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Beauty Executives Talk Multiculturalism and Diversity in the Workplace

As the minority population becomes more prominent in America, beauty must shift from multicultural marketing to marketing for a multicultural world.

The face of America is changing rapidly—but is the beauty industry changing with it?

On the one hand, you have the explosion in foundation shade ranges, as ushered in by Rihanna with Fenty Beauty. On the other, the number of women of color (including African-American, Latina, Asian and Native American) in power positions in the beauty industry is shockingly low. In an era in which non-Caucasians are becoming the majority—according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centennials (a.k.a Generation Z) will be the first majority-minority generation in the U.S.—the mandate is not multicultural marketing but marketing for a multicultural world.

For the 2018 Women’s Issue, we asked Esi Eggleston Bracey, senior vice president and chief operating officer of beauty and personal care for Unilever North America, to lead a discussion exploring polyculturalism in business today. How well are companies addressing diversity internally, and why is it a business imperative that they do so? In a wide-ranging conversation that tackled code shifting, unconscious bias and shifting consumer demands, one message was clear: Creating a diverse workforce today is key to success tomorrow.

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Esi Eggleston-Bracey: The statistics are overwhelming, and so profound. Women of color generate $1 trillion as consumers, and $361 billion as entrepreneurs. We know that firms with ethnically and gender-diverse executive teams outperform peers, yet only one in five c-suite leaders is a woman and fewer than one in 30 are women of color. Many people say that being a woman of color is a double whammy. How has being a woman of color impacted you personally in the workplace in terms of both the challenges and the benefits.

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Sharon Chuter, founder of Uoma Beauty: It is a double whammy because you have two things hitting you at the same time. I worked at PepsiCo, and when I went to interview there, the feedback was, “She’s the most qualified, but we don’t think she’ll be a great fit.” I went back and asked why. The answers were, “She’s too girly and pretty for the job, and this is really a guy’s job.” Still, I made it to the next round, and this time I turned up wearing a tomboy shirt with the attitude, “I can do this. You want me to swear like a trucker? I can swear like a trucker.” I got the job and spent years there, but it was so interesting that the gate was already being shut in my face before I even walked in. At that point, I couldn’t even figure out if it was being a woman or being a woman of color. What I know now is that it was most likely a combination of both.
Walking into that kind of situation as a woman of color makes you determined to prove everyone wrong. To me, that’s an advantage, because you walk into every room knowing that people already have a narrative of what they expect you to be. People give women of color jobs when you’re the last alternative or when you are overwhelmingly qualified and they cannot say no. When you walk in, the pressure is on to step up and rewrite that narrative and make sure that you’re performing better than anybody because when that opens the door for the next person, they will remember you and that you were a top performer.

E.E.B.: You saw the lack of comfort with who they thought you were, so to get the job you made a choice to present yourself in a way to be more comfortable for them. There is a Harvard Business Review paper that says it’s not uncommon for black women to feel like they have to dim their light, which is what you’re talking about, in order to better fit in the culture of the workplace. How do you overcome that? How can you be successful and still bring yourself to the workforce?

JuE Wong, global chief executive officer of Moroccanoil: As an Asian and a woman, my experience is quite different. As an Asian, I’m always feeling like how do I get a little bit louder, how do I be more present? There are generalizations, for better or for worse, that Asians are more hard working—we hunker down, we don’t talk back and we do what we’re told. Generally, I have an easier time getting interviews, but where I get a look back is when they expect me to be quiet, roll with the punches and not rock the boat. But at the same time, I appreciate my colleagues having that stereotype because at the end of the day I can try to change it. Just like Sharon said—let’s open the door for people behind us.

S.C.: On the other side of it, as a black woman everyone thinks you have too much fire. If you open your mouth or challenge someone in a meeting, you’re angry.

Trisch Smith, executive vice president and managing director of diversity and inclusion at Edelman: The realities are different for different women. That’s based upon the fact that we all have different stereotypes and idiosyncrasies about what we feel and think about certain populations. When we go into our workplaces, it’s a microcosm of the world. While you’re showing up in your own authentic self, people see you through their own lens. So it’s up to you to determine whether to step up and help negate those myths. Some people get tired of that, because it can be overwhelming and taxing, but it’s a reality that people have their own emotions and stereotypes, based on an experience they’ve had or not.

E.E.B.: Knowing these realities, how have you overcome that? What has been a breakthrough for you in bringing your true self to work and not dimming your light, but still feeling like you’re making a contribution?

Lela Coffey, brand director of beauty at Procter & Gamble: For me, it’s results and fortitude. Results buy you a lot of license to do what you want to do and the fortitude to just work through it. I will get the results for you—but I need to be able to get them my way, because the way you’re going to get the best from me is for me to be myself.

E.E.B.: So you focus first on delivering the numbers and after that you felt like you had permission?

L.C.: I think you also get more comfortable being yourself and then you realize that it’s because I’m being myself that the results are coming. It’s the reverse of saying I was doing all the code shifting and really not able to deliver all that I could.

E.E.B.: Can you share what you mean by code shifting and how you’ve experienced that?

L.C.: It’s assimilation—so you change yourself based on the audience that you’re in. You might dress a little differently at work if you feel natural hair or braids aren’t acceptable, so you change your hair at work but when you’re in your home environment you look or talk differently. It’s the way we’ve been able through time to fit in and not be seen as threatening. Code shifting has been a way to get along, but more and more the attitude is, “No, we’re not going to do that; we will bring our whole selves to work.”

E.E.B.: When I was coming into the industry many years ago, we accepted it. We called it being bicultural, which is how to be proficient and effective in one culture and then to shift and be effective in your home culture. The trade-off is—given the energy it takes—are companies getting the best out of us when we do that? And if we’re making the shifts then many other people around us are, too, and how do we lead through that so we create change?

Mary Carmen Gasco-Buisson, brand creation and venture portfolio leader at P&G Ventures: It goes back to valuing diverse points of view and enabling all voices to be heard, no matter what that voice sounds like. It may be a more quiet voice or it might sound like a loud Latina like me; sometimes it comes in cognitive thinking, the way someone approaches a problem. Some people are more left brain, others are right brain. Valuing and extracting the best out of those different points of view is something I look to do every day. There is a part about being very intentional, about looking at the organization and at that room and asking, do I have representation from all the groups? Often we don’t, so we are very intentional when we hire.

Also, a lot of it is coaching. One thing that has been super crucial for me has been having a safe place to go when things are really not going well. Having that support structure allows me to deal with the emotions of what’s happening in a safe environment where I can unleash all of that Latin passion without it coming back and hurting me. Once that energy is unleashed, then being able to be thoughtful about what isn’t working and what needs to be adjusted and having a logical conversation with the people who I need to has been important to me, so I seek to do that for others. Things will happen to all of us and the question of whether or not you’ll succeed has to do with how you respond.

E.E.B.: You talk about mentoring others—what challenges have you had to overcome and how have you done that?

M.C.G.B.: When I was very young in my career, I would get feedback around being too passionate or too emotional, because I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve. I quickly realized that people were equating that with a lack of objectivity. You can imagine that in a business setting, if you’re not considered objective, that is death—you cannot influence anything.

It really hit me that being a Latina, being self-expressive, being a little flamboyant, was going to hurt me and I had a choice to make. I had to figure out how much I was going to maintain my authentic self, because I knew I couldn’t lose who I was. For me, it’s been—and continues to be—a balancing act, and I surround myself with mentors and people who can really help me find that balance.

E.E.B.: It’s noted that when companies take on diversity efforts and they focus on women, many times women of color get left behind. From a corporate perspective, do you feel like diversity strategies are sufficient to really bring along people of color?

L.C.: It’s this issue of implicit bias, which isn’t as inherent for women, and at P&G, we’re focused on attacking this concept of unconscious bias. The way we do it is to bring in groups of women and diverse employees and do fishbowl exercises. You have to make implicit bias known. It’s only implicit because people don’t realize they have it. In these exercises, we have employees talk about the microaggressions they’ve experienced and situations that have made them uncomfortable, while managers sit in a very safe space. That helps people understand what unconscious bias is. Then we do trainings with employee and manager pairs to start to work through what that means and how it’s affecting careers and with that we set goals. We’re not as far on the journey as I think any of us would like to be, but we’re moving there.

T.S.: The only way you’re going to change the culture is to address the management that’s making the decisions and staffing decisions. We developed a program that trains managers to try to change the culture, so once you’re trained how are you being held accountable? We’re seeing more and more companies placing their bonuses and promotion criteria on how committed they are to this. At a leadership meeting in a room full of predominantly white 40ish-year-old men, one of my colleagues said, ‘Imagine being in a meeting and you’re the only person who looks like you. Imagine sitting in that room every day, every week, every month,’ and you could hear the gulps. Just helping people understand through the fishbowl exercise how to put themselves in other people’s shoes to see through their lens is really powerful.

L.C.: It’s the empathy that creates the awareness that creates change.

E.E.B.: The first part is having people understand that it is unconscious. How do we translate that understanding to make sure there is more representation for women of color?

T.S.: Everyone thinks that unconscious bias makes you a bad person, but the reality is, as humans, we all have biases. There’s a term called ladder of inference and we all infer things based on our life experiences. As part of our training we tell people, go spend 30 minutes with someone you’ve never worked with, go somewhere you’ve never visited, so that you can learn more about others who are different from you. We live in our own bubbles—we shop where we shop, we work where we work, we worship where we worship, we live where we live and often times with people like us. If we’re not intentional about stepping outside our bubble and experiencing things beyond our day-to-day lives, our frame of reference will never change.

J.W.: My experience with founder companies is what’s most important is profitability and revenue generation growth. You mentioned a statistic that having women on staff can increase profitability and revenue performance, so founder companies have no problem going right after that. What I’ve seen is that when larger companies acquire smaller companies and they see how the ecosystem works, it has taught them a lot. Nothing talks more than profit and EBITDA, and if you want to exist as a founder company, you have to run faster than everybody behind you. That’s why I love what you just said earlier about performance. Once you have performance, you have the currency and the latitude to be more of who you are.

S.C.: I’ve been on both sides—big corporations versus small brands, and what I’ve observed is that in big companies you have squads and politics and silos and groups, so even in hiring, they’re looking for people who can fit within that world and that political ecosystem. It’s like “The Hunger Games,” where you have to find your own squad and a lot of the squads aren’t conducive to either women or women of color. I used to work in the liquor industry and it’s designed to be a boys’ club. The boys go out on these piss-offs, as they called them, to discuss business, not in the office. If you’re not there, you’re not going to be involved in those conversations.

Now that there is more awareness and more structured programs, people are breaking some of those silos down. I don’t think that will ever happen completely because organizations are political beasts, but especially in big organizations, we should look at how these squads form and at our hiring practices.

When people are hiring they usually use intuition—meaning they look at a person’s qualifications but at who they would get along with, as well. But if someone is from a different culture than you, you don’t have anything to relate to, so they might be better at the job, but they might not be a great cultural fit.

I hired a woman who had a very poor grasp of English and people struggled with her because they didn’t understand what she was saying. But if you listened, just that one second more, you would understand. Small brands are more nimble, and we have the patience to want to listen, whereas bigger companies don’t have tolerance for that.

E.E.B.: The wage gap also relates to unconscious bias. Women are paid less in almost 98 percent of all industries. But there’s the wage and there’s also wealth creation. Women get hit even more, because we don’t make it to those higher levels when wealth actually gets built. How do you get to the next level?

J.W.: That’s why more and more women are doing their own thing. Women just can’t stand the politicking and they’re opting out, which means the pipe is not as full of us in Fortune 500 companies and therefore it becomes a vicious cycle. We need to look at businesses not just based on data and revenue, but also in assimilation and bringing people along because that’s what the new generation is asking. They no longer want to be a part of the corporate world. They want a social community and they want opportunities to become part of the decision-making process and changing the social fabric.

E.E.B.: Sharon, you opted out and the rest of us have chosen to stay. Why?

S.C.: I felt like I could make a bigger impact by opting out. By opting in I could fight my way for the next 20 years and probably allow a few women to come in, but I believe that we can create a world where women are more confident in themselves. As women, we tend to wait until we’re 10 out of 10 and women of color, we want to be 15 out of 10 before we apply for a job. I can’t get this message out by being within one company, because as part of the system, I can’t speak freely. Now I can just say it unfiltered and reach girls when they’re younger and inspire them.

E.E.B.: One reason I’ve stayed is I believe it’s our duty to help create role models and pave the way or there is no diversity, so it’s as much out of duty and a little bit of risk aversion.

M.C.G.B.: I experimented with it entrepreneurism. I launched something, but I couldn’t get it to profitability before I ran out of money. I am very risk adverse with my money, and at that time, I made a personal choice to continue with my path. What I love about what I’m doing now at P&G Ventures is that I’m literally helping this huge company figure out how to create brands in the new world, in this new economy, and that is so exciting and skill building.

