Bon Appetits Dawn Davis On Nurturing Creativity And Going With Your Gut
April 14, 2021
Dawn Davis, the new Editor-in-Chief at Conde Nast's Bon Appetit, was most recently at Simon & Schuster, where she founded boutique imprint 37Ink. Her successes have included The Butler, by Wil Haygood, made into a movie by Lee Daniels, and The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl​, by Issa Rae.

Davis also wrote If You Can Stand the Heat: Tales From Chefs and Restaurateurs, that included profiles of chefs including Edna Lewis and Anthony Bourdain. It would seem her latest career is the perfect amalgam of her talents and personal interests. Here, she discusses how she approached fixing Bon Appetit's broken inclusion culture, her business culture priorities and trusting your instincts.

You recently made a career pivot from book publisher to the EIC of Bon Appetit. What did you have to learn or approach in a different way?

Storytelling is a common thread. With books, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I helped authors tell their story. At Bon Appétit, the test kitchen does an amazing job of developing recipes and I am working to have equally appealing storytelling around food. I’m looking to amp up the emotional moments where food is involved; stories about creatives in the kitchen, the cultural shifts that involve food, the scientists working on reducing food waste and beyond. For instance, in March, I had the opportunity to speak with female entrepreneurs, apropos of this group, who are creating and distributing food and beverage related items. Who will be the next founder turned Fortune 500 CEO, the next Stacy Madison? What’s their advice to others?

You took over after a fall-out at Bon Appetit. What positive steps did you implement to refocus the brand’s priorities?

I work with a set of brands, Bon Appetit, Epicurious, Healthyish and Basically so my impact has been at that level. The first step is to create an open environment where everyone feels that they will be heard, to create a workspace that’s not intimidating. I think the importance of listening and encouraging the team to share their perspectives, their unique worldview as it relates to food, is imperative and truly fundamental to who we are and what we’re about. In my experience, more people than you might expect experience imposter syndrome. Do I belong here? If there is anything that I can do and enact immediately, it is to make everyone feel as if they belong.

Favorite part of your job:

Daydreaming about collaborations and working to have them come to fruition.

I learned, particularly in a creative industry, your gut is all you have. If my gut reaction didn't immediately green-light a project, I wasn’t the best advocate for that book. The mistake is thinking you’re always going to be right or that your mind can override your heart.

When is it an advantage to be a woman in your business?

I think women are used to multitasking and code switching between household CEO mode and business exec mode--from Chief Logistics Coordinator to Chief Nurturer. So the necessary switching from creative mind to business mind that this job requires is key. Tapping into my creative energies in the first half of a meeting and switching into my business mindset the second, is second nature to me.

A business mistake you made and what you learned from it:

In my job as a book publisher I would reject books that would go on to become critical or commercial successes and I would berate myself. But I learned, particularly in a creative industry, your gut is all you have. If my gut reaction didn't immediately green-light a project, I wasn’t the best advocate for that book. The mistake is thinking you’re always going to be right or that your mind can override your heart. The goal is to be right more often than wrong and to put an array of wins on the board. Mistakes in any industry are inevitable.

Career highlight:

Publishing The Known World. The author, Edward P. Jones, received his Pulitzer two days before I had my first child. It was an incredible week.

A business culture priority for you now is:

Providing a space where people feel comfortable contributing and publishing a magazine, in print, online, that provides a fun, nourishing and informative place where the food community—those food obsessives found all over the world— want to hang out. I think everyone wins if they feel safe enough to contribute ideas and there’s a culture where no idea is worthless. You never know who will generate the next amazing idea.

Your advice on how to give and receive feedback:

Try to tailor it to accommodate where each person is on their personal and professional journey. It’s not easy and it’s not always feasible but it’s my goal.

Was there ever a time your career was at risk? If yes, how did you overcome it?

When I worked on Wall Street and left at 6pm (as opposed to midnight, the norm) to take a cooking class. I’m pretty sure there was a write up in my file.

Women on your radar:

Not to pander to Dee (WIE Suite founder), but every woman in WIE amazes me. Too many to name. But when we have our break out sessions, I am so motivated. What you have created is inspiring. Whenever someone asks for a recommendation, whether it’s for a branding or PR firm or an expert in a particular field, we’re here for each other. For instance, when I was thinking about ways to cover travel at Bon Appetit, I put my hand up and the ideas and leads were overwhelming! I’m also inspired by Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, one of the scientists who worked on developing a Covid-19 vaccine.

Productivity hack:

Multiple to do lists in various formats - online, stickies, in notebooks. And some kind of physical activity that lets me clear my head and reset. With every whack of a tennis ball, I take one step closer to clarity. And at the moment, I’m enjoying the glory of Central Park. A 7 am morning walk is like a mental retreat.

What motivates you?

When you love your job, there is natural motivation. But also ideas, writers, and the notion of independence.

How has the pandemic changed your business strategy in a good way? Have you made changes to your personal management style during this time?

I don’t know about changes to my personal management style but it’s changed my fashion style. Wearing sweats every day has demotivated me, to be honest. I do try to dress the sweats up with an Rebecca Minkoff or Lingua Franca sweater but one year into the pandemic and I have to proactively motivate myself.

What steps have you taken to usher in a new generation of younger women?

I’m always on the lookout for talented women to add to our team and even if I don’t work with them directly, I let them know I’m available. I try to check in, give advice, solicited and unsolicited. And, I have joined a formal mentoring program, Sophia Chang’s Unlock Her Potential as well as the mentoring program the WIE Suite is setting up.



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