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Robin Burns-McNeill Reflects on CEW

Burns-McNeill had just stepped into her post as president of Calvin Klein Cosmetics Co. in 1983, when Cosmetic Executive Women came calling.

Robin Burns and Michael Gould at a CEW reception in 1986.

Robin Burns-McNeill had just stepped into her post as president of Calvin Klein Cosmetics Co. in 1983, when Cosmetic Executive Women came calling.

This story first appeared in the June 27, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

She recalled that Susan Hays, a prominent leader in the organization who at the time was executive vice president of Geoffrey Beene’s fragrance division, had ask her to join the CEW board. Burns-McNeill acknowledged, “I was quite reluctant, as I had just joined Calvin Klein and didn’t think I’d have the time [to devote to CEW].” But Hays persuaded Burns-McNeill to join by sharing her mission of developing CEW into a meaningful organization for women that attracted executives across the entire beauty industry as members. Hays, said Burns-McNeill, envisioned an organization comprising executives from every aspect of the industry — from retailer to supplier, manufacturing to publishing and editing to the financial world.

“She was a woman who you couldn’t say no to,” said Burns-McNeill, referring to Hays.

At the time, the small board was made up mainly of women from the public relations world, and its mission was centered primarily on networking and some charitable work.

Hays thought the organization could have a much greater impact on female beauty executives and had designs to expand its reach — and its importance. By the late Eighties, Burns-McNeill said more women were entering management roles. In 2000, Burns-McNeill took on the role of chairwoman at CEW — while president and chief executive officer at Victoria’s Secret Beauty — and held the CEW position for four years. During that time, she recalled, there were more women occupying senior-level positions, such as divisional vice president, at major beauty firms, but very few who held ceo posts.

CEW had been looking for strong leadership to help catapult its female members up the executive ranks, and Burns-McNeill said the group found it in Carlotta Jacobson, who became its president in 1999.

“Probably the most important decision we made was convincing Carlotta Jacobson to say yes,” said Burns-McNeill. “She commanded respect from men and women at all levels.”

With Jacobson at the helm, CEW defined its strategic plan around three key pillars — recognition, education and philanthropy — and membership began to flourish, said Burns-McNeill.

“CEW helped women maneuver throughout their career path and celebrate their achievements,” she said.

Burns-McNeill, who cofounded Batallure Beauty in 2006, pointed out that the beauty industry is currently populated by women in senior-level positions, and that hopefully more will take over the corner office in coming years.

“CEW has continued to develop as an organization and more richly address the initial goals [that it laid out],” she said.

What’s more, Jacobson has managed to put the industry organization onto consumers’ radar by appearing on programs such as NBC’s “Today” to promote CEW beauty product award winners. In Burns-McNeill’s view, Jacobson’s TV appearances are showcasing CEW’s ability to “impact the revenue side of this industry.”