the ins-and-outs of entrepreneurship, fashion designer Aleali May and music engineer Brandra Ringo. Similar to the aforementioned influential individuals, Rechelle has dedicated time and energy to her craft by being a leader to a new generation of culture shifters and empowering them to enter each room, professional or otherwise, as their true, authentic selves.
To get to know Rechelle Dennis, Hypebae sat down with the New York native to discuss her transition from being a former Fashion/Beauty E-Commerce intern at Essence to becoming the Co-Creator and Lead of Essence‘s Girls United, her journey towards self-love and self-confidence and the importance of creating a safe space for young Black women in media and beyond.
What did the transition feel like going from being an Essence intern to Co-Creator and Leader of Essence‘s Girl’s United?
What I really wanted to do and where I envisioned myself at the time was having a beauty brand. As I was interning within the beauty department I realized that wasn’t necessarily something I was really passionate about. What I was actually passionate about was more than just the product but was about the community. I’ve been able to see that in the building of Shea Moisture [and their community.] What I fell in love with [in seeing that] is that you can build a community, you can connect with people, help them and really give them that visibility.
For me, I felt like there was more opportunity in that. Not just thinking about beauty and not just thinking about fashion. When I moved to the e-commerce department, the questions asked were: “How do you connect with people? How do you tell stories? How do you give people value?” For me, it was always about how I can add more value to the people around me.
At its core, Girls United is about providing mentorship for young Black women across multiple fields. In what ways does Girls United approach mentorship in a unique and intentional way?
First and foremost, I want to shout out my team. My team is made up of a lot of young Gen Zers and I think the oldest person on my team is 28. I think what really sets us apart is that not only are we building this community but we are our community. We really are our audience and we like to say that. Anything we do, we always try to think of it from a perspective of if we were interacting with a brand on social media, how would we want them to speak to us? So, we’ve been super hyper-focused in that and making sure that everything we do, we always think of our community first. It’s always been about how we can be authentic. We want to make sure we’re meeting them where they’re at. We know that this audience isn’t flipping through pages anymore, they’re on social media. They want to know how they can further themselves.
Looking back at your younger self, what words of advice would you give her as she embarks on the journey you find yourself on today?
To have confidence in yourself. Having the confidence to walk into any room and bring your full self into it whether that’s how you decide to dress or decide to speak up. Confidence was always something that younger me teeter-tottered on. I was also in spaces that were predominately white participating in the sport of gymnastics before we had the Gabby Douglas or Simone Biles representation. Being within that space for me, it was hard to show up fully as myself and really stand out and speak up.
Talk to us more about this year’s Girls United “Era of Disruption” theme.
My team and I were discussing how are we going to top last year’s “Forever the Blueprint” theme because it had so many legs to it and because it allowed our audience to see themselves as the blueprint. I challenged my team to figure out “How can we top this?” Out of that brainstorm, everyone said “Era of Disruption.” To me, that means going into these spaces, showing up as your whole self and not being afraid to be disruptive, speak your whole truth and use your voice.
It’s about not being afraid of ruffling feathers, obviously always being respectful, but being so sure and certain of yourself that no matter what room you walk into, you know you can flip it on its head for the better.
How do you feel that Girls United encourages young women to be disrupters and break the mold in their personal and professional lives?
Nowadays more than ever, we don’t believe in boxes, you can be so many different things. You can be a corporate baddie but still like going out on the weekends and dance to Megan thee Stallion. You could have a 9 to 5 but be a content creator. So, for us, it’s been about taking off the pressure of feeling like you have to fit into a box because at the end of the day, we’re are so many different things and at the same time, we’re also not so many different things. It’s really about making sure we’re not putting up any barriers on how one person can show up and exist. You can have your hands in so many different pots and create your own blueprint for disruption.
In what ways have you become disruptive in your life?
I think it’s been a long journey. I’ve always been a shy kid. I grew up in the suburbs and a big part of my life was gymnastics and that almost kept me insular because you’re training throughout the summer and for six hours a day. You’re essentially training for the Olympics. I chose not to go the Olympic route [but being a gymnast] allowed me to understand myself as a leader. It helped me find my voice and helped me speak up.
My years at UCLA being on the gymnastics team, is where I really found my strength as a leader. I feel like I always felt like I was a leader but I needed that encouragement and I had a fantastic coach, Miss Val, [who helped.] She really encouraged you to not just be an athlete and to not just look at yourself as one thing because at the end of the day you’re a person. There’s so much more to you than a sport or a profession. That for me was very helpful.
What do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment thus far with Girls United?
I’m somebody that’s very hard on myself because I always feel like I can accomplish more. I’ve always been very ambitious in the sense that I can do so much more, reach and touch so many more people. For me, it’s always about how can you elevate? How can you hit even more goals? So, what I think my biggest accomplishment is with Girls United is getting started. What I mean by that is just getting people to understand our audience, getting brands to understand us and getting people to understand why it’s important to speak to our audience. If I let things in the past dissuade me from starting this, I wouldn’t be able to have the impact I’m having now. For me, impacting one person is huge but being able to impact a multitude of people [goes beyond that].
What I love about it is seeing journeys [like that of] our social media manager, Ryan Sampson who when she came in she was actually a part of our Ulta Beauty Beautiful Possibilities Program where six girls were selected to produce a limited edition makeup collection sold in Ulta and they all got $10,000 USD to apply towards college. What’s so cool is that out of that, Ryan became our social media manager. So, it’s also about that pipeline we’re able to create.
What does the future hold for Girls United?
What we really hope to do with Girls United is first and foremost touch as many people as possible. Coming off the “Era of Disruption” Summit in Atlanta, it was so reassuring to see people from Toronto come in, people from Houston, L.A., and others that drove up with their moms from Tallahassee. That in itself told us that there’s a need for this to come to other cities. That’s what we’re really working towards for 2024, how to bridge that gap. We’re focused on providing as much value as possible for our audience everywhere. We’re not even [focused] on creating a platform, because that’s something we’ve already done, we want to create a network of people and young women that are able to do this.
One of the biggest things that came out of the GU Summit was that everybody in the room was connected in some shape or form. What we really want to encourage is, it’s not about going to things and wanting to meet Issa Rae, it’s about how the next Issa Rae could be sitting next to you. It’s about helping each other because even as we’ve been building the Girls United brand, that’s what’s been so helpful for us.
We’ve worked with so many different platforms like Kimberly from Rich Little Brokegirls and we’ve done so many events with her. We’ve partnered with Black Girls Texting. We’ve partnered with so many different peers that are doing amazing things and I’ve been able to leverage that and provide a lot of exposure to our audience. For me, it’s all about collaboration.