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AAPI Leaders in Beauty Strive to Create Inclusivity

AAPI leaders in beauty say they want to use their positions in the C-suite to promote inclusion and broaden the definition of beauty.

The beauty industry needs a more nuanced approach to continued diversification efforts, especially when it comes to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — and AAPI leaders in beauty are striving to make that shift happen. 

For a long time, representing AAPI people in beauty looked like featuring one person with Asian heritage — usually someone light skinned, with Anglo-leaning features and straight, dark hair — in an advertising campaign. But that is shifting as beauty companies begin to internalize the need for true diversification both in marketing materials and inside their companies.

Roughly 7.5 percent of the population in the U.S., or about 24.5 million people, identify as AAPI, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Data from the Beauty Inc Top 100, shows that five of the 31 largest U.S.-based beauty companies (16 percent of all U.S. beauty companies in the top 100) are run by Asian-American chief executive officers: Amway, led by Milind Pant; Markwins, led by Eric Chen; Olaplex, led by JuE Wong, and E.l.f. Beauty, led by Tarang Amin. There is also L Catterton, a private equity firm with majority holdings in several major beauty brands, which is helmed by James Michael Chu. 

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Of the entire Top 100 beauty companies, ranked by sales, 33 companies are led by Asian or Asian-American executives, with most headquartered in Asia. Two European companies in the Top 100 are led by Asian-Americans: Wella Co., run by Annie Young-Scrivner, and Reckitt Benckiser, helmed by Laxman Narasimhan. There is also Sunny Jain at Unilever, who is president of beauty and personal care.

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Many of the AAPI executives Beauty Inc spoke to for this story said they generally felt welcomed into the beauty industry and supported by mentors on their way to the top, but that they still had to navigate stereotypes, hurdles and racism over the course of their careers. Today, they are striving to build more inclusive companies, inside and out. 

Annie Young-Scrivner, Wella
Annie Young-Scrivner, CEO of Wella. Courtesy of Wella

Young-Scrivner, Wella’s CEO, was told she was “a double dipper,” she said — “because I would check off two boxes for people on diversity, one gender, and the other race.” E.l.f. CEO Amin said he experienced “subtle racism,” including people in meetings assuming he was part of the finance team when he was on the brand team, and inviting everyone except him to baseball games. Wong, CEO of Olaplex, and Deborah Yeh, chief marketing officer at Sephora, both said they have been singled out and asked, “where are you from?” Vicky Tsai, CEO of Tatcha, said she was forced out of the CEO role when she brought in private equity money. 

“The reason you don’t see [founders] as CEOs by the time [the company] makes the top 20, top 30 list, is somehow along the way, what happens to them is what happened to me, which is they are told they are not real CEOs, and then they get replaced by white men, probably French,” said Tsai, who has an MBA from Harvard and had run Tatcha through 2018. “I am not the only founder that this happened to, and I share it now because I don’t want this to happen to other founders in the future, other women founders, other people of color. This system is quite the opposite of beautiful.” 

Young-Scrivner noted that while more Asian women are graduating and getting degrees, many don’t ascend to the highest levels of corporate organizations because of the “bamboo ceiling.” 

“There are certain stereotypes, like ‘can’t really lead people,’ in a way that is negative toward Asians. That is just not true,” she said. 

Several major beauty corporations shared deeper statistics with Beauty Inc on the numbers of AAPI workers in their companies, which are featured at the end of this story.

JuE Wong, Olaplex
JuE Wong, Olaplex CEO. J. RYAN ROBERTSjryan@jryanrober

“Asian Americans [and] Pacific Islanders tend to be very much about, let us do our job, let’s not make waves and we will get recognized. It is actually a very uncomfortable position for most AAPI to be vocal about their lot in life or their situation in America because we are all so grateful for having the opportunity to be here,” said Wong. “I’ve been told, ‘you shouldn’t really talk about this because you are a privileged minority.’” 

Wong, who grew up in Singapore and moved to the U.S. as an adult, said early in her career she felt the need to dress in suits in order to avoid being oversexualized, and that when she was working in finance in Asia was asked inappropriate questions by caucasian men interviewing her for jobs, including, “are you married?” 

“Now that I look back on it, it was their way to put us in our place. To say, ‘I can talk to you like this and what are you going to do about it,’” Wong said.

Sephora’s Yeh said many Asian-American professionals have stories of being stereotyped. “I’ve had instances when people will say something like, ‘you look really young for what you do right now.’ That’s a lovely thing to say to somebody, but it’s a backhanded compliment,” she said. She’s also been asked, “’where you are from?’…But I would be the only person of color in the room, and I’d be the only one being asked.” 

Tsai, who joined the beauty industry from finance, said she endured “extreme racism [and] discrimination” in the beauty industry.

“I was screamed at. I was physically confronted, aggressively threatened repeatedly as recently as a few months ago. And I just took it,” she said. “Even a track record doesn’t protect you, even being in your own company doesn’t protect you from having opportunities taken away,” Tsai said.

Tatcha Vicky Tsai
Tatcha CEO Vicky Tsai. miki chishaki

When she was asked to step out of the CEO role a few years ago, Tsai said it was because an operating partner at the private equity firm that invested in Tatcha told her “their vision was to hire a real CEO.”  

“I asked this operating partner, ‘was there any information that you got that made you feel that way? I’m just curious, I’d love to learn,’ and his response was, ‘if your ego is so big that you’re willing to hurt the company to keep that title, we can have that conversation.’” 

Tsai said she felt ashamed, embarrassed and scared that her business would be harmed and her employees would lose their jobs. “I was never going to tell anybody about this because, to me, it felt very shameful. But then after I watched other people ruin my company for two years and then I had to step back in and fix it, I realized that I am protecting this system with my silence.” 

Today, Tsai and other AAPI leaders in beauty say they want to use their positions in the C-suite to promote inclusion and broaden the definition of beauty. 

Tarang Amin, Elf Beauty
Tarang Amin, CEO of E.l.f. Beauty. courtesy of E.l.f. Beauty

Amin, who was born to Indian parents in East Africa and moved to the U.S. as a young boy, said his immigrant experience has helped drive him to create an inclusive workplace at E.l.f., and it has taught him about business. He helped his parents run a motel on Route 1 in Alexandria, Va., starting from when he was 14 years old, he said. “Everything I know about cash flow, economic profit, how you treat people, really came from those early  entrepreneurial days,” he said.  

“A key theme of mine in terms of how I lead companies is on diversity and inclusion. A lot of that goes on personal experience of often being excluded, and knowing what that felt like, and wanting to create an environment which is much more inclusive, much more diverse,” Amin said. “I was definitely the minority, and I certainly had it much easier than my Black colleagues. I didn’t face the outright racism that they often did. It was more subtle racism or racial stereotypes that people put you in.”

When those incidents did occur, Amin said he spoke up. “[It’s] really challenging and making sure you have not only a seat at the table, but that your voice is also heard,” he said. “It probably made me a more resolute leader, more willing to speak up than the stereotype that you’re not supposed to.” 

Now that he’s in the CEO seat at E.l.f., Amin said he works to make sure the team is diverse, but also that they are trained to give feedback, resolve conflict and have conversations around good or problematic behaviors “so that you don’t fall into the trap of some people speaking and others not,” he said.

Young-Scrivner said she speaks up when stereotypes have come her way, too. “There are stereotypes where it’s a benefit to be an Asian, and there are stereotypes where it’s not so good being Asian,” she said. “The way I’ve been able to overcome those is being really direct and educating people.”

When she joined Wella last year, Young-Scrivner said her initial priority was to create an inclusive culture where people could bring their best selves to work. “Every promotion we’re asking the question, ‘do we have diversity of slate?’ You always want the best candidate to get the job, you just want the slate to be diverse,” she said.

To better serve Asian consumers globally, Young-Scrivner is contemplating taking specific formulations the company makes for the Asian market and making them available globally, she said. She has lived and worked in nearly 30 countries, and moved to the U.S. at age seven after being born in Taiwan. “Growing up as a minority, you’re really aware of the underserved,” she said.

Tsai, too, said her priority is to build a workplace where her employees — who are primarily women and people of color — are valued and given opportunities to grow. 

Since she stepped back into the CEO seat earlier this year, she hired a consulting firm to get a pulse on where the company was today, appointed a longtime employee to a “people function” and launched corporate programming that’s aimed at creating safe spaces for “people to talk about how they feel, how things land with them, so we can all move forward together,” she said. 

“I want to honor the humanity of the people who I am lucky enough to work with. We want to give them room to fly. I want them to matriculate one day throughout the beauty industry, to propagate the entire industry with Tatcha graduates who change the face of this industry, who change the heart of this industry. I want to lift people and start to change the narrative around what is and is not beautiful, and what is and is not worth celebrating,” Tsai said.

Wong said a big focus for her has been on mentoring other Asian-American beauty entrepreneurs, including Amy Liu of Tower 28. Years ago, when Wong was running Murad, she said she advised Liu to take the L’Oréal internship over one with Murad. “I said, ‘well, it pains me to do this because I really like you, but I think you should go to the L’Oréal opportunity,'” Wong said, noting that she feels gratified by Liu’s success.

Deobrah Yeh, Sephora
Deborah Yeh, Sephora CMO courtesy of Sephora

During her years in the beauty industry, Yeh said she’s seen the beauty conversation evolve to become more inclusive. Early on, she was working on an eye makeup shoot with an art director who said the company needed to “cast certain types of models because we need[ed] a certain amount of eye space,” Yeh said. “Since that time, the conversations turned into…’how can we show this look in lots of different types of people and faces.'”

“There’s no reason why we should have a simplistic mind-set about what a person is, and what an Asian person is. In the past, one might have said, ‘I’m doing a casting call, I need one of everything.’ When you say one of everything, what do you mean?”

Sephora aims to sell products that meet the needs of all types of shoppers, Yeh said, and to make the retail shopping experience more inclusive. Sephora’s recent Racial Bias in Retail study “found a unique set of challenges for Asian shoppers that include being seen and welcomed in the store,” Yeh said.

In her role as CMO, Yeh said she feels a major responsibility.

“Marketing roles define the stories that get told, and in many cases, they choose the faces that are represented,” she said. “The way I think about that responsibility, quite personally, is to think about my own kids and to ensure the beauty I’m putting out in the world is something that is welcoming for them and their generation and feels inclusive to the communities even beyond my family.”

A Deeper Look at AAPI Representation

At Shiseido Americas, 33 percent of C-level executives identify as AAPI; 15 percent of leaders at the SVP level and above identify as AAPI; and 14 percent of managers identify as AAPI.

At Sephora Americas, 12.5 percent of executives identify as AAPI, 25 percent of employees vice president and above identify as AAPI, and 16 percent of employees ranked managers or above identify as AAPI.

At P&G Beauty, U.S., 8 percent of employees at the SVP level and above identify as AAPI, 8 percent of director-level and above employees identify as AAPI, and 9 percent of manager-level employees or above identify as AAPI.

At Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., 12.5 percent of the board identify as AAPI, 6.7 percent of C-level executives identify as AAPI, and 16.8 percent of managers identify as AAPI.

At E.l.f. Beauty, 20 percent of the board identify as AAPI, 17 percent of the executive team identify as AAPI, and 13 percent of managers or above identify as AAPI.