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Pamela Baxter Has Unfinished Business

Pamela Baxter's rich history is helping her new company Bona Fide Beauty Lab launch a cosmetics line for the new generation.

Pamela Baxter has done almost everything in the beauty industry, from heading LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton perfumes and cosmetics for North America to the role of president of the specialty group at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. And she’s worked for some of the biggest legends in the business.

But she’s not done. “I took two weeks off, it isn’t all it is cracked up to be,” Baxter said of why she’s jumped back into the business. Now, she’s leveraging her expertise to help entrepreneurs. “It is the only thing I haven’t done,” said Baxter of her role as chief executive officer and cofounder of Bona Fide Beauty Lab, an incubator that invests in and operates founder-led indie prestige beauty brands.

Her experience is in multinational companies, but Baxter said she’s always had an indie mentality. “Yes, I worked at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. for many years, but I was sort of the indie person of the corporation. I signed the first licensing deal they ever had,” she said of the partnership with Tommy Hilfiger. “I talked Leonard [Lauder] into buying Jo Malone.”

She kicked off a grassroots campaign when tasked with growing La Mer. “I received La Mer in the hallway one day when they purchased it and it was a jar of cream. They said, ‘here, we don’t have any staff, we don’t have any money. Go turn this into something.” And that she did. To help build La Mer beyond the $2 million it produced when Lauder bought it, Baxter had to find a path to get it into consumers’ hands without the benefit of social media.

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She sought out 100 influential women in their communities where there was a Neiman Marcus or a Saks. Those tastemakers were sent a cream with an article about the La Mer story. “We invited them that if they thought the cream worked for them, they’d send us the name and address of their best friend. We received a 98 percent response rate that gave us the beginning of a mailing list.”

That theory is still the basis for launching a brand today and one she is applying in her new role. “We see so many opportunities for young female founders,” Baxter said, noting that is what inspired her and Cathy O’Brien to found Bona Fide Beauty Lab. “These are brands that have interesting ideas and have accelerated growth ahead of them if they have the right connections and right monetary support behind them.”

While eyeballing the landscape, the unexpected happened. “We had an introduction to a woman named Lisa Sugar. She is the founder of PopSugar and she’s extraordinary.” Sugar created a blog centered on beauty, fashion and celebrity with a positive message at a time when Baxter said blogs were mostly “snarky.” When her blog hit one million followers, she sensed she was onto something. Sugar and her husband created PopSugar, now a global media and technology company and lifestyle brand for young women. PopSugar has a global audience of more than 400 million and reaches one in three female Millennials.

Beauty is the number-two talked about subject on PopSugar, encouraging Sugar to look for licensing opportunities, resulting in linking with Bona Fide Beauty Lab. In March, Beauty by PopSugar, a 19-product range with 85 stockkeeping units launched at and in 250 Ulta Beauty doors.

Many of the same strategies that Baxter harnessed to expand brands like La Mer are used to tout Beauty by PopSugar. “The premise is the same. You want word-of-mouth and women who are passionate about your products,” she said. The difference now is the fans are built by Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. “Those aren’t worlds I grew up in,” Baxter admitted, adding she turned that challenge over to two social media experts. “And they know it quite well.” The learnings from younger staff are eye-opening, even to Baxter, a seasoned executive.

But some business tenets never change. Even in the hyper-connected world, Baxter said making quick decisions is tantamount to success. “My father gave me the best advice saying the worst decision you’ll ever make is no decision at all. You can learn something even from a bad decision. The trick is not to make too many bad ones.”