The youngest editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine shares how passion and a great mentor helped her go from studying ballet to running a major publication

The youngest editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine shares how passion and a great mentor helped her go from studying ballet to running a major publication
Jessica Pels. Photo by Tyler Joe
  • Dan Schawbel is a bestselling author, speaker, entrepreneur, and host of the "5 Questions with Dan Schawbel" podcast, where he interviews world-class humans by asking them just five questions in under 10 minutes.
  • He recently interviewed Jessica Pels, the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan.
  • Pels said the biggest thing that she learned that allowed her to ascend to her current position at Cosmopolitan is "to lean on my passion."
  • When asked for her best piece of career advice, she said "Apply for everything you're not qualified for."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Jessica Pels moved to New York City at age 14 to study ballet at the American Ballet Theatre. After earning her degree in film production at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Jessica held various editorial positions at The New Yorker, Vogue, Glamour, and Teen Vogue before becoming the digital director for Marie Claire magazine.

She left the magazine to accept a similar role at Cosmopolitan, which eventually led to her becoming the youngest person in the history of the magazine to be the editor in chief at age 32. In her position, Jessica oversees the content and editorial operations for the magazine, web, social, video, and editorial innovation projects.

In our conversation, Pels shares what prepared her for her job as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, why ageism doesn't affect her, the ideal mentor relationship, what she wants her legacy to be, and her best career advice.

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Dan Schawbel: What did you learn in your prior job roles that prepared you for your current role?

Jessica Pels: The biggest thing that I learned in previous roles that has powered me forward at every phase is to lean on my passion. So many skills can be taught and learned. I've found over the years that real passion, real enthusiasm, and real investment in the work is something that's rarer, and I have it in spades. I use that to keep me fueled and to keep me exploring, to keep me innovating and to keep me from resting on my laurels. That has been a throughline in my career.


DS: As a fellow millennial leader, I encountered a lot of ageism in my early twenties as I was trying to grow my career. What obstacles have you had to overcome to be the youngest person to ever hold your prestigious position?

JP: I think for me in my particular place at Cosmopolitan, it's an asset to be the youngest EIC because my audience is young. In this one role, as opposed to any other, it's not the age that's been a hurdle. I really do think that it's been a really great way of messaging the brand's connection with its audience. I've been really respected by senior leadership, so I feel it's been a good thing.

DS: You speak a lot about the importance of mentorship, which is a topic that is often talked about but misunderstood. Can you describe your ideal mentor relationship?

The youngest editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine shares how passion and a great mentor helped her go from studying ballet to running a major publication
Dan Schawbel. Courtesy of Dan Schawbel

JP: I'm lucky enough to be in this relationship right now. My boss Kate Lewis is the chief content officer of Hearst Magazines. What we have is so ideal for me as a worker, because she gives me a ton of autonomy and a ton of room to run. What she gives me that is most powerful — and that she's given me from day one — is an immense amount of trust. She's trusted that I had the right sensibility that I had, which was a good gut check that I knew where to take things. She's an amazing sounding board when I do have questions, and she always surprises me by saying something that I couldn't have anticipated that she would say, but it's spot on. The fact that she really gives me room to grow on my own but then grows me actively when I come to her is what's so special. She's just a lovely human being who's very warm. As I mentioned earlier, she brings her passion to work, too. She's deeply passionate about what she does and that's infectious. It's helped me focus on my own and nurture that in my own team.


DS: Over the course of my career, I've interviewed those who have held your position, like Joanna Coles and Kate White. How do you think you'll be different from your predecessors and what unique contribution are you looking to make?

JP: Oh, that's a big one. I hesitate to use the term legacy because it's so heady. But I do think that if I have one, I want it to be that I put the audience first, always, and that I never got in the brand's way in terms of serving the audience. We do that in a lot of great innovative ways. We're a very data-forward magazine, and we are obsessive about audience insights, and we also are the audience. We are a group of millennial and Gen Z women that is very reflective of our readership. I always tell my team that I am not the boss of this brand — the reader is the boss of this brand. Being able to keep that front and center and to hold that up as my ethos, but at the same time push forward and innovate and do things that the audience can't predict, is my secret sauce.

DS: What's your best piece of career advice?

JP: Apply for everything you're not qualified for. If you have the belief that you can do it, you can. Skills can be learned. It's the passion and the drive that is rarer. I have been interviewing candidates for jobs for a decade, and it's shocking to me how few of them have ever said, "I want this job. I love what this company does." I think that really does make you stand out and can help you overcome obstacles.

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