Olay has a new leader at its helm and she’s on a mission to see the skin care brand inside everyone’s medicine cabinet.
Stephanie Headley, P&G’s senior vice president and brand franchise leader of Olay and North America Skincare (which puts DermaGeek and Native under her purview, too), may be newly titled but she’s a veteran at the organization. She’s spent more than 20 years driving a more inclusive definition of beauty for both the business and the industry at large. Now, she takes the helm as the first Black woman and first woman of color in the role.
Having seen her grandmother apply Olay Pink Beauty Fluid as a child, Headley is channeling both her near and distant past to drive one of skin care’s largest global brands forward into a fresh future. Here, Beauty Inc sits with the leader to learn what makes her tick, how inclusive beauty manifests under her watch and her thoughts on the state of skin care.
How are things looking from your current perch in this new role within P&G?
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Stephanie Headley: Well, I think of it as being able to do things on a much larger scale. When I think about the purpose of Olay, we want to inspire each and every woman to have the confidence to be fearless to face anything. I really take that to heart. I believe in that purpose and I try to bring it to life in everything we do as she selects her skin care, so that she’s more confident to face her day, and really confident to face her life.
We’ve done a lot of work already to make sure that every jar in the jar bar, like vitamin C, which is our latest, has the best ingredients. We know that women are searching for what ingredients are right for them and we want to bring them the best ingredients with great quality, perfect craftsmanship and at a great value, so I’m really looking forward to continuing to do that.
We also know it’s super important for consumers to see themselves in the brand and the brand reflects their values, so I’m excited to continue to tell stories that reflect the consumers we want to serve, the women in front of and behind the camera. We partner with the Queen Collective [a short film mentoring and development program], Free the Bid [a nonprofit initiative advocating on behalf of women directors for equal opportunities] and other organizations to make sure that we’re inclusive of women directors, that we’re putting women of color in front of and behind the camera, so I’m really excited about those opportunities.
We [also] want to double the number of women of color who are pursuing STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields. Science matters and there’s a lot of science in every one of these jars. We want to continue to give more women the opportunity to pursue careers in STEM and close that STEM gap by 2030. [The gap is that women hold only 24 percent of these roles, according to Olay.] So, from this position and from this role, I’m just over the moon excited about the opportunity to make a lot of progress in all of those areas.
What’s your assessment of the skin care category overall and Olay’s place in that universe?
S.H.: It’s always an exciting time in skin care and what a unique opportunity we’re facing right now. We’re reemerging from the pandemic. We have actually picked up some new habits of skin care being self care. We’ve changed the way that we’re shopping for skin care. We know that Gen Z consumers have an insatiable appetite for how products work, what’s right for their skin and science. All of that is setting Olay up to be the perfect brand of choice.
You still refer to your consumer with she/her pronouns — how is Olay embracing inclusivity in that area?
S.H.: What we’ve found is about 10 percent of our consumers are men and not women, or nonbinary. So we want all people to feel that they can be fearless to face anything, but the legacy of this brand has been to serve women and we want to continue to advance that narrative, to be inclusive.
We’ve also done inclusion in other ways, for example, with our new, easy-to-open lid for people with disabilities that includes braille. Our brands are continuing to evolve to reflect the values and the consumers we want to serve.
Black women have been left out of skin care conversations and product targeting for so long — how do you ensure this doesn’t continue to happen?
S.H.: For me, and for this organization, inclusion and belonging is a core value, it’s core to who we are and it’s how we do our work. In part of the innovation program, I talk about vitamin C a lot because this was actually designed for women of color and was designed by Dr. Markaisa Black, who is a woman of color who’s a scientist.
This is where not only do we have our commitments externally, which are great, but it’s also important to underscore that we live this way, we walk the talk when we have women like Dr. Black formulate products for women of color. We know that women of color, women who didn’t fit the prototypical standard of beauty, have been excluded from the beauty industry and I do take it personal that Olay has a role to lead that positive change in the industry to be more inclusive, to represent women of color as creators, as scientists, as innovators, as leaders, as brand builders. Olay has done a tremendous amount of work — we know there’s plenty more to go, but it’s an important role that we play for the beauty industry.
