On Saturday, following a string of calls to boycott Erin Condren Designs, among the most popular purveyors of inspirational planners marketed to educators and working moms, the company’s eponymous founder and creative director announced a “leave of absence,” handing off control of the company to its new CEO.
At issue, at least primarily, was a June incident in which Condren and two of her children were involved in planning an unsanctioned graduation march for the students of Mira Costa High School in the wealthy suburb of Manhattan Beach, California—a celebration critics say was a tone-deaf display of privilege as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country, and which flaunted a disregard for city regulations during covid-19.
There is a dedicated online community of people who create and consume custom planners, which are often rendered as a way for women to wrestle control of overwhelming circumstances through the creation of diligent schedules illustrated with gel pens, color-coded tags, and inspirational stickers—a collapsing of scrapbooking and executive time for women who want to have it all. In Instagram hashtags and Youtube videos, planners share their weekly planning practices, which reimagine the slog of a to-do list as a form of self-expression and self-care. There are planning explainers for the uninitiated, a yearly “Wild for Planning” conference for the veterans, and some tension between “indie” custom planner creators and those who are carried in big box stores like Staples. Erin Condren is of that latter category.
Condren founded her eponymous company in the early 2000s, according to a profile in Womens’ Wear Daily. As she told the publication, a combination of watching her apparel business dry up and giving birth to twins inspired her to quit her clothing gig and stay home with the kids. Looking for another income source, she began designing birthday cards and stationery, selling them at home shopping parties. In 2007, Condren debuted the LifePlanner, the signature spiral-bound weekly planner that retails for around $60 on the company’s website, and which has been featured on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and the Rachael Ray Show. By 2016, the company was selling half a million LifePlanners a year and had more than 200 employees spread between offices in Austin, Texas and Los Angeles.
Condren is undoubtedly the face of the brand: Not just the founder, but a client, and as a successful female entrepreneur, proof the system works. Condren has said that she schedules every hour of her day a week in advance, a trick she learned from a friend who worked in the White House. She speaks frequently about the testimonies of fans: Women who have used her products to “beat cancer, lose 100 pounds, get into college, save for a house.”
“This brand is really powerful for hundreds of thousands of women who are sharing their struggles, sharing their wins, and sharing their ways of managing it all,” she told Women’s Wear Daily in 2016.
But one struggle the planner brand failed to manage, as did nearly every product-as-lifestyle, was an effective acknowledgment of the Black Lives Matter movement, which by early June had every business from the NFL to Nike scrambling to pledge dollars or, at least, make tepid statements of support. Fans posted about the Erin Condren business’s silence on Black Lives Matter in various community forums until, on June 1st, its Instagram account published a kind of word collage and came out “against division”—the same day, perhaps in response to a number of disparaging comments on that post, the company acknowledged that “words are not enough” and pledged an unspecified donation to UNCF, “the nation’s largest and most effective minority education organization.”
The next week, the account posted an uncredited photograph of an Erin Condren planner done up in the style of the #BLMPlannerChallenge, a week-long campaign encouraging people to use only grayscale pens and stickers to decorate their planners in solidarity with hundreds of years of Black struggle and subjugation.
With all of this dissatisfaction as a backdrop, a story appeared on June 14 in the Easy Reader News, a local news source, describing the ceremony for this year’s Mira Costa High School graduation class, of which one of Condren’s children, Finn, is class president, and another, Kate, is a member. According to the story, the seniors and their parents had been bereft at the prospect of a toned-down ceremony: A request to the city to hand out diplomas in small groups had been denied given the ongoing pandemic. Condren told the paper that she and class leaders had discussed ways to skirt the law: “We even talked about putting hula hoops on the beach for each student,” she said, “so if the authorities said it was an illegal gathering, they could start hula hooping and say it was an exercise class.”
On the day of graduation, there were no hula hoops, but Finn Condren did allegedly text classmates to organize an impromptu “march,” inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter protest along the same route a week prior. As the Easy Reader News described the logic: “The county could ban students from gathering but not from marching.” Photographs of the celebration, with students reveling and parents leaning tightly packed and maskless off of balconies, were printed in the Los Angeles Times alongside stories about Californians flouting social distancing rules.
Some critics of Condren and her business interpreted the story as implying that Condren and her children filed a permit for a Black Lives Matter march and held a graduation instead; the allegation, along with criticisms of the founder for a general lack of diversity in staffing decisions and the creation of a Dr. Seuss series of planners despite the author’s racist iconography, led to a rash of Instagram posts decrying the entrepreneur as “racist” and “canceled.”
Condren, in a statement, said that “I want to clarify that this graduation walk was in no way registered, associated, or guised as a BLM protest.” The Manhattan Beach Police Department and the city manager’s office has not yet responded to calls requesting clarification on whether the “march” was permitted, though it seems likely that parents and students made their plan without the input of city leaders at all.
Condren has also not responded to requests for clarification on these points, though she did post a lengthy apology to Instagram on Thursday. It read, in part:
The Black Lives Matter movement is of the utmost importance to me and my family and has no relation whatsoever to my own irresponsible behavior. In no way was this event meant to minimize or diminish the powerful, just, and necessary movement of Black Lives Matter. I understand that many are rightfully offended by this event and I am deeply sorry. I am dedicated to learning and growing through my mistakes and educating my kids along the way. We have so much to learn, but we are learning, and we WILL do better.
On Saturday, Erin Condren—the business—temporarily divorced itself from Erin Condren, the person, announcing she was taking leave for an unspecified period of time. In a statement, the company’s CEO said she was instituting implicit bias training for all employees. “Our company will not let you down again,” she wrote.