This profile initially appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.
If you’ve attended many journalism conferences, you’ve probably run into Benét Wilson. She is a capital-B boss — as a business woman, a leader in journalism organizations and a mentor for young journalists. Wilson covered education, economic development and agriculture before turning to aviation. We chatted via email about how she’s learned to use her voice and her time.
“The best advice I ever got was from my dad,” she said. “Be nice and acknowledge everyone you meet going up the ladder, because these are the people that will help you climb higher and also the ones that will help you up in case you fall.”
You’re someone who went through a layoff and, instead of leaving journalism or moving to another newsroom, built your own thing. What did you learn about yourself from that process?
There was a gap before I went 100 percent freelance. After I was laid off in 2011, my part-time freelance business started after competitors and association magazines asked me to start writing for them.
I took a job with an aviation nonprofit that had a whole news department, where I served as newsletters editor and blogger. I also contributed to a magazine and to television news pieces. I left in 2014 to work briefly for an online aviation magazine and a transportation nonprofit.
I went 100 percent freelance with Aviation Queen LLC in January 2016. I knew I always wanted to stay in journalism because that’s what I’ve done for more than 30 years. I’ve learned that I could develop the skills needed to create and maintain a business, but it wasn’t easy in the beginning.
You have a lot of leadership roles right now, including with ONA and NABJ. At events we’ve been at together, I’ve always seen you as someone with your arms out, gathering people and ideas. How would you describe your leadership style, and how did it develop?
My very first job (besides babysitting) was working at my university’s law school. My boss was a person who was very inclusive with her entire staff. She treated me the same as she did with her second in command. She gave us all a great deal of responsibility and the flexibility to get the job done. She would come in and give help when needed, but she didn’t micromanage. I have used her as an example with every job since then.
What do you love/hate about being your own boss?
I love the flexibility. If I need to do something on the journalism side (meetings, conferences, events, trainings, etc.), I don’t have to stress about getting the time off and rationing out my vacation/PTO time. I can also arrange my schedule to do things with my daughter. But I am a sole proprietor, so if I get sick or I’m tired, I can’t just take time off. I’m juggling many different clients at a time, and they are not interested (nor should they be) in my personal issues.
A lot of people consider you a mentor. How did you first begin in that role?
My grandfather (World War II) and father (Vietnam) were 30-year career Air Force officers at a time when there weren’t a lot of them. I watched them nurture and mentor a generation of African-American commissioned and non-commissioned officers. That stuck with me, and I started doing it while I was in college. I also had (and still have) people who mentored me, so I feel like I owe all of them by paying it forward. I only ask that the people I mentor do the same.
You’re also generous with sharing their successes. What does that do for you?
There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing my mentees do well in their careers. I want the industry in general and potential employers in particular to see what they are doing. So I tout new jobs, major stories, presentations and anything else they do on social media, listservs and anywhere else I can. I’m their biggest cheerleader (outside of their parents) and I’m also there with the tough love and real talk when needed.