Vasiliki Petrou

LONDON — When public relations maven Caroline Neville founded Cosmetic Executive Women U.K., she saw an opportunity to leverage her event-planning skills and contacts in the beauty industry.

Twenty five years later, the organization has grown into a driving force in the British beauty industry with partners ranging from Amazon to Sainsbury’s, Google and Chanel; a constant stream of educational events that members can profit from, and an annual awards program that acts as the industry’s ultimate seal of approval.

While big changes are sweeping through the industry and reshaping the way everyone operates, CEW has continued to hold on to its influence and garner the attention of young entrepreneurs and start-up brands — and Neville, alongside Unilever’s Vasiliki Petrou who acts as the organization’s new chairwoman, have been taking extra steps on future-proofing CEW and shaping the vision for its future, with new initiatives ranging from data research to more frequent visits to No. 10 Downing Street.

What has remained unchanged is the calibre of speakers and events the organization hosts, its commitment to mentorship and democratic approach: CEW’s U.K. chapter admits both male and female members and works with partners across both the high-street and luxury spectrum.

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“We are a very democratic organization, we’re not partisan and don’t mind if we have major competitors on stage together — we have to get over it. For 25 years, I have approached this business in a very maternal way,” said Neville in an interview, pointing to some of the company’s most integral policies, like being able to freeze one’s membership during maternity leave or free access to events if you lose your job.

This approach has enabled CEW to grow its membership base to more than 1,000 since 2011 (including Twiggy, Vivienne Westwood, Eve Lom and the Duchess of York) drive double-digit growth in its Young Executive membership and grow its beauty awards into one of the most prestigious events in the industry, despite some apprehension early on.

“Brits never had a history of patting each other on the back. In the early days, nobody had an award and I knew of no organization that gave women awards, God forbid, but we wanted to still give it our best shot,” said Neville. “The bigger job for me was to get the industry behind [the event]. I had to convince all the bigwigs that this was not a vanity project, but a business-building exercise,” added Neville, pointing to an increase from 30 entries in 2006 to 300 entries this year.

The awards celebrate everyone from household British names such as Charlotte Tilbury to smaller, niche labels like Balance Me. High-street heavyweights such as Sainsbury’s, Amazon and Marks & Spencer are also heavily involved, taking over dedicated pods to demonstrate products and new services to their industry peers.

“The big word for us right now is accessibility and the likes of Amazon and Sainsbury’s are making beauty more accessible and getting it to us quicker. Beauty is holding up the high street,” said Neville. “We would be the natural partner to fast-track that message. Some of them also join to be part of this beauty community. They have sat on the outside for so long, they want to come into it.”

She added that the CEW winner’s seal has become a “litmus test” of sorts for new products, and if a brand wins one of the accolades, sales both at retail and online can as much as triple.

Artificial intelligence companies have also been taking notice, according to Neville, and next year’s Awards will likely see new participants from the AI arena, including Procam, a mirror that allows you to try on different makeup styles, and Simplehuman, a sensor mirror that lights up with natural daylight.

The organization is also involved in new educational initiatives, including a white paper being prepared by the U.K.’s Cosmetics Cluster to examine the reasons behind the lack of access to beauty science education at university level.

“People seem to fall into beauty, they don’t train for it. It’s not like design where you can go to the Royal College of Art or Central Saint Martins. So CEW fills the gap as much as it can, helping to train beauty executives,” said Neville.

That’s why hosting monthly mentoring sessions and educational talks, with speakers whose stories haven’t been heard before, has been a priority from the get-go.

“We had Evelyn Lauder as our first speaker and from then, we decided to set our stall out, just as we meant to go on. We wanted to be classy and reflect the beauty industry, so we went to Claridge’s,” Neville added.

Since then, the organization hosted talks on topics such as the future of makeup with Maybelline ambassador Jourdan Dunn; teamed with Amazon to talk about engaging Chinese beauty consumers; introduced the new charity initiative ‘Get Lippy’ at Harvey Nichols to encourage young women to talk about vaginal health, and partnered with the U.K. cosmetic trade association CTPA, to host panels that inform brands on the challenges of Brexit.

“There is a lack of information when it comes to Brexit, so a lot of the members, especially smaller companies, found that event particularly useful,” said Petrou. “Our mission is to enable access to data and information for our members. There is a real hunger for us to do more because we are very much following this changing, very diversified landscape.”

In order to be able to provide a broad industry view, Petrou has been instrumental in rewiring the organization’s board to reflect the changes in the industry.

“The changes will make us more fit for purpose going forward, if things get tougher,” said Neville.

There are now members from the spa and wellness industries, which Petrou describes as one of the biggest growth areas; executives from tech giants such as Google; as well as legal and manufacturing experts, who can advise on some of the industry’s most pressing issues.

“The structure of the board reflects the changing nature of the beauty landscape and that’s something we need to continue to do. Our mission is to be representative of the industry challenges and have people on the board who can help us voice those issues and resolve them. We want to continue to be the most influential organization in the beauty industry and we are going to achieve that by having the most diverse board,” said Petrou, who is also looking to make the CEW more digital by increasing its social media presence, establishing relationships with key beauty influencers and partnering with companies like Mintel, another new board member, to create more data-driven information about the beauty industry.

“There was no real data mapping the industry or looking at it in an analytical way, from the point of view of the people working in it,” said Petrou. “We looked at spending, manufacturing and how vocational training is affecting the hairdressing or spa industries.”

By mapping out the beauty industry and highlighting its collective contribution to the British economy, CEW is aiming to grab the government’s attention, too.

Neville has already made a few visits to Downing Street in the last year, to talk about how the industry contributes to the country’s GDP, and is slowly seeing more recognition from the part of government and inclusion of beauty executives in governmental events, celebrating the creative industries.

“We want to have a voice with No. 10 [Downing Street]. The government can give more support to vocational training and to small to medium-size enterprises, by understanding the power of the British brand,” said Petrou. “A lot of the British brands need help with international expansion and this is where our association with the government, who often send delegations to markets such as China or the U.S. to promote British brands, will help us.”