During this 4th of July weekend, I had the opportunity to join a delegation of representatives from The Coca-Cola Company at the 21st Annual ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans.  ESSENCE Fest is a celebration featuring premier music artists, community engagement activities and expert speakers.

The festival began in 1995 as a one-time event celebrating the 25th anniversary of ESSENCE, a magazine targeting African-American women. The three-day festival now draws a diverse audience of nearly 500,000 people from around the world who meet in the downtown New Orleans convention district. Though it has gained a broad-based audience over the years, ESSENCE Fest has been regarded by Advertising Age as “the Super Bowl of Marketing to Black Women.”

The festival has evolved to include personal and professional development advice for women, which by extension supports their families and communities. This programming is consistent and synergistic with our company's focus on women through our 5by20 commitment to economically empower 5 million women entrepreneurs by 2020. This year’s festival included free empowerment lectures and continued with music concerts continuing late into Sunday night.

For 20 years, Coca-Cola has been the presenting sponsor of ESSENCE Fest. Our activation, a partnership between North America Community Relations, Global Community Affairs and Multicultural Marketing, reflects the richness of our business and the communities where we operate, as well as the importance of multicultural consumers to our brands and business.

Festival attendees were invited to the Coca-Cola booth at the Morial Convention Center to experience local cuisine, fitness activities, celebrity appearances and a block party. The company also announced a $50,000 grant from The Coca-Cola Foundation to the National Recreation and Park Association to implement the active, healthy living program, Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness.

ESSENCE Festival

For the company's invited guests, the ESSENCE Fest celebration began with a Coke Toast at an opening welcome dinner for customers, partners and civic leaders. The Coke delegation was led by Lauventria Robinson (Multicultural Marketing), Lori George Billingsley (North America Community Relations) and Lisa Borders (Global Community Affairs).

John Lewis
John Lewis

We were also joined by Alexis Herman, Coca-Cola board member and former U.S. Secretary of Labor. Michelle Ebanks, president, ESSENCE Communications, gave brief remarks at the dinner noting Coca-Cola's early investment in ESSENCE Fest (estimated at a half-billion dollars over the years) has contributed significantly to the growth and success of the Festival and has had a profound economic impact on the city of New Orleans.

This was my third time attending ESSENCE Fest and, while the magazine targets an African-American female audience, it now draws a widely diverse group of attendees from lovers of “old school,” hip-hop, blues, jazz and other genres.

Throughout the fest, the company hosted more than 200 community leaders, partners and customers. The ESSENCE Fest is a great example of our aspiration to be “as inclusive as our brands,” to create moments of optimism and make a difference in the communities where we do business.

John Lewis is the Chief Diversity Officer at The Coca-Cola Company. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLCDO.