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How Self Magazine’s Joyce Chang Made it to the Top

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Joyce Chang, the Editor in Chief of SELF Magazine poses for a portrait in the SELF offices at One World Trade in New York, New York on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

(New York) Joyce Chang’s job as editor-in-chief of Self Magazine almost didn’t happen.

“I had decided that maybe I was done with print, maybe I was done with publishing, maybe I was done with New York,” Chang told NBC in a recent interview from her office on the 37th floor of the newly constructed One World Trade Center.

Chang says she was ready to leave New York and move across the country to Los Angeles where her family currently lives. Then fate intervened. Joanna Coles called. At the time, Coles was editor-in-chief of women’s magazine Marie Claire.

“I took the meeting,” said Chang. “I just wanted to meet Joanna Coles. I thought that would be cool. You always take the meeting.”

It was that meeting that would change Chang’s career path.

Clean, Beautiful, Thoughtful: Joyce Chang on Remaking SELF Magazine 2:34

“The substance of the conversation was so interesting that, even though I had already connected with a headhunter in Los Angles, even though I had already decided I was going to make this big bold change, I was like ‘I’ll try this, I’ll do this.’ And it’s the thing that led me to [Self]," she recounted.

Chang was offered the job as Coles’ executive editor at the Hearst owned Marie Claire and then followed Coles to Cosmopolitan Magazine. In 2014, at the age of 37, Chang was tapped to become the new editor-in-chief of the Conde Nast-owned Self Magazine. She is also currently the only Asian-American editor-in-chief at the company.

Joyce Chang a young girl, growing up in Providence, Rhode Island. Courtesy Joyce Chang

Sitting on her office couch, Chang has a clear view of downtown New York City and the area of water where the Hudson River meets the East River. Her assistant sits on the other side of a glass wall, separating Chang's office from the rest of the staff. With a clear view of her city and her team, Chang described her first day as editor-in-chief.

“My first job was as an assistant to another editor-in-chief at Conde Nast. So, literally, it was a very meta-experience,” Chang recalled. “Starting out, sitting on the outside of the office and many years later coming back and being on the inside of the office. It was really exciting.”

Chang came to the magazine during a period of turmoil. Self had just completed a difficult year, sales of the magazine had dropped by 10% in 2013, and the publication had seen a decline in ad sales, according to Adweek. All of that was made even more difficult by a major public relations gaffe. The magazine ran a picture of a runner wearing a tutu with the caption: “A racing tutu epidemic has struck NYC’s Central Park, and it’s all because people think these frou frou skirts make you run faster.”

In fact, the tutus were part of a fundraiser for cancer survivors. Angry readers took to social media forcing the magazine’s editors to issue an apology. A week later, Lucy Danziger was no longer the editor-in-chief of Self. On May 1, 2014, Chang took over.

She was given the unenviable task of reviving the brand and by October of 2014, the first issue was published with her vision for the new Self.

Joyce Chang's first Self Magazine cover as Editor-in-Chief, published in October 2014. Courtesy Self Magazine

“I set out to create what I felt a motivated women’s guide to life,” said Chang. “I wanted it to be clean, I wanted it to be thoughtful, I wanted it to be beautiful and I wanted it to feel like a breath of fresh air.”

Her first issue not only featured her vision, but also featured one of the most motivated women she knows - her mother, Helena Chang, the director of UCLA’s Breast Cancer Center.

“My mother is the ultimate in self-made. She came to this country with two suitcases, barely speaking English, and she has become this leading voice for women's medicine today,” Chang said.

Joyce Chang and her mother, Helena. Courtesy Joyce Chang

But Chang acknowledged what many other women do today - that her mother’s success came at a cost. The balance between work, family, and ambition wasn't, and isn't, easy.

“In the beginning when you're a kid, you don't understand why your mom has big dreams and why those big dreams can potentially trump your bed times or your birthday parties or your recitals or your games or all the other things that other mothers seem to do," Chang reflected, "and so growing up, there was some tension there."

“Looking back, I'm so glad that my mom just stuck with it,” Chang continued. “And I think it was even harder for her to explain why she had to do this. But it's that incredible example of when you have something that you really believe in and that you really believe is your purpose and you really believe is your passion. You owe it to yourself to pursue it because you will be a better mother, friend, partner by being true to yourself and pursuing the things that make you happy.”

Chang brings much of that spirit and determination to her own life and career, defining success as doing your best each day and doing what you love.

“It's been a long journey from Providence, Rhode Island, where I grew up, to the thirty-seventh floor here at the World Trade Center," she said. "But it has been steady and it has been exciting and it has been fun and it has been motivating every step of the way.”

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Joyce Chang, the Editor in Chief of SELF Magazine. Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News