As a teenager in 1998, Sesi Magazine's editor-in-chief Andréa Butler had what her mom called an "intense obsession" with magazines. But the experience was soured by the lack of diversity found in the pages of her favorite publications. At the time, the then-17-year-old vowed that if things hadn't changed by the time she was out of school, she'd start her own magazine specifically for young Black women like her. Fast forward to present day, and the former English teacher is now spearheading the only magazine curated for Black female teens currently on newsstands.
"One night, I was laying on my floor and flipping through back issues of Seventeen and Teen People, and I just thought to myself, 'How come there’s never anybody on the cover who looks like me?'" she remembers over two decades later. "On the inside, they may have one token Black girl, but maybe I don’t have her hair texture, I don’t have her skin tone, so this article is irrelevant to me."
I want our readers to know that we know that they exist.
Today, Butler, 39, tries to re-create what she would have wanted to see when she was a teen. One way is with the name of the publication, Sesi, which speaks to Butler's desire to bring young Black girls together. The word, which translates to "sister" in Southern Sotho, a Bantu language, is fitting: Butler wanted the publication to have a “tangible connection to the continent [of Africa],” and she stumbled across the moniker while browsing through African baby names.
Sesi's readership is mainly Gen Z Black teen girls, and Butler says she instantly knew she’d found a winner. “I thought it was perfect because we like to think of the magazine as a best friend or big sister our readers can go to,” she says.
Making Sesi happen was a "circuitous" journey. Butler was an English teacher in North Carolina when she attempted to jump-start the magazine with the release of what she laughingly calls "test issues" in late 2009 and early 2010. The magazine’s test run went on hiatus when she went to work as a writer and editor at Living Social, a social experience platform. Still, she couldn’t let the dream go. In 2012, she decided to seriously pursue the idea with the help of a high school friend, Shannon Boone, with whom she'd worked for the early issues. The duo paired up once again, and relaunched in December of that year. A year later, Butler quit her job at Living Social to focus on the magazine, and now works full-time on print and online versions of Sesi, with a part-time freelancing gig on the side.
Butler says that in addition to the lack of physical representation, the magazines of her youth didn't address issues she was going through as a Black girl. Sesi seeks to change that by highlighting stories of inspiring young Black women and publishing articles about getting involved in the political process nationwide and at the community level. She sees the magazine as a "safe place" where readers can explore their creativity by submitting short stories and poetry for publication.
That's all we do. Celebrate Black girls.
"I want our readers to know that we know that they exist. We know that they are looking for something, just as I was," she says. "I hope they are able to see themselves and recognize that they aren't just an afterthought. That's all we do. Celebrate Black girls. And we want to uplift them and encourage them to explore different careers, different ways of life, and what they can contribute to their neighborhoods, their communities, and their world."
Part of that is highlighting inspiring Black teens and activists in the magazine's quarterly Black Girl Magic column, which features entrepreneurial Black girls focusing on their dreams. "There are so many incredible girls we've talked to over the years," Butler says, citing a 12-year-old who started her own makeup line and Jordyn Janae, who began her own photography business at 13 years old, as examples. "A lot of our readers want to impact their own communities the same way that we want to impact them," she says. "We're all working together to fulfill that mission."
The print version of the quarterly magazine has about 20,000 readers who subscribe for $15 per year. Butler says approximately 98% of their readership comes from the print magazine, while the rest consumes content from Sesi's website. Butler says that it's harder to get regular funding as an independent magazine, so they focus more on subscription sales and donations to keep things running. "We don't feel the digital switch that a lot of other publications do, because our readers prefer print,” she says. It’s a tight and lean setup: Sesi’s staff includes a team of about six to eight freelancers who create content for the magazine under Butler’s direction, while Butler's business partner, Boone, works with an assistant to handle the layout.
However, Butler wasn't sure that tight ship was going to be enough just over a year ago, when she experienced the lowest moment of her magazine career. On July 1, 2019, Butler posted a message to Sesi's website saying the magazine would be closing due to lack of funding.
"I had no more money. We had done so many attempts at fundraising and selling ad space, asking for donations," she recalls. "I was so depressed that day when I put that out. This [had] been my life's work for 10 years, and [I was] devastated, but I [didn’t] know what else to do. I spent the rest of the day in bed and cried, like, ‘What am I going to do? I don't want to do anything else.’" She was initially skeptical of a friend's suggestion that they launch a GoFundMe, but was floored by the outpouring of support.
"I did not expect it at all, but we went semi-viral to the point where all these people who'd never heard of us were subscribing," she says. Her friend launched the fundraiser on July 2, and by the end of the month, they raised enough money to keep the publication running for the rest of the year as well as an influx of new subscriptions, which convinced Butler to give the magazine another shot.
Challenges aside, Butler says there have also been some major wins that have made it all worthwhile, like the moment in October 2017 when Barnes & Noble finally agreed to put Sesi on their newsstands.
"Did I expect [Barnes & Noble] to say yes in 2012? No, but I wrote them every single year anyways," Butler recalls, laughing. "That was the best day, and the best day after that was when they were on newsstands for the summer of 2018. I went to the store, and was like, 'This is for real.' It's been real, but now it's in a store, and that changes things."
Don't give up.
The lack of competition is good from a business standpoint, but Butler still wishes Black girls had more options to choose from when it comes to publications that speak to them. "I think the barriers to entry are just so hard, to start [a] magazine. There have just been so many times that I've cried and thought, ‘Should I be doing this?’ I can see why it's a slow process to [get] more."
Butler emphasizes the difference between loving reading magazines and enjoying the business component of running a magazine. She advises anyone interested in creating their own magazine to do their research, accept that success is not likely to happen overnight, and ignore negativity or discouragement.
"Don't give up, even if someone looks at you like, 'What do you know about starting a publication?' Or, 'You don't have any money.' I didn't have any money when I started it, and we're still here," she says. "Accept that as an entrepreneur, it's going to be an emotional roller coaster. But if you keep persevering, you'll meet people along the way and find little pockets of motivation and encouragement to keep going."