“In the back of my mind I always knew I was going to be part of the family business,” Eden Bridgeman Sklenar says.
That family business—restaurant franchises and beverage holdings—has now expanded to include the fabled EBONY and JET brands that this 34-year-old is determined to put her own mark on. The sense of family, legacy and history that is so much a hallmark of the EBONY and JET origin story is at the heart of Eden’s story as well. Her parents drove home the importance of building something to pass down to future generations. And that’s exactly what she feels makes her the right person to lead the nameplate into its next incarnation, which in her estimation means building on its media roots and expanding into new industries, too.
The only daughter of former NBA star Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman and his wife Doris, Eden has been earning her stripes for more than a decade at the multi-million dollar company her dad started. Today she’s Louisville-based Manna, Inc.’s chief marketing officer as well as a leader in its philanthropic endeavors, which she says fits in with her family’s commitment to pay it forward through programs that support the African-American community. Among the Bridgeman Charitable Group’s portfolio is the white-hot Kentucky Derby-inspired “Trifecta” black-tie fundraising event, which brings out major A-list Black celebrities and a host of other luminaries for a gala evening of pre-race festivities.
You’d think that with these demanding company obligations, plus serving on multiple prestigious boards, taking up the EBONY/JET mantle might be a responsibility that would give even the most seasoned multitasker pause. But, it is that overarching concept of family that fuels Eden’s passion for this new venture as owner and visionary behind the brands’ rebirth.
“I think that the freedom my parents allowed myself and my brothers [who also have leadership roles with Manna, Inc.] to have is that you could start anything and it could be part of and supported by the family business—something that obviously we’re doing with Ebony and Jet now.”
EBONY: Clearly you’re used to wearing a lot of different hats, before we talk shop, can you describe the most outrageous hat you’ve donned for a Derby?
Eden: It’s still my Facebook picture to this day, we call it the Blue Hat. I worked with the designer Loreta Corsetti who is a true artist… it’s probably the most outrageous because when you see it, it just kinda floats on my head and it’s such a unique shape where people said it looked like this sort of floating wave. Like a piece of art. My most known hat was from the year ‘Black Panther’ came out… we had to give a nod to that movie…
EBONY: You and your husband [Greg Sklenar] had what we could dub a ‘re-meet cute’ when he tracked down the sweater you had earlier left in a Chicago bar where you first met. [Eden received her MBA from Chicago’s Loyola University.] Do you have a favorite romantic movie ‘meet cute’?
Eden: Ooh… that’s a good one. I like stories about the hopeless romantic and love … all of those… In recent times I enjoyed ‘The Photograph’ with Issa Rae. My husband would want me to say ‘Love Jones.’
EBONY: Your dad is NBA legend Junior Bridgeman. What’s your favorite sport?
Eden: I love watching the Olympics, and I know that’s not one particular sport, but I think there’s something about the idea of watching the world come together to compete. …Naturally basketball is going to always be No. 1 because of the opportunities it afforded my [family].
EBONY: The Kentucky Derby is such a huge event in Louisville [where Eden and older brothers Ryan and Justin grew up and where their family business is headquartered]; if you had a horse in the race what would it be named?
A: Well, selfishly you’d probably want your name in it, so I’d say "The Garden of Eden," but, you know I think I would have to try to put together a name that [honored Derby history] from an African-American standpoint. Isaac Murphy [1861-1896] is still to this day considered the No. 1 jockey ever… is there a play on something about his story? Murphy’s Law? … I would want that name to tie to people in the past who hadn’t gotten their due.
EBONY: Manna, Inc. owns more than 160 Wendy’s franchises. What’s your favorite Wendy’s menu item?
Eden: That spicy chicken sandwich! If I could—in a way that I didn’t gain any weight—I would have it all the time.
EBONY: Manna, Inc. is based in Louisville, but you currently live in Columbus, Ohio. So you were working virtually before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, then?
Eden: It was planes, trains and automobiles for me prior to Covid and now, yes, it is everything virtual. (laughs)
EBONY: What would you say is your fashion statement?
Eden: I never follow the trends. My style is based upon what I like, current or vintage pieces, which just kinda speak to my personality. But I’ll say my husband has influenced me the most because of that love he has for Chicago and streetwear… I never owned a pair of Jordans before him, but now I’m [collecting] like everyone… (laughs)
EBONY: You’re expecting your first child in June… what are some items that you would you put in a time capsule for your baby?
Eden: It happens to be a girl, so a mini-me (laughs). I’d start with a Bible … the idea that when things are tough this should be where you go to first. From there, and this might seem very odd, but with the new sequel coming out, I would say ‘Coming To America’—which I think stands the test of time and shows the genius of Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in creating this legacy piece. I would add in some photographs [that show] what it means to stand against the injustices of our people in this country. So you have the imagery of what my parents’ and grandparents’ generation spoke to, but also everything that happened last year. I grew up in Louisville where there’s ongoing unrest to this day most recently because of what happened here with Breonna Taylor… so I’d try to show her that the fight isn’t over and now it’s her turn to stand up… And obviously I’d show the progression through some of EBONY and JET’s iconic covers—like Dorothy Dandridge or Martin Luther King Jr. —that have been a lens into Black America for 75 years, and those we are imagining for the future.
EBONY: Speaking of Breonna, what conversations do you think EBONY and Jet should be having around her story and the larger issues raised by it?
Eden: EBONY and JET will allow the voice of the people to be heard...a place where we can have the hard conversations. The honest conversations. [We need to be] that home or safe space that the voiceless can turn to and be heard. … [Publishing] the images of Emmett Till took ‘boldness,’ which is one of the pillars we’re standing upon on this rebirth. [Bringing what was happening in America] to a place where you couldn’t not talk about it—where you had to face what was really happening. So we want to be a medium for those conversations to happen, but also a place for the healing to happen.