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Essie Weingarten to Give Keynote Speech at FIT Commencement Ceremony

Founder of Essie Cosmetics and FIT alumna, Weingarten will share how she built her nail polish empire with nearly 4,000 graduates at Thursday’s commencement.

“The world is at your fingertips.”

This will be Essie Weingarten’s advice — both metaphorical and literal — to graduates of the Fashion Institute of Technology who will be taking part on Thursday in the school’s 72nd commencement ceremony.

Weingarten, serving as Thursday’s keynote speaker, is the founder of the Essie Cosmetics nail polish company, now owned by L’Oréal. As an FIT alumna, she will address nearly 4,000 graduates assembled in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, N.Y.

The entrepreneur said she will share how she founded her global nail company in 1981 after having what she thought was her dream job as a buyer at Henri Bendel. Seeing a lack of variety and personality in nail polish, she jumped on the opportunity to liven up the category with bold hues and untraditional names. With $10,000 of her own savings, she set out to start her business in Las Vegas where her polishes grew in popularity, thanks to a large working force of female cocktail waitresses, showgirls and dealers. That popularity spread across the country, and now 36 years later, the brand sells 900-plus nail colors in more than 100 countries.

“I was very fortunate because I stayed focused,” she said in an interview before the commencement about how she first started her company. “A lot of things were happening around me, but I said, ‘If I do one thing right, I’ll be the best at it.’”

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When asked what advice she would give her college-aged self, Weingarten said “don’t be pigeonhole where I thought I was going to be a buyer. The first step is the hardest step, the day after [graduation] reality steps in, so be open and ready for life changes.”

The biggest takeaway she hopes graduates get from her speech is being passionate about what they do: “It doesn’t matter straight out of the gate that you were going to be the world’s best buyer. You try it and it’s OK if you don’t love it,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with changing your career and you’re young enough to do it. Try a lot of things before you know which path is the path you really want to stay on.”

Weingarten said she will also stress the importance of networking, stating that she’s still in touch with her fellow FIT graduates.

“The world changes and we all evolve, but it’s important to stay true to yourself and true to your mission,” she said. “You have to be ahead of the curve and keep looking forward.”