03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Industry Role Model is My Nonprofit Muse

There's a trifecta of causes that I embrace -- child development in Liberia, prom dress donations, and girls' education -- each a very different labor of love. But they all share a single guiding light, a legendary editor whose mantra for her magazine became my own: style and substance. It's a phrase you have probably heard of before, epitomized by a woman whom I bet you haven't.

Allow me to introduce you to Ruth Whitney, who served 31 years (!) as editor-in-chief of Glamour, during crucial decades of American feminism. She was not a hero of the nonprofit sector like the great school builders, spiritual leaders, community organizers, or philanthropists of our time, yet her legacy could lead many to their charitable callings. That was the case with me, after I discovered her story in 2005, as recipient of a New York Women in Communications scholarship given in her memory.

Is there an individual who inspires you to make an impact on the world? For me, that person is Ms. Whitney. If I could, I would snail mail her a note -- I know she'd read it, as she did every one of about 10,000 pieces of Glamour mail a year. Unfortunately, I'll never have the opportunity to deliver it, but I can still write it:

Dear Ms. Whitney,

We never met. When you passed away in 1999, after a 31-year-career as editor-in-chief of Glamour, I was just a freshman in high school. I didn't read any magazines then, except the occasional issue of Newsweek and Time, titles I know you had at first preferred as well. I didn't read Seventeen, Glamour, Marie Claire, or Cosmo, because I didn't take any women's magazine seriously then.

But five years later, when I was a sophomore journalism major at The College of New Jersey, I was at the bookstore and impulsively picked up my first issue of Glamour. Despite the not-so-serious cover lines, I found a lot of substance inside the magazine, profiles on courageous women around the world and well-reported health stories. I started subscribing, and from there, I was in love with magazines.

That year, I got my first internship at Seventeen, which you once edited, and where I work today as a prom web editor in Hearst Digital Media. But even more auspiciously, that spring, I won a scholarship from New York Women in Communications. When they told me it was the Glamour Ruth Whitney Scholarship, it was the first time I heard your name. Somehow in the glamorous tales of high-profile editor-in-chiefs, like Anna Wintour, Helen Gurley Brown, Grace Mirabella, and Atoosa Rubenstein, your story never came up.

Why? You put the first African-American woman on a cover in 1968. You published stories about date rape, abortion, and a lesbian couple going to prom. Readers canceled subscriptions! But you didn't shy away from the controversy. You led Glamour to win four National Magazine Awards and made it the company's most profitable and widely read publication.

As I researched you more, I learned you didn't like the spotlight. Instead of parties on your anniversaries, you asked S.I. Newhouse to establish scholarships in your name. You didn't intimidate your staff -- you inspired them. You thought of your reader first, not your rate base. I read an article in which current Glamour editor-in-chief Cynthia Leive, one of your protégés, said, "If there was an article that was of interest to you personally, she would ask, 'What does 'she' care about that?' It was all about the reader."

The way you balanced serious reports with style coverage inspires my approach to journalism. That's why I love growing within the Hearst Teen Network -- it balances out the fun of prom shopping with a subtle reminder that one in six U.S. families lives in poverty, so we need to help girls who struggle financially.

Your philosophy to never lose sight of the individual, even when the ultimate goal is to grow an audience in the millions, is the single most important lesson I've taken from you. That doesn't just inspire my career. It inspires the impact I want to make on the world. How can I make someone care about the Liberian child who goes to school without lunch every day? Or the girl in Tanzania who stays at home working because her family can't afford her tuition?

I'm trying my best, through the media campaign I started, She's the First, to help groups of young women realize their small contributions can add up to a sponsorship that makes a huge impact on a girl's life.

As Katie Couric wrote in a eulogy in Time, you changed the way a woman saw herself and the world. Ten years after your passing, "she" is living on multiple, ever-evolving platforms -- tweeting, Facebooking, and blogging. But the one platform that won't change from your many decades of leadership to my new one ahead is simple: style and substance.