Women in Business Q&A: Sophie Donelson, Editor in Chief, House Beautiful

08/21/2015 03:22 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2016

Sophie Donelson was named editor in chief of House Beautiful in January 2015. She brings a multi-disciplinary background in the media and design worlds that informs her vision for the magazine.

Previously, she served as editor in chief of Hamptons Cottages & Gardens, and held senior editorial positions at ELLE DECOR, Martha Stewart's Blueprint and CITY magazines. During time as an independent journalist she wrote for print and digital publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Departures, and New York Magazine. Donelson was the founding editor of Curbed National and co-founded The Editor at Large's "Editor TV" series, serving as the on-air host for more than 50 segments.

Donelson has also acted as a consultant for new lifestyle brands. Before joining House Beautiful, she was brand director for Cricket's Circle, an editorial and e-commerce site for expecting parents. Prior to that, she was editorial director at C. Wonder, where she established the retailer brand voice and content strategy across all platforms including print, digital, video, social media, and store experience.

Donelson received a writing, literature, and publishing degree from Emerson College where she graduated magna cum laude. She later graduated from the Columbia Publishing Course at the Columbia Journalism School. She and her husband, also a journalist, recently renovated a 1917 apartment in historic Jackson Heights, Queens, which they share with their two-year old son, Teddy.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'm the kind of person who's energized by getting behind a team, an idea or a brand and telling the story to anyone who'll listen. It's silly, but, my high school superlative - "Most School Spirit" - is on my LinkedIn page. Enthusiasm is a defining feature of mine. To me, there's no point in being halfway invested.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at House Beautiful?
It's funny, I think being a reader of House Beautiful and having recently renovated and designed my home are the two experiences I most often reference when asked this question!

I spent the first eight years of my career writing about home design, but segued out for a time and became a passionate reader of media in that space. Calling on my passions as a reader, consumer and constant home-tinkerer is essential to developing the mix of inspiring images and practical advice that House Beautiful readers demand.

At the same time, having left media for projects in the branding and marketing space sharpened another side of my brain. Launching the C. Wonder brand and consulting on e-commerce sites taught me to write in a captivating way. It's that same muscle that helps me communicate why the House Beautiful brand is 119 years strong! In any marketplace, you need a keen understanding of what differentiates your product from others.

Finally, it's just writing a lot - for newspapers and magazines, then digital media, e-commerce sites and advertising, that gave me the confidence and skills to do this job. I credit my brief time working with Margaret Russell at ELLE DECOR as sharpening my writing style. She was incredibly exacting, which while at times was painful, but 100 percent worth it.

You're the new EiC of House Beautiful- what's at the top of your in-tray?
My to-do list ranges from writing love letters to designers I'm dying to publish to defining issue themes and feature packages to chatting with fellow Hearst editor in chiefs who are always up for a lunch at "cafe57." The hardest thing is to make time to actually enjoy decorating, entertaining and living. Thank goodness I have heaps of beautiful pictures and a century of House Beautiful archives at my fingertips.

What are your plans for the House Beautiful brand?
Driving home the importance of decorating. To me, the joy isn't in perfecting a room or buying the chicest products of the season, it's about creating a space that allows you to live well. And it's all connected: If your dining room has a welcoming table, comfy chairs and the right lighting, you're more likely to invite friends over and loose track of time because you're enjoying the moment. Good design fosters good living. It's my belief that if you don't start on the inside, no outfit you wear or coffee you drink will put you in the right mindset for the day. However, waking up in a room you love can do that for you.

What advice can you offer to women who are looking to follow a similar route?
Being open to something new has been the defining feature of my career. I wasn't one of those people who had a realization at age six, I want to be an editor in chief! My story isn't linear. I have enjoyed nearly every job I have ever had, from working on a blueberry farm when I was 12 to waiting tables while in school to working in e-commerce startups. I was never saying, I'll do Job X for a few years in order to get Job Y. My advice is: go for it and go all-in. This is true for career and relationships alike.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I once read an interview with Kelly Wearstler who described her style as being 100 percent in the moment. At work, she works. At home, she parents. This philosophy really works for me. When I'm faced with a 5:45pm deadline and a dozen people who rely on me completing the task, I get it done. Likewise, when I'm home, I'm focused on my son.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The persistent conversation of work-life balance in itself is vexing. Why is my husband never asked this question? The conversation is important and I'm glad we're having it. But there was a time I nearly talked myself out of starting a family simply because I had read so many articles about the struggles of professional women. It can psych you out. For me, I can say that my life feels richer with a family; the highs are higher, the lows lower. And, as with most things, I'm happy to be all in.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Newell Turner, editorial director of the Hearst Design Group, has been a great mentor to me. He was the first to hire me out of college as an assistant editor at Hamptons Cottages & Gardens and again for this role at House Beautiful. I would describe his style as mentoring-by-transparency. He gives a loose rein, thoughtful "pointers", and shares honest stories about his own challenges. Sometimes just knowing that there are road blocks and that life goes on is comforting.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Decorator and author Charlotte Moss is a House Beautiful contributor and a relatively recent friend. Her approach to life and work - in that order - is unique. Charlotte is prolific and inspired and never tells you how "busy" she is, which I love. Also, Mindy Kaling, who has done more positive things for professional women just by being herself. I love the dichotomy of extremely confident, stylish women who answer to themselves first and foremost - and just happen to impress us all along the way.

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?
I would like to cultivate even more amazing contributors, writers, and photographers who believe in the House Beautiful mission to inspire beautiful living through decorating. I'm also going to continually challenge the team to find fresh and creative ways to delight our reader month after month. And on a personal note, I'd like to (finally) finish hanging curtains and art. Then, I'll really fall in love with my new home.