E.E.B.: So you chose to stay because you like what you’re doing?

M.C.G.B.: I love what I’m doing. I don’t see myself ever retiring, but when I retire from my corporate life, I am going straight back to tinkering. The difference is that this time I will have a much bigger network. One of the things that is difficult for some of us is I had no network when I started. I didn’t know a single venture capitalist or how to access one. Now, I’m building that network.

L.C.: I’m going on 20 years with P&G and I’ve stayed because I feel like I’m now in a position where I can influence inside and outside the company. As the brand director of multicultural beauty, I can change what P&G is doing to design for this consumer, and that is a unique place to be. We need to make brands that are accessible and for women like us, and I’m in a place where I can do that. I have the duty to help to change the culture at P&G and we are making strides, and then to be in a position of designing products for this consumer is very exciting to me.

E.E.B.: I’m struck by the old adage that what gets you here won’t get you there, to the c-suite. How have you successfully climbed up the corporate ladder?

L.C.: You get to a certain point in your career where you’ve gotten the results and that’s great, but it’s not going to get you there. As you ascend, it’s really how do you get more work done through others. To do this you have to assemble the right team and be able to set a vision, get people to see the vision, empower them and then get out of the way so they can achieve those things.

E.E.B.: My experience is that the code shifting that’s required to get from entry level to director level is one thing and then what’s needed to get from that level to president and ceo level is another. JuE, what shifts did you have to make to reach ceo?

J.W.: When you’re in middle management you tend to do a lot of things yourself and that’s how you prove yourself. When you move up, it is your responsibility to empower others. I like to work with existing teams. I always tell the team—raise your hand if you wanted to be the worst employee when you started or you don’t want to make your bonus. Everyone started their job wanting to be the best and along the way they lost that fire—not because they’ve changed, but because leadership has changed. It’s our duty to bring that fire back, and when you do, people outperform beyond your imagination. That is the only reason why I can turn companies around in three or four years. If I brought in my own team, everyone would be doing six months of acclimation or a year of getting situated, and we don’t have that kind of time.

T.S.: That progression, that move from the doer to the visionary, from the player to the coach, is often times hard. I think there is something innate in women that makes us better leaders. We have the ability to bring people together, to help people see the best in themselves, to tap into those skills that benefit the entire team.

M.C.G.B.: The other thing that makes a difference as I’m watching people make these next level moves is really swinging bigger, taking bigger risks, taking assignments that look very different from what you’ve proven you can do before, like going international.

E.E.B.: The business case for diversity continues to evolve. If you look at the demographics of America, today one or two of every babies born is a baby of color. Women of color will be the majority in 2060, but today 40 percent of Americans are what we would consider to be multicultural. How do you see the link between the business case for diversity impacting the inside case to make sure we have more diverse talent as more and more companies understand the buying power women of color have?

L.C.: You’ve got to have a workforce that mirrors the consumer. How do you design for people if you have no idea what their needs are? The Pantene Gold series was designed by a group of black scientists at P&G who said, “We don’t have any products that work for our hair and we are the designers and the consumers.” If you don’t have people inside the company who look like the people you’re trying to attract, it’s never going to work. If we want to win and capture a share of those dollars, we have to change how we’re acting on the inside to have the insights we need to win on the outside.

E.E.B.: How do you do that more broadly, because as America is changing, it’s not just a cluster of products it’s for the majority. It’s not multicultural marketing, but marketing for a multicultural world.

J.W.: In the past, we went to authorities like the department stores and big brands to tell us what to buy and wear. Today we have to look at the end consumer. They’re telling us what they want. If you’re going to go sit in a lab and create a product and go to market and tell people you need this, good luck.

T.S.: And issues of trust. When I’m thinking about what to use, I don’t want to hear from the brand or the expert, I want to hear from people like me.

S.C.: This holds us accountable—consumers are actually holding companies accountable for it. We’re in a world where social equality is becoming very important and people are understanding that there is such a thing as being culpable by complacency. That is a really big movement and will force corporate America to shift because at the end of the day, the person with the money in their pocket has the ultimate power.

M.C.G.B.: A lot of the new brands being created are direct-to-consumer and what that does is give voice to the masses. As the world changes and consumers are able to speak back, there will be no choice because that voice is what’s guiding the next product. In my work, we’re literally shifting from “We think this is the next thing” to “What is the consumer saying?” I have a lot of hope and optimism because it is truly not top down, it’s consumer up.