In September, we did a program with Dr. Joy Buolamwini called “Decode the Bias” because we found that while women of color are 40 percent of the population, they’re only 20 percent of the images we see because algorithms have coded in the bias that perpetuates a very narrow standard of beauty. So with her, we partnered to send 1,200 girls to code camp so that we can code in inclusion.
Where does Olay have the most opportunity to grow?
S.H.: We have tremendous opportunity to grow. We have high-quality formulas perfectly crafted to work with women’s skin and we want to serve all consumers where and how they want to buy. This is perfectly positioning Olay to continue to serve more and give them confidence to face anything. We saw in the pandemic consumers shifted online and so now we’re better able to serve consumers with the perfect regimen just for them at Olay.com when they take the Skin Advisor quiz. So, there is tremendous growth ahead for the business responding to how consumers are telling us they want to shop and what’s right for them.
What are your top three strategic priorities for the year ahead, and what would make you feel most accomplished in your new role?
S.H.: The work and the strategic choices led by Chris Heiert [who’s now heading P&G’s new specialty beauty division] over the last five years have really been proven to grow Olay and has created a perfect foundation for me.
My plan is to continue to serve more consumers, building on that fantastic foundation and I want to inspire more women to be fearless to face anything, I want to tell more compelling stories, create more powerful products with ingredients that women can trust really work for their skin.
I think to feel most accomplished is that every young woman is selecting Olay as their go-to brand as they’re building their skin care routine so that their confidence is really emanating.…That’s the change that I want to make. Whether that’s a young woman choosing to be a scientist or an engineer or a woman taking on her first job, I want to make sure that our products are giving women that confidence that they can show up as their full selves.
Among other accolades, you’ve been recognized as one of Ebony’s Power 100, which only goes to those who are really leading in their field. What did that feel like?
S.H.: Oh that was an amazing recognition. I grew up with Ebony magazines in my home and I would read those stories and it really broadened my world on what was possible for me. I have continued to have this passion to go see the world, explore the world and continue to stretch myself on what is possible for me. So, to be recognized by the institution of Ebony is just amazing and this is work that I am passionate about, it’s the work that I’m excited and proud to do and I take seriously as my responsibility to continue to advance the cause, so those who come behind me can go further and faster than I have.
Speaking of seeing the world, you’re a traveler at heart — where’s your favorite place? And where’s next on the list?
S.H.: Rome is the favorite place. So I’m super eager to get back into Italy and back into Rome. I would love to also spend some time in Greece — that’s next on the list — and maybe Portugal, too.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
S.H.: Most people don’t know that I actually started my professional career as a math teacher. I was a math major, secondary ed, got certified to teach, went to University of Richmond undergrad and I had — and I still actually have — an insatiable passion for helping people to learn. I didn’t recognize it at the time or just didn’t take much notice that I was a woman of color pursuing STEM and very few of my professors were women — I can think of only one — and there were no women of color [professors] at the time in the university.
[It has]…even more meaning as Olay now pursues STEM and the importance of representation, that young women can see women who look like them pursuing STEM careers. What we find is that as girls get to middle and high school ages, they have less confidence about STEM as a career because they just get positive reinforcement in other areas. We want to debunk that and give more representation for these young girls. We’ve spent about $2 million in scholarships, mentoring programs to advance our STEM ambition and it’s come full circle for me.
I understand you have a podcast in the works. When can we expect it and what can we expect from it?
S.H.: It is under development and it’s really about leading from a woman of color’s perspective. The shorthand I’ve given it is kind of my “Dilbert” [an American comic strip known for its satirical office humor] experience. I think it’s because, in a lot of cases, my ability to be here at P&G at this time and to lead North America Skin, is just a representation of the many people I’ve met, the many mentors, the sponsors and just the fun office tales, so I just wanted to find a fun way to share what I’ve learned with others.
What’s one dream you have yet to accomplish?
S.H.: One dream I would love to have is actually to be able to interview an amazing panel of women who’ve been transformative and who’ve had these unique stories, because as I’ve gotten older I have more appreciation for the women who’ve been the first. I would love to have either a dinner or a podcast or a book that collects the stories of the women who were the first, because now I recognize more than ever how courageous, how brave, how impactful and destined they actually were, and I would just love to soak than in and learn and be able to share that with